Rags to riches stories are not always easy to verify. After all, one man’s rags are another man’s riches and defining the point at which one becomes the other can be difficult. In certain cases, though, there’s no dispute.
Highfield Princess, a five-year-old mare trained deep in the green acres of the north of Britain, is a rags to riches tale par excellence, and if she makes it to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland in November there will surely be a few Hollywood screenwriters passing her story off as too far-fetched even for the big screen. Rags are one thing, but Highfield Princess started off with nothing at all.
“Her story is one of the most epic stories in the whole history of racing – and I know quite a bit about the history of racing. To do what she’s done in the last two years is absolutely incredible,” says the mare’s owner-breeder John Fairley, and even a cynic would excuse his hyperbole in the circumstances.
On August 15, 2020, Highfield Princess was beaten in a very minor handicap at Doncaster off an official rating of 57, putting her squarely in the category of horses who can barely run fast enough to keep themselves warm. A rating of 100 might be good enough for a small stakes race, so 57 is in child’s pony territory.
On August 19, 2022, Highfield Princess surged clear to win the G1 Nunthorpe Stakes at York, one of the most prestigious sprints in Europe and her second G1 score within two weeks. Absolutely incredible, as Fairley suggests.
Now the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint is on the agenda, a paid berth to Keeneland in the bank after her Nunthorpe victory. Highfield Princess will make the journey from Yorkshire to Kentucky as one of the leading contenders for the $1m contest, a living, breathing illustration of the glorious, beguiling uncertainty of racing.
She is trained near the racing town of Malton by John Quinn, a former jump jockey who has had plenty of good horses in his barn but nothing of her calibre. The Irishman’s yard is owned by Fairley, who lives in a house set down among the stables, among the horses, so he has a very personal connection with his French-bred mare.
“I look out at her every single day from my kitchen window, so she’s such a huge part of my life,” says Fairley, a prolific author of books on equestrian art and a former media executive, who was once the senior man behind the televised coverage of racing in Britain in his role with Channel 4.
“I bought her dam when she was in-foal to Night Of Thunder and out came Highfield Princess. It was just a stroke of luck, which is what you need in this game. I brought her home from France, and the Quinns [John and his son Sean] have done an incredible job with her and Jason Hart is some jockey.
“She didn’t race as a two-year-old and didn’t reach the racecourse until the June of her three-year-old campaign, but she’s just gone on and on, getting better all the time. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of.”
Getting better all the time is exactly right. Highfield Princess won four small races over seven furlongs as a three-year-old, won a handicap at Royal Ascot last June before making her stakes breakthrough on the synthetic surface at Chelmsford the following month, and has blossomed out of recognition in this campaign, winning four of her last five races.
Victory in the six-furlong G2 Duke Of York in May preceded success in the G1 Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville – a few miles down the road from her birthplace – and her Nunthorpe triumph was her first over five furlongs, such versatility auguring well for the task that awaits her in bluegrass country in the fall. Quinn, during interviews in the aftermath of York glory, was confident of the mare’s adaptability.
“What a mare she is, she has some constitution,” he said. “The target has always been the Breeders’ Cup because she has loads of tactical speed, and five and a half furlongs around a bend will be right up her alley. She’ll have one more run in France and then travel over.”
Highfield Princess now has an official rating of 120, which means that she has improved 63lb over the course of two years – and in her current mood there may be more to come. She will need something special to subdue Golden Pal in his own backyard, but there is certainly another chapter or two left in this Cinderella fairytale.
The winner’s share of the Turf Sprint purse would push Highfield Princess’s career earnings well into seven figures. That’s riches by any measure, but for a mare who started off with nothing, it’s all just part of the story.
By Steve Dennis