A star-studded international field gathers at Ascot on Saturday for British racing’s midsummer showpiece, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes – the latest qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf as part of the ‘Win and You’re In’ Challenge.
The winner of Saturday’s £1.25 million ($1.56m) highlight will earn a fees-paid berth to the $4m Turf at Santa Anita on November 2 – a race won last year by the magnificent mare Enable, who is sure to start hot favourite for the Qipco-sponsored King George as she bids to extend a famous winning streak under all-conquering world #2 jockey Frankie Dettori.
However, her trainer John Gosden is taking nothing for granted in what he described, with no semblance of hyperbole, as “a British version of the Arc” also set to feature Crystal Ocean, currently the world’s highest-rated racehorse, Epsom Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck and leading Japanese middle-distance performer Cheval Grand.
“This is no penalty kick, absolutely not,” said Gosden earlier this week at a media conference. “It is a really exciting race with a deep field. Obviously, Enable and Crystal Ocean set the standard and then you have the 3-year-olds getting the allowances.
“Enable is up for it, but I just don’t think it is the formality that is indicated. I see her more as even-money shot against this field rather than the price she is.”
Enable was a 3-year-old filly receiving weight from her elders when she won the King George in 2017, but last year she missed the race through injury before an abbreviated season in which she landed her second Arc before the Breeders’ Cup. She returned to action at the start of July to overcome old rival Magical – the filly she beat at Churchill Downs last November – in the Coral-Eclipse Stakes over a mile and a quarter at Sandown, where she extended her winning sequence to ten races.
Khalid Abdullah’s daughter of 2011 King George victor Nathaniel is bidding to become the third dual winner of Britain’s middle-distance championship event after Dahlia (1973 and 1974) and Swain (1997 and 1998).
“There is a weight of expectation,” Gosden added. “Enable is a great filly and a pleasure to be around. She had a very difficult year in 2018, coming back from surgery, injury and then sickness between Kempton and the Arc, and she still managed to do the job.
“She is the best mile-and-a-half filly I have trained, and what she has done has been pretty extraordinary,” he went on. “I admired her a lot last year, coming back the way she did. We have had a smoother run this year and she has been in good form since Sandown.”
Yet, while Crystal Ocean will not be favoured, last year’s runner-up is now officially rated superior to Enable, though it should be remembered the mare will be getting a three-pound sex allowance. The 5-year-old represents Sir Michael Stoute, who leads the way among King George trainers with six previous victories, including 12 months ago with Poet’s Word, who beat his stablemate by a neck.
That horse was retried through injury before the Breeders’ Cup came around, while Crystal Ocean has already qualified for the Turf via his G1 breakthrough in the Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot. Dettori issued a tactical masterclass that day; now he rides Enable, leaving James Doyle to pick up an enticing spare ride.
Three times a G1 winner in France, Waldgeist (Andre Fabre/Pierre-Charles Boudot) floundered in soft ground behind Crystal Ocean at Royal Ascot. Amid the current heatwave, he will find conditions more to his liking this time around, while progressive Defoe (Roger Varian/Andrea Atzeni) has taken his form to a new level this term.
Title-chasing jockey Oisin Murphy, who rode 19 winners during a month-long stint in Japan over the winter, has the leg-up on 2017 Japan Cup winner Cheval Grand, last seen finishing second in the Dubai Sheema Classic. Trained by Yasuo Tomomichi, the veteran 7-year-old is a son of Heart’s Cry, close third behind Hurricane Run in the 2006 King George.
Cheval Grand’s high-profile owner is Kazuhiro Sasaki, a baseball star for Yokohama franchises in the Nippon Professional League; he also left his mark in the U.S. during a successful four-year spell (2000-2003) as a relief pitcher for the Seattle Mariners in Major League Baseball. He was MLB Rookie of the Year in 2000, and twice featured in the All-Star Game.
The King George was originally designed as a clash of the generations and Investec Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck leads the Classic challenge with a nice weight concession from the market principals under Ryan Moore. He is likely to be joined by at least a couple of his Ballydoyle stablemates as Aidan O’Brien bids for his fifth success; among his previous winners was the 2016 hero Highland Reel, who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf three months later.
As part of the benefits from the Challenge series, Breeders’ Cup will also provide a $40,000 travel allowance for all starters based outside North America to compete in the two-day event at Santa Anita on November 1-2.
As well as Highland Reel, other horses to have completed a famous double are Daylami (1999) and Conduit (2009), while both Fantastic Light (2001) and St Nicholas Abbey (2011) were placed at Ascot before their Stateside successes.