Capitalizing on the right trip in a paceless race, the 19.20-1 Highland Chief got the decisive jump on Gufo and odds-on Yibir in Saturday’s $651,000 Man o’ War (G1) at Belmont Park. Jockey Trevor McCarthy pulled off a tactical coup to earn his first Grade 1 victory, as well as a new career high for Graham Motion’s recruit.
A cut below the top tier in his European days, Highland Chief nevertheless had smart bits of form that suggested he could reach a higher level stateside. The Fitri Hay homebred shaped with promise in his April 14 premiere for Motion, making up plenty of ground late in a troubled ninth at Aqueduct. That came over an inadequate 1 1/16 miles, and the stretch-out to 1 3/8 miles suited him well. So did the scratch of projected pace factor So High, which complicated the scenario for late-running market leaders Yibir and Gufo.
Godolphin’s British shipper Yibir, returning to the U.S. for the first time since his Eclipse-clinching score in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), figured to be lackadaisical early. But the Charlie Appleby pupil put himself even further behind with a very slow start, and hitting the gate when he did go.
Meanwhile, Highland Chief broke alertly, and McCarthy had him perfectly placed in a prompting second. As expected, pacesetter Abaan carved out slow splits of :25.35, :51.84, 1:17.60, and 1:42.04 on an inner course still labeled firm, but with rain falling. Gufo was an unhurried fourth, and Yibir eventually joined the field.
Turning into the stretch, Highland Chief wrested control from Abaan and kicked for home. Gufo delivered his trademark rally, and Yibir gradually clawed back part of his deficit, but neither could catch the winner.
Highland Chief kept motoring through his final furlong in :11.70 to maintain a one-length margin at the wire. The longest shot on the board clocked 2:17.04 and sparked a $40.40 win mutuel.
“I wanted to get a good break – that was the most important thing,” McCarthy recapped. “He broke well last time, but he just got annihilated at the break. Today, he was really handy the whole way for me. The pace was pretty slow but the whole time he was just carrying me, carrying me, carrying me.
“At the five-sixteenths pole, I let him go and started to make an early move. I just wanted to get away from the other guys, and it sure paid off. He made up a ton of ground the first time he ran in America and got shut off really bad at the break, but he made a good rally.”
“Trevor had a strategy,” Motion said. “He knew he couldn’t leave him too much to do. He broke better today, which made a difference because he wasn’t so held back at the start or too much ground to make up. Trevor gave him a great ride. I said to Trevor, ‘I can’t believe somebody (Yibir) broke slower than we did.’
“It was kind of emotional,” the trainer added regarding McCarthy’s first Grade 1 laurel. “Trevor has ridden for me since he was 16. We go back a long way.”
McCarthy also spoke of what it meant to achieve the landmark win aboard a Motion runner:
“It was pretty special. It’s a great feeling. To win it for Graham, who has given me so much support in my career, it’s really special. My father started riding for Graham and we got to be good friends with them and his family.
“I started at 15 and worked for Graham. As soon as I started to learn how to ride, I stayed at Fair Hill for three years. I would come in on the weekends and days off of school and ride out for him which was great. I learned so much from him and all his employees there at the time. To win it with so much history with him is great.”
Gufo and Yibir, as 124-pound co-highweights, were conceding six pounds to Highland Chief. Runner-up Gufo, who missed by a nose here last year, had a neck to spare over Yibir while taking silver once again. Another 2 3/4 lengths back in fourth came Motion’s other runner, Easter, and Abaan tired to last of the quintet.
Gufo’s trainer, Christophe Clement, commented on how the race unfolded as well as the weight differential.
“I thought he ran a very good race,” Clement said of the runner-up. “I thought he moved a little bit earlier than we wanted to in the race because Yibir was moving early, so Joel (Rosario) did not want to be boxed in, which I understand. He ran a very game race and ran all the way to the end. Congrats to the winner, who outfinished us.”
Yibir’s connections rued the quirky gelding’s start, and the weather that didn’t help his cause.
“He just didn’t get out,” jockey William Buick said. “He can do that (miss the break), but he’s won doing that before. There was no gallop on. I think the main factor for him was when the rain came. He’s a real fast ground horse. He can quicken off a slow pace, but when the rain came and the ground was soft we were in trouble.”
“That’s him,” trainer Charlie Appleby summed up. “He did that (missed the start) here last year (when winning the Jockey Club Derby). That’s his style. He did it in the Sheema Classic (G1) as well (when a rattling second on Dubai World Cup night). We intentionally don’t want him to be as slow out, but his run style is to come off the pace.
“Unfortunately, we had rain here last night and rain again today and it’s just on the slower side of where he likes to hear his feet rattling. For his acceleration, it just blunts it slightly. Take nothing away from the winner, he held decent form back in Europe in his three-year-old career there and he had to be respected. We ran our race, but in an ideal world if you asked me what I’d like to have had, it would be no rain.”
Highland Chief’s first graded/group tally advanced his record to 12-3-2-2, $500,241. A juvenile debut winner at Newbury, the Irish-bred was third in the 2019 Chesham S. at Royal Ascot to Godolphin star Pinatubo and Ballydoyle hotpot Lope Y Fernandez. Highland Chief opened his sophomore campaign at the Royal meeting with a score in a 1 1/4-mile handicap for Paul and Oliver Cole.
After a 10th in the pandemic-delayed 2020 Derby (G1) at Epsom, the bay was a much better second at two of Britain’s marquee summer festivals. Highland Chief split Mogul and Subjectivist in the Gordon (G3) at Glorious Goodwood, then split Pyledriver and Mogul in the Great Voltigeur (G2). The rest of his European career was anticlimactic, resulting in a fifth in Mogul’s Grand Prix de Paris (G1), a third versus elders in the Cumberland Lodge (G3), and a subpar fifth in the Coronation Cup (G1), his only outing of 2021.
Highland Chief is a son of Gleneagles and the Group 3-winning Montjeu mare Pink Symphony, who is a three-quarter sister to multiple Grade/Group 3 vixen and classic-placed Fantasia (by Sadler’s Wells). Fantasia is the dam of Group 3 scorer Berlin Tango. A half-sister to Fantasia and Pink Symphony, Blue Rhapsody (by Cape Cross), produced Group 2 hero and multiple Group 1-placed Western Hymn.
Motion credited the Hays’ racing manager for underscoring the merit of Highland Chief’s form.
“In fairness, Alex Cole, the manager for the owners, told me that if he runs back to his European form, he’s very competitive with these horses. He won a race at Ascot. That’s not easy to do.
“We’d have to think about the Manhattan (G1) (on Belmont Day June 11), but it was mentioned to go to Europe after this race if he ran well,” Motion revealed. “Originally, they talked about running in the Dubai World Cup (G1) and I knew he just wasn’t ready for that. (The owners) think very highly of him.”
Gufo, third in last year’s Manhattan, could try again, but Clement is mulling other options.
“I hope to go to the Manhattan. Yet again, he has to give so much weight all the time which is very frustrating,” Clement said. “I need to think about that. There are some other races where he keeps level weight and we might go that route.”
If there is to be a rematch of the Man o’ War trifecta, the Aug. 27 Sword Dancer (G1) at Saratoga is the likely spot. The Breeders’ Cup Turf “Win and You’re In” is already on Yibir’s agenda.
“We’ll come back for the Sword Dancer, for sure,” Appleby confirmed.