It rained on Friday, but not enough for Cracksman to run in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot the following afternoon, writes Tony Stafford. John Gosden’s colt’s absence, together with the late defection of Ballydoyle’s principal hope Kew Gardens, seemed to leave the midsummer feature at the mercy of Sir Michael Stoute and so it proved.
Many of the King George’s since Stoute’s first victory with the ill-fated Shergar in 1981 have featured fancied runners from the Freemason Lodge stable. Poet’s Word, in beating stable-companion Crystal Ocean in a memorable tussle nine lengths clear of the rest, was Stoute’s sixth in the race, which started life in 1951.
Poet’s Word recorded the second-best time ever in the race, bettered only by the German colt Novellist in 2013. Track records at Ascot are generally considered only valid since 2006 when the home straight was remodeled with the construction of the present grandstand, but there has been little apparent difference in overall race times compared with pre-2006.
The fastest times for Ascot’s mile and a half have generally come in fast-run King George’s and for a while the record was held by the Race of the Century in 1975 when Derby winner, Grundy, overcame Bustino after Dick Hern’s use of two pacemakers almost defeated Grundy with the previous year’s St Leger hero.
That time stood for a relatively short period and unusually it was broken in the Hardwicke Stakes of 1983 when the Irish mare Stanerra, trained by the part-time handler and Dunnes Stores family member Frank Dunne, more usually an owner with Jim Bolger, won two races within three days at Royal Ascot.
Relishing the lightning-fast ground at the meeting, the five-year-old won the Prince of Wales by four lengths as a 7-1 shot and then rolled over Electric by a length and a half in the Hardwicke with Be My Native, the Coronation Cup winner from the previous month, 12 lengths back in third in a time 0.03sec faster than Grundy’s 2min26.98sec.
More recently, another Stoute winner, Harbinger in 2010, recorded 2min 26.78sec. The fastest-ever King George time was set three years later by the German colt Novellist, whose talent has never been fully recognized over here. In an 11-race career, Novellist suffered the first of only two defeats after four wins, when runner-up to Pastorius in the German Derby. That was followed by a fourth behind the 2012 King George heroine and fellow German, Danedream, in the Grosser Preis von Baden five weeks after that filly’s Ascot triumph.
From then it was wins all the way for Novellist, who went through 2013 with victories at Baden-Baden (Group 2), in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and then Ascot before putting right the Grosser Preis von Baden defeat of the previous September with a workmanlike win at odds of 1-6, after which he went off to stud in Japan, with so far unspectacular results.
What was spectacular, though, was the five-length romp away from Trading Leather, Stoute’s Hillstar and favourite Cirrus des Aigles at Ascot in 2min24.60sec. Poet’s Word’s time of 2min 25.84sec (2.66sec fast) stands up well after Friday’s rain on a day when no other race was run in anywhere near standard time.
Although on the day, the O’Brien team made only a minor impact on the eventual result, the fact that second string Rostropovich – number one Hydrangea found the ground much too fast – set a strong gallop and sustained it until well into the straight, played to the Stoute pair’s strengths. Fifth behind Coronet and Salouen hardly flattered him.
When William Buick on Crystal Ocean, the St Leger runner-up to Capri last year, went into a two-length lead on Saturday, few in the stands expected him to be reeled in, but as in the Irish Oaks James Doyle again came fast and late to gain a memorable win on his first ride in the race.
Doyle’s rise to prominence will have pleased one television pundit. In his early days, Doyle was often championed by James Willoughby as a jockey out-performing his opportunities, and that remains very much the case, although the opportunities are now much more numerous.
The days when the King George was the unchallenged midsummer target for Europe’s best horses are long gone, although the fact that two high-class and still-improving stayers such as Poet’s Word and Crystal Ocean were on show, adds some much-needed gloss. The fact remains, though, that prizemoney here has been fairly static in face of dramatic rises elsewhere.
The King George winner earned considerably more on his first race of the year when runner-up to Hawkbill in the Dubai World Cup. His career, typically with Stoute, has been a case of gradual improvement and after Saturday, more credence will have been afforded Poet’s Word’s defeat of Cracksman and the aforementioned Hawkbill in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes last month.
While it is hard to imagine Goodwood 2018 being in any way comparable to last year when incessant rain so disrupted the going, the sight of a leaden sky for the first time for a couple of months as I looked out from my office towards the Olympic Stadium just after dawn today, suggests caution.
If the heatwave returns leaving the ground to stay on the fast side, I’ll be going with the Brian Meehan-trained Bacchus in the Stewards’ Cup on Saturday. The Wokingham winner got what looked a less-than-inspired ride (unusually) from Frankie Dettori at Newbury just over a week ago, but is reportedly in fine fettle. There is a slight chance that he might go instead for the Maurice de Gheest over an extra half-furlong, so it might be wise to wait until final declarations on Thursday morning before committing.
I’ll be at Goodwood for the first four days of the meeting, but will switch to Newmarket on Saturday where Laxmi will tackle the valuable fillies’ nursery for Tooth, Siddiqui, and Sharma from what we hope is a fair mark. Ray’s colours will also be on show half an hour later with My Law, who deserves a break after her Newbury stumble out of the gate which deposited Fran Berry on the ground.
As Steve Gilbey said after that latest kick in the teeth (or Tooth): If we didn’t have bad luck, we’d have no luck at all.