Season Heating Up for International Breeders' Cup Contenders

Highland Reel

By Nick Luck

Britain’s heatwave was always set for a short shelf life. And, with uncommonly balmy giving way to regular barmy, trainers this side of the pond can well be forgiven for turning their attentions quietly to the bayside delights of Del Mar.

We may be over 5000 miles and three months away, but Breeders’ Cup aspirations are beginning to seep out in post race musings and press conferences.

The first European "Win and You’re In" leg of the 2017 BC Challenge Series set the ball rolling beautifully. In truth, the rain could have ruined Ascot’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Longines Turf Division); instead the race more than lived up to its intended purpose as Europe’s most important mid-season clash of the generations.

The dual Oaks winning 3-year-old filly Enable produced a performance of such rare authority over hardy older males that rumor has it BC Director of Racing Josh Christian has pitched camp in the next door stall. When she hears a rustling in the night, and snickers through the bars, Josh quietly offers the best filly on his bucket list a trip to the beach.

Will she make it to Del Mar with a paid-up ticket to the Longines Turf? Well, she has a hot date with the Arc at Chantilly to get through first, via the Yorkshire Oaks. For all her brilliance and versatility, this will have been a tough campaign — let’s be grateful for the time being that John Gosden and Prince Khalid Abdullah are friends of the Breeders’ Cup.

Incidentally, wouldn't it be lovely if a horse could wipe away the notion that you can’t win a Breeders’ Cup after winning an Arc? After all, Golden Horn’s chance was only washed away by the rain at Keeneland, while last year Found and Highland Reel went 1-2 then 3-1. (AND she had a race in between!)

On that note, the gloriously tough Highland Reel, who had added another string to his bow with top-level success over 10 furlongs at the Royal Meeting, was wheel-spinning in the King George before plugging on valiantly for fourth. Granted four legs and a pulse, he’ll be on his world travels again, doubtless taking in Del Mar.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the King George was the mighty effort of runner-up Ulysses, trained by BC maestro Sir Michael Stoute. Okay, he couldn’t concede 14 pounds to Enable (frankly, who could?), but he is much better suited by a firm surface and traveled with the same powerful, rhythmic zest that had seen him down Barney Roy in that titanic edition of the Eclipse over two furlongs shorter.

Ulysses was fourth in the BC Turf last year, circumspectly ridden and with no Lasix. You can safely expect him to be a far more finely honed version this time around, and he is the horse to beat in this division at this stage.

While on the theme of Stoute (and stout) improvers, keep Crystal Ocean somewhere in your thoughts. I think this long striding beast may never be the right type for tight turns in California, but he’ll make his mark in the very best company judged on his win in the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood last Saturday.

Sadly, Goodwood’s Win and You’re In race, the Group 1 Qatar Sussex Stakes (Mile Division) was rendered the dampest of squibs by a biblical deluge. It was what I call ‘crying baby’ rain: you think it MUST STOP at SOME POINT, but it just keeps on and on.

Andrew Balding, trainer of the 7-year-old gelding Here Comes When, won’t mind. His ambitious roll of the dice landed his owners over half a million pounds, for all they’re most unlikely to make a holiday of it. Runner-up Ribchester was heavily favored in the absence of the dual Classic hero Churchill, but failed to quicken in the bog before his class dragged him through for a weary second.

There were, however, performances of serious note at Goodwood. By a longish chalk, the most spellbinding win was posted by Battaash, trained by Charlie Hills.

Hills nailed a Breeders’ Cup race with Chriselliam a few years ago. In the post race presentation, Bo Derek mistook us for one another, so I nearly ended up with trophy as Charlie linked back to Tom Hammond.

One thing is for certain — I wouldn’t mind getting a cut of Battaash’s future earnings. He might already be gelded, but that should ensure he scoops huge purses for years to come, and it will surely render owner Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum less averse to a foreign jaunt.

This is a freakishly able sprinter — able to blast quality opponents on an unsuitably soft surface. He clashes with Lady Aurelia next in the Nunthorpe — if they emerge unscathed and both make it to Del Mar, this will be the strongest Turf Sprint the event has seen. And by some way.

I’m looking forward to resuming NBC duties (6:30pm – 7:30pm ET on NBCSN) at Arlington this weekend, Saturday, August 11. The Beverly D. (Filly & Mare Turf Division) and Arlington Million (Longines Turf) are both Win and You’re In events. Aidan O’Brien has a pretty strong chance of taking both races with Rain Goddess and Deauville respectively, but I’ll be checking back in with a full preview on Periscope and Facebook Live over the weekend.