There is little doubt the 2022 renewal of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Qipco Stakes may not be remembered in the same fondness as in the race’s halcyon days of the 1970s and 80s.
While the likes of Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Grundy, The Minstrel, Troy, Shergar, Dancing Brave and Nashwan have been etched much deeper in the consciousness and affection of the sport’s passive audience, Pyledriver will be more than a footnote in the rich history of the mile-and-a-half Ascot highlight. For he is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Even without Sir Michael Stoute’s impressive Derby winner Desert Crown, still recovering from a setback, and last year’s Epsom hero Adayar similarly sidelined, this renewal passed muster. With £708,875 to the winner, this was a race not to be sniffed at.
The six runners included an Arc winner in Torquator Tasso, the Irish Derby winner Westover, the unlucky Oaks second Emily Upjohn and last year’s runaway Juddmonte International hero Mishriff, along with a Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud winner in Broome.
Perfect conditions greeted the six runners – blue skies, light, high hazy cloud, temperatures of 24C, good to firm ground, a whisper of a breeze. A perfect English salad day amidst the turbulence of everyday life, an event where we could lose ourselves for the briefest of moments – just under two and a half minutes was all it took for Pyledriver to gallop with a glacial remorselessness from starting stalls to winning post under PJ McDonald.
Pyledriver, a 10,000 guineas foal that did not sell, had been an unlucky fourth in the Dubai Sheema Classic, before finishing a somewhat disappointing runner-up in his defence of Coronation Cup at Epsom.
William Muir, now in partnership with Chris Grassick, has been training since 1991 and this was by far the biggest win of his career.
The Lambourn handler wears his heart on his sleeve, always happy to talk about his horses. He has never lost faith in the five-year-old, but even he could not have believed the manner in which Pyledriver took the prize – his sixth win in 16 races.
The Harbour Watch entire cruised past the pace set by Westover and Broome, before kicking readily clear from two furlongs out, with Torquator Tasso giving vain chase.
The winning distance was two and three-quarter lengths, yet had he not idled, it could have been further. The rest were well strung out, with the Classic generation too keen, Westover finishing a distant fifth and Emily Upjohn last.
“Today, we smashed them to pieces!” said Muir with incredulity, adding, “This is a big, big moment. It means the world to me.”
It also meant a great deal to Grassick, a young man at the start of his training career.
“I’m just very fortunate that I came in at the right time to be involved in a horse like this,” said Grassick. “Willie has believed in him from day one and I have slipped in and gone along for the ride. Willie has never once wavered in his faith that he was a Group One horse.
“He really believed he was a top-level Group One winner and we actually got to prove it here today against a Derby winner and an Oaks runner-up, a proper class field of generations, three-year-olds and older horses.
“Everyone who rides him, whether they win, lose or draw, then they believe you afterwards what a beast he is. He wins best-turned-out everywhere he goes, he is a picture to look at and he moves like an absolute machine.
“For me, it is quite surreal because I have won a King George so young and it is just nice to be part of the journey, but it means so much more the fact that Willie has won it. He has worked tirelessly for 30 years and deserves it. I am just as proud to see Willie win it.”
With the unfortunate Martin Dwyer sidelined with an ACL injury, connections turned to Frankie Dettori for his previous two starts in Meydan and at Epsom, but with the Italian partnering Emily Upjohn for John and Thady Gosden, McDonald came in for the ride.
He had teamed up with Pyledriver on his third start, winning a Listed race at Haydock in 2019.
Like former champion jockey Jim Crowley, McDonald had turned his back on the winter code, choosing to ride on the Flat, despite having plenty of big-race success over jumps, including victory on Hot Weld in the Scottish National for Ferdy Murphy 15 years ago.
He, along with the huge crowd, was left wondering when the challenge would come once he kicked clear.
McDonald said: “I’m waiting in that last furlong and thinking, ‘Where are they? Where are they?’.
“And I’m waiting for that line to come – and thank God it came.
“He was running around and having a look around, but he is a very good animal on his day.
“I’m just buzzing now. I’ll be glad of a beer tonight!”
Correlations between his Ayr success over fences and the aptly-named Pyledriver’s 18-1 saunter in the sun, were not forthcoming.
“You can’t compare,” said McDonald. “You cherish every one of these big winners. I’d never compare any of these top-flight winners, because of how hard you have to work through your career to get these.
“You have to be very grateful for every one you get. I’d never compare them – it is not right to compare them.”
Likewise, it would be unfair to compare this year’s winner to those greats a few decades ago. Pyledriver will prove in time to be a stand-alone vintage, regardless of whether he wins his next target, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.