Princess seeking Hollywood ending in land of the sprint kings

Graham Cunningham

06/12/2023 15:00

Highfield Princess at Wednesday trackwork
Highfield Princess at Wednesday trackwork

The princess who became queen of European sprinting has travelled 6,000 miles to test herself against the kings of the fabled Hong Kong speed division.

A formidable task awaits but this year’s LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint is far richer for the presence of a mare whose story contains enough romance to tempt the most hard-nosed Hollywood scriptwriter.

Tradition dictates that the pitch sheet for a hit film must grab readers immediately and the one pager for a Highfield Princess movie – let’s call it ‘The Princess Diaries’ – might read as follows:

‘A colourful octogenarian owner follows a long career in television by buying a pregnant mare at Newmarket Sales for 18,000 guineas and sets out on an “utterly surreal” journey with daughters and grandchildren in tow as her filly foal goes from strength to strength.

The filly in question is based in a historic stable just yards from her owner’s kitchen window in a spectacular part of North Yorkshire under the care of a hugely respected veteran trainer and his family.

Her rider is a measured but fiercely determined young Scotsman whose upwardly mobile profile has put him on the radar of some of the most influential talent spotters around.

And the entire adventure has been powered by a rags-to-riches racehorse who has climbed from a basement handicap worth under £3,000 to become the most popular sprinter in Europe with G1 successes in Britain, Ireland and France.’


Hart ready to play his part

A decade has passed since Jason Hart was crowned Britain’s champion apprentice and, with over 800 winners and three centuries behind him, the 29-year-old is entering prime time.

The son of the Scottish Borders who swapped rugby for racing as a teenager salutes owner John Fairley and trainer John Quinn for the way they have guided Highfield Princess from the depths of Class 6 to the peak of G1 excellence.

But Hart’s bond with the trailblazing six-year-old has been instrumental in her progress and he doesn’t hesitate when asked to recall the moment he realised he had found one to elevate him to the next level.

“Her Duke of York Stakes win in May last year was the day,” he says. “The way she put some good horses to bed that day made me think ‘flipping heck, we’ve got something special here’.”

With that G2 win in the books, it took just five weeks and three dominant G1 displays at Deauville, York and the Curragh for Highfield Princess to prove herself the cream of the European sprint crop.

An honourable fourth at the Breeders’ Cup followed and her 2023 campaign has yielded a commanding Goodwood G2 win and a courageous success from a wide draw in the Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp Longines.

“You never forget your first G1 and so the Deauville win was very special but the Nunthorpe back at York was even better considering it came just twelve days later,” adds Hart.

“And her Longchamp performance last time out was tremendous. I walked the track beforehand and thought we had no chance from way out wide in stall 14 but she gives her all when things get tough and that win showed she’s still a genuine G1 sprinter.

“I realise Hong Kong represents a massively different challenge and Neil Callan tells me that the first 300m at Sha Tin is vital but my filly is very good from the gates and I think her five-furlong speed can really stand her in good stead.”


Everest moment beckons

Highfield Princess battles home at Longchamp
Highfield Princess battles home at Longchamp

But the record books, filled with names of star European sprinters who found the Sha Tin cauldron too fiery, tell a stark tale of the task that Highfield Princess faces as she bids to become the first filly or mare to win the world’s richest 1200m turf prize.

Multiple G1 scorer Sole Power fared best, chasing home runaway Japanese train Lord Kanaloa at 76-1 on the second of four visits in 2013, while Benbaun finished third at 38-1 in 2006 and Royal Millennium (98-1) and Gordon Lord Byron (53-1) came home fourth in 2004 and 2014.

But winning is what matters and the bottom line is that Europe are a combined nought from well over thirty attempts since the Hong Kong Sprint became a G1 in 2002.

There hasn’t been a Euro runner in the December showpiece since Sir Dancealot finished last behind Mr Stunning in 2018 and the only two Euros to tackle the G1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize in recent years - Blue Point and Flaming Rib – finished last and second last respectively.

The statistics are damning, right enough, but Hart is relishing the prospect of a first visit to Hong Kong and eager to explore the possibility of a longer stay in future.

“From the outside looking in, with the prize money, organisation and the way the stars are promoted, it just looks like a Premier League showcase for racing,” he adds.

“I’ve been watching Andrea (Atzeni) since he moved to Hong Kong from the UK this season and he’s done amazingly well. Whatever your sport, you want to compete at the highest level. Highfield Princess has helped me do that but it’s always about the next opportunity and when it comes along you have to grab it.”

It isn’t hard to detect a little of the old Callan steel in Hart’s approach but we all need a little guidance when the stakes are highest.

And, if the Princess’s partner needs encouragement, perhaps he might draw on the words of fellow Borders rugby man Jim Telfer when addressing the British & Irish Lions forwards ahead of a bruising battle with the mighty South Africans in 1997.

The tubthumping Telfer gave one of the most celebrated pep talks in sporting history that day, holding his brooding pack rapt as he boomed “very few ever get the chance to get to the top of Everest” and signing off with “the moment has arrived for the greatest game of your life.”

This is Highfield Princess’s Everest moment and only the greatest game of her life will suffice if the world’s highest rated turf sprinter Lucky Sweynesse is back to his best.

But Hart has already achieved some dizzy heights with his peripatetic Princess. And, if his first visit to Hong Kong goes well, who knows what peaks he might scale in the future.

Graham Cunningham

Graham Cunningham chose a career in racing ahead of the law thirty years ago and has never regretted it for a moment.

Nine years with the world-renowned Timeform organization paved the way for a lengthy spell as a reporter and columnist in various newspapers, starting with the Sporting Life and followed by the Racing Post and the London Evening Standard.

Graham also spent a more than a decade on television in the UK as a lead analyst for Racing UK and Channel 4 but moved to Hong Kong early in 2017 and was once employed as Senior Racing Media Content Specialist for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

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