Harbinger suffers leg break
Harbinger's reign as the best racehorse in the world was cut short after only two weeks when he suffered what seems certain to prove a career-ending injury on the gallops at Newmarket yesterday morning. The colt, which pulled off a breathtaking win in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot last month, fractured his near-fore cannon bone during a routine piece of exercise and was expected to undergo surgery last night.
The injury occurred while Harbinger was working on a stretch of track known as the golden mile on the Limekilns gallops, where he was being led by his stablemate, Ask. One gallops watcher said Harbinger showed little sparkle but there was no evident sign of injury until he had walked half a mile back to the stables of his trainer, Michael Stoute, where his groom, Maria Doe, noticed that he was lame.
"This is a bitter blow for all 12 of Harbinger's owners," said a statement from Highclere Racing, the syndicate company that owns the four-year-old. "A decision as to his future will be taken imminently."
Harbinger had been expected to line up for the Juddmonte International at York next week, with the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in October as his main target. Betting on both races was suspended for several hours yesterday morning as the story began to break. Highclere's statement was released late in the afternoon, after efforts had been made to contact the dozen individuals who have a share in the horse.
It is a desperate blow to followers of the sport that such a talented animal may have to be retired, so soon after establishing his greatness. The King George was his first attempt at a Group One prize and he responded with his finest performance, beating Irish Derby winner Cape Blanco by 11 lengths, a record margin for the race. Timeform then gave him a rating of 140, as good as was achieved by Sea The Stars and a mark that has been bettered by only seven horses in the past 65 years.
Happily, the injury poses little threat to Harbinger's life, according to one expert, who nevertheless felt that a return to the track must be regarded as most unlikely. Peter Webbon, who was the senior veterinary advisor to the Jockey Club and is now the chief executive of the Animal Health Trust, said: "It's one of the commonest racing fractures and it's generally pretty treatable. Generally speaking, horses make a good recovery."
Webbon has not examined Harbinger but said there could be no chance of him returning to the track until next season, at the earliest, and probably not until "this sort of time of year".
"In terms of a return to full, normal health, the outlook is normally good but it would be pretty unlikely that he would return to the sort of stunning form that we saw the other day," he said.
"There's always a risk [that such an injury could ultimately prove fatal] but this would be one of the fractures that, depending on whether or not it's displaced and how many pieces there are, is one of the better ones to get."
Olivier Peslier, the jockey who partnered Harbinger to his King George success, was stunned to be given the news as he returned to Ascot yesterday to take part in the Shergar Cup. "It's very sad. He was the hot favourite for the Arc, which everybody was waiting for. He is a fantastic horse and when I received the news I was very sad because, when you have a champion like that, it's a big pity to finish the career like this."
Harbinger was a chance ride for Peslier in the King George, when Ryan Moore opted to ride Workforce from the same stable, and the Frenchman said immediately after the race that he had been smiling from the three-furlong pole because the horse was travelling so well. Yesterday, he added: "I knew I had a good chance but not to win like that. If you win, okay, but to do it by 11 lengths and break the track-record was wonderful."
Three times a winner of the Arc, Peslier said he felt that Harbinger would have proved exactly the right type for the Longchamp race. Asked to compare him to the many great horses he has ridden during his career, the jockey said: "He looked like the best. I have ridden Goldikova, Peintre Celebre, but he was a wonderful horse and ranks very high.
"This is the risk. He's unlucky and, for the future, I don't know what will happen. But his safety is more important."
Moore had ridden Harbinger in all his other races and was expected to return to resume the partnership at York next week. He was unavailable for comment yesterday, when he was attending the wedding of his brother Jamie, also a jockey.
Harbinger's injury occurred almost exactly 10 years after the great Dubai Millennium, whose only defeat came in the 1999 Epsom Derby, suffered the same kind of fracture on the Limekilns and was retired to stud. The great Mill Reef was also saved for a stallion career after suffering a more serious leg break while exercising near his Kingsclere yard in August 1972.