Highland had been a really good three-year-old, but his exploits at four would easily eclipse his achievements so far. His 2016 campaign started with defeat in the Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan in March as he faded after leading for most of the 12-furlong trip, finishing fourth under Ryan Moore behind Roger Varian’s Postponed.
Next came another foreign trip, back to Sha Tin for the Audemars Piguet QEII Cup on April 24. Highland Reel produced one of his most disappointing displays to trail in 8th of 13 under Ryan Moore behind Werther.
Highland Reel bounced back to something like his true form when next sent to Royal Ascot for the Group Two Hardwicke Stakes on June 18, 2016. Sent off at 6/1, he sweated beforehand, raced keenly in the early going and then had jockey Seamie Heffernan drop his whip in the closing stages. But despite that he battled hard, only going down by a neck to Her Majesty The Queen’s Dartmouth.
Revenge was sweet for Highland Reel just over a month later when he was sent back to Ascot again to once more lock horns with Dartmouth - this time in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes - one of Europe’s most prestigious races. Aidan O’Brien’s colt was clearly expected to take his first win as a three-year-old - he was heavily backed and went off the 13/8 favourite. Highland Reel did not disappoint his backers, leading for every yard of the 12-furlong trip and staying on strongly for Ryan Moore to beat John Gosden’s Wings of Desire by one-and-a-quarter lengths to scoop the first prize of more than £689,000. Dartmouth meanwhile could finish only third.
Another major Group One bid was next for Highland Reel as he went north to York’s Ebor meeting for the 10-furlong Juddmonte International. He was sent off at 6/1 and performed creditably to finish a one-and-a-quarter-length second to Roger Varian’s Postponed (6/4f).
September brought another Irish Champion Stakes tilt, but again the field was star-studded and again Highland Reel found it too big a task, finishing 7th behind French winner Almanzor under Colm O’Donoghue.
O’Brien was not deterred by that though and sent Highland Reel over to France to contest the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Chantilly. And the son of Galileo, ridden by Seamie Heffernan, outperformed odds of 20/1 to finish a highly creditable second to brilliant stablemate Found.
November 5, 2016 at Santa Anita would turn out to be perhaps the highlight of Highland Reel’s career. He would face recent Arc winner and stablemate Found, the brilliant Flintshire and subsequent Juddmonte International hero Ulysses in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Ridden by Seamie Heffernan, the pair set a modest pace out in front before quickening around seven lengths clear at halfway. The rest of the field made the fatal miscalculation of thinking they would easily make up the ground. They were wrong as Heffernan and Highland Reel maintained their advantage to come home in front of Flintshire and Found. It was a ride of some genius by Heffernan, with the plan executed perfectly by his willing mount. The result was just under £1.5million prize money.
The Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin would again bring the curtain down on Highland Reel’s season, but this time the Irish raider could not quite pull off the victory. Having been sent off the 1/2 favourite, he found Satono Crown too good by half a length.