Hong Kong International Races: The rise of the globetrotting racehorse

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The $238M horse races that keep on giving
01:33 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Highland Reel bids to end career with victory in Sunday's prestigious Hong Kong Vase

Aidan O'Brien-trained stallion has won races on four continents and in seven countries

Money, prestige and travel have led to globetrotting horses, says Tattersall director

Trainer Dermot Weld blazed the trail for the current crop of trainers

CNN  — 

Immaterial of the result, Highland Reel looks set to run its last race on Sunday in Hong Kong.

Victory in the $2.1 million Hong Kong Vase event, which the Aidan O’Brien-trained thoroughbred won in 2015, would be a fitting finale for the son of Galileo.

The five-year-old is a truly international competitor, having won races on four continents and in seven different countries. It has also earned more than $8 million in prize money over its career.

But Highland Reel is far from the world’s only globe in Britain, horses were sold to buyers from 40-plus countries which director Jimmy George says proves the global nature of the sport today.

“You could argue after football that horse racing is the most global sport. Racing takes place on every continent,” he tells CNN from his Newmarket offices.

“But the global program and pay has exploded in the last 20 years, and the opportunities for horses at the level of Highland Reel have grown.”

Owners and trainers are lured to big races across the globe by monster paydays and prestigious events, such as the Hong Kong International Races, which have been a fixture of the racing calendar since the 1990s.

Staged at the Sha Tin racecourse, the Hong Kong International Races will feature four races on Sunday.

The event has attracted a number of starters from the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar, five horses from the Irish Coolmore operation in Ireland, a former South African champion and a strong Japanese contingent.

“There are obviously massive prize money opportunities out there,” adds George, “but there’s also the huge prestige of winning in Hong Kong or the Melbourne Cup or in the US. If there’s a seven-figure payday now, you’re going to be tempted.”

Traveling in five-star luxury

Other horses to find fame and fortune competing around the world include California Chrome, which has gone down in history after winning the Dubai World Cup and narrowly missing out on the Triple Crown in the US.

George points to the British-bred Rekindling which won the 2017 Melbourne Cup. “He’s only three and yet has the potential to be another globetrotting phenomenon like Highland Reel,” he says.

Trainer O’Brien, meanwhile, believes much of the reason for Highland Reel’s success in global races is simple: “He loves traveling really. He’s just a total pro. He handles all kinds of situations very easily, and he’s a very adaptable horse.”

Fellow trainer Ed Dunlop has been something of a trailblazer in racing his horses all over the world.

His greatest horses were Red Cadeaux (Hong Kong Vase winner and three-time runner-up at the Melbourne Cup), Snow Fairy (victories at the Hong Kong Cup, Oaks, Prix Jean Romanet and Queen Elizabeth Commerative Cup in Japan), and Ouija Board (winner of the Hong Kong Vase, Breeders’ Cup and Irish Oaks).

According to Dunlop, Highland Reel’s success gave its Coolmore owners pause for thought as to when the horse should go to stud.

“It’s a notable change from Coolmore. In the past, a horse like Highland Reel might have gone to stud by now but the rewards are now so immense around the world he’s still racing.

“You have to have an owner that wants to do that and I was fortunate with Red Cadeaux, Ouija Board and Snow Fairy that I had that. And more and more people are doing it now, year on year.”

READ: Forty reasons why Hong Kong’s the world’s best city

Blazing a trail

Dermot Weld was another pioneer, aiming to prove the doubters wrong when it was claimed his European stable of horses couldn’t win across the world.

Having previously won with Go and Go at the 1990 Belmont Stakes, he then won the Melbourne Cup in 1993 with Vintage Crop.

At the time of the Belmont success, Weld remarked that “the world is not as big as people think it is,” and he’s been proven right in the intervening years.

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Pony racing on the Irish coast
01:22 - Source: CNN

“There was Hong Kong [he won the mile there in 1999 with Additional Risk] and then the Belmont,” he said. “I trained Grade 1 winners across the US, and then I looked to Australia.

“People told me I was made and it was impossible. But I wanted to bring a horse 12,000 miles across the world and prove the world wrong. We went and won and everything’s changed since then.”

For Highland Reel, the trip back from Hong Kong looks likely to be his last before he is put out to stud. He is likely to command high fees.

Already to his name are a litany of worldwide winners. Another globetrotting success in Hong Kong would be the icing on the cake.