February 20, 2024

Highland Chief rides rail to Sycamore victory

Highland Chief wins the Sycamore Stakes (Photo by Coady Photography)

If not for a brief virus, Highland Chief would have contested last Saturday’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at Aqueduct. But trainer Graham Motion’s fallback plan worked out just fine. Rerouted to Friday’s $266,813 Sycamore (G3) at Keeneland, Highland Chief capitalized on a rail-skimming ride to win the feature, held over the same course and 1 1/2-mile distance as the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).

Fitri Hay’s Irish homebred took up an ideal stalking position just behind pacesetter Accredit, who doled out fractions of :25.31, :50.20, 1:15.49, 1:40.82, and 2:05.13 on the firm course. Elder statesman Channel Maker attended on the outside and remained a persistent presence in the stretch.

But by that point, Highland Chief had cut the corner for Johnny Velazquez. The Hall of Fame rider anticipated that Accredit would drift out enough turning for home, and the seam duly presented itself. Highland Chief quickened through the opening before the cavalry charge of closers bore down. The son of Gleneagles maintained a one-length margin while clocking 2:28.87.

“Very simple,” Velazquez said regarding his instructions. “We talked about it this morning, Graham and I did. We looked at the race and there was only one horse really with speed, and the horse (Channel Maker) Luis (Saez) rides is always close. I just tried to stay right behind horses, save some ground and hope he would come running. I was just looking for some sort of space at the quarter pole, and once I got it, he was there for me.”

A phalanx of rivals crossed the wire virtually abreast. Temple was a neck up on Highest Honors, who drew in as the first also-eligible, followed Highland Chief’s move on the inside, and grabbed third. Channel Maker was another nose away in fourth, edging the troubled Balthus.

Mira Mission, the 1.85-1 favorite, raced in striking range on the outside before being swamped in a close sixth. He endured one of the widest trips in the race, covering 74 feet more than the winner, according to Trakus. Trainer Ian Wilkes is looking toward 2023 with the still-maturing gelding.

“He ran good. It was a blanket finish,” Wilkes said of the battle for the minors. “He is probably a year from being a really nice horse. He is only a four-year-old. If he keeps improving, we will be back bigger and better next year. We may freshen him up and bring him back for next year. He ran tremendous today.”

Cellist and Red Knight were also in the heap, followed by Arklow, Accredit, Admission Office, and British Royalty. Another Mystery was scratched, along with the also-eligible trio of Shawdyshawdyshawdy, Time for Trouble, and Keystone Field.

Highland Chief returned $15.32 and enhanced his resume to 15-4-2-2, $706,679. The five-year-old earned his first stakes victory in the May 14 Man o’ War (G1), but regressed to fourth in both the Manhattan (G1) and July 31 Bowling Green (G2).

Formerly based with Paul Cole (later joined by his son Oliver as co-trainer), Highland Chief showed promise throughout his British career. The bay placed third in the 2019 Chesham S. at Royal Ascot to juvenile course record-setting Pinatubo and Lope Y Fernandez.

In his sophomore bow, Highland Chief landed the Golden Gates H. at the same prestigious venue. He competed in the pandemic-delayed 2020 Derby (G1) at Epsom and added placings in the Gordon (G3), Great Voltigeur (G2), and Cumberland Lodge (G3). His 2021 campaign was restricted to a single race, a fifth in the Coronation Cup (G1). Undergoing wind surgery thereafter, he resurfaced stateside this spring.

Highland Chief is out of the Group 3-winning Montjeu mare Pink Symphony, a three-quarter sister to multiple Grade/Group 3 queen and classic-placed Fantasia. This is also the immediate family of Group 2 victor Western Hymn.