SUNDAY TIMES SPORT
We came to hail a royal victory, instead we got a racing master class. 62 years since the Queen won the King George VI and Queen Elisabeth Stakes with Aureole and gave us the only recorded instance of our beloved monarch running in public, it had been hoped that her colt Dartmouth would give her a second victory. But Dartmouth could only finish third after being outrun and outmanoeuvred by a tactical master class from Ryan Moore.
People think race riding is mostly about pushing and pulling. They forget how much it is about thinking. Especially in big races. Few think better than Ryan Moore and with just seven runners and no designated pacemaker, he here delivered the classic front running ride in which you control the gallop, slow it, slip clear, take a breather and then gut it out to the lin. It is easy to write down but devilishly difficult to deliver. It needs confidence, judgment, and a true understanding of where the winning post is.
Of course it helps if you have the best horse in the race but when Moore slipped a good five lengths clear soon after the far turn only Frankie Dettori on Wings of Desire seemed fully aware of their vulnerability to this early playing of Ryan’s ace. Wings of Desire, the only three year old in the race and therefore receiving a generous twelve pounds on the weight for age scale, battled hard in pursuit but hard though the chestnut tried, Highland Reel was always holding and still had over a length in hand at the line.
The magnificent looking French horse Erupt loomed up promisingly on the bend, but weakened back to fifth in the final furlong in which Dartmouth finally came from way back to be third. His rider Olivier Peslier is usually very tactically astute but one had to wonder why he settled the Queen’s horse quite so far off the leader especially as he would have been well aware that Highland Reel had won a major race in America last August in just this fashion. At Royal Ascot Peslier had excelled in besting Moore and Highland Reel, but this was revenge with a vengeance.
For sheer ability the winner will never stand comparison with the true greats of King George history, but then few can be mentioned in the same breath as Ribot, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard and Dancing Brave. The last of these won 30 years ago in the ‘Frankel’ silks of Prince Khalid Abdulla which three races before this King George were worn by Frankel’s two year-old daughter Fair Eva who won so brilliantly under Frankie Dettori that she is already favourite for next year’s 1,000 Guineas.
But if Highland Reel doesn’t quite measure up for excellence he absolutely does for industry. His itinerary last year read Longchamp, Chantilly, The Curragh, Goodwood, Arlington Park in Chicago, Leopardstown back in Ireland, then Moonee Valley in Australia, Shatin in Hong Kong. Not content with that he started this year in Dubai before another visit to the coast of China. When we saw him creamed up with sweat beforehand and trainer Aidan O’Brien himself leading him and Ryan Moore out on to the track to canter to the start, we could have been excused for thinking that all this Marco Polo stuff was getting Highland Reel on the run.
“Not at all,” said a smiling Aidan afterwards, “that is just him. To be honest if he wasn’t sweating and wound up like that we would be worried. He is a very tough horse but we had to give him a rest after his races in the spring so you can say we were very pleased with how he ran at Royal Ascot. Yes,” he continued with as near as he gets to a knowing wink and an acknowledgment of how Highland Reel had come to start as 11/8 favourite with his conqueror Dartmouth out at 9/2, “you can say that we were really looking forward to today.”
“This horse is very professional,” added Ryan Moore in that laconic way of his. “He knows how to race.” So too does the jockey.