International spotlight: Battle royal on tap in 2023 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth

July 27th, 2023

A vintage edition of the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) is set for Ascot on Saturday (10:40 a.m. ET), with an overload of angles and storylines.

The rematch between the top two from the Derby (G1) at Epsom, Auguste Rodin and King of Steel, would be a drawing card in itself. Add in the clash of generations, and the 1 1/2-mile prize takes on potentially epic proportions. The sophomores will tackle such older stars as Hukum, Emily Upjohn, and defending champ Pyledriver. So deep is the field that multiple Group 1 heroes Luxembourg and Westover are trading at double-digit odds.

On top of its intrinsic prestige, the King George also serves as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). While it promises to have implications for Santa Anita in November, the ground will be different.

Ascot is currently listed as soft after midweek rain. Chances are that a beaten horse or two from the King George will have claims of performing a lot better on a quicker surface at Santa Anita.

Here are the main storylines to know for the midsummer highlight:

Auguste Rodin seeks a historic triple

Long held in the highest regard by Aidan O’Brien, Auguste Rodin had future classic winner written all over him when sluicing home in last fall’s Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1). The son of Japanese great Deep Impact flubbed his reappearance in the 2000 Guineas (G1) but made amends with a rattling run at Epsom to reel in King of Steel. Auguste Rodin made it a classic double in the Irish Derby (G1), though in less visually impressive fashion. Jockey Ryan Moore has cited extenuating circumstances at the Curragh, and it would be no surprise if Auguste Rodin has more up his sleeve with a different dynamic here.

Although 14 Epsom Derby winners have added the King George in the same season, the list of those who also won the Irish Derby in between is much shorter. Auguste Rodin is trying to etch his name alongside the likes of Nijinsky II (1970), Grundy (1975), The Minstrel (1977), Troy (1979), Shergar (1981), Generous (1991), and Galileo (2001), Auguste Rodin’s broodmare sire who was the last to turn the triple.

King of Steel can claim improvement since Epsom

The Derby ended up being King of Steel’s belated comeback after he was scratched at the gate in his intended prep. The Roger Varian pupil did well to get so close, making what appeared to be the decisive move in the straight before Auguste Rodin amazingly was able to catch him.

King of Steel didn’t need to improve off that effort to dominate the King Edward VII (G2) at Royal Ascot, but it stands to reason that he’d come on physically from Epsom. The giant son of Wootton Bassett also has the benefit of a course-and-distance win going into the King George. If he gets a similar break on Auguste Rodin as he did at Epsom, King of Steel could be tougher to peg back at Ascot. Like Auguste Rodin, he gets 11 pounds from the older males and eight from Emily Upjohn.

Emily Upjohn, Westover return older, wiser

A year ago, Westover and Emily Upjohn were the hotshot three-year-olds taking on elders in the King George, only to disappoint as the last two home. They’d undermined themselves by being overeager in the cauldron of raceday, but both are different propositions this time around.

Emily Upjohn turned the page resoundingly when next seen in the British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1) at this track and trip in October, and she reached a new level in her four-year-old debut in the June 2 Coronation Cup (G1). The John and Thady Gosden filly, who’d missed by an agonizing head in the 2022 Oaks (G1) at Epsom, ran as though she’d been spoiling for another shot over the course. Producing an explosive change of gear in the Coronation Cup, Emily Upjohn accelerated right away from Westover, who then stayed on to reduce the margin without threatening. She subsequently shortened up to 1 1/4 miles for the Eclipse (G1) at Sandown, where she finished a terrific second to O’Brien star Paddington.

Emily Upjohn should enjoy stepping back up in distance. She’d bring down the house if handing jockey Frankie Dettori a record-breaking eighth King George win on his farewell tour.

Westover was the favorite in last year’s King George, on the heels of his imperious victory in the 2022 Irish Derby. The Ralph Beckett charge didn’t win again until the July 8 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1), but he’d been performing creditably at the highest level. Notably, Westover was best of the rest behind Japanese phenom Equinox in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night.

Hukum picked up right where he left off

A full brother to the spectacular Baaeed, Hukum originally shaped up as a more dour type with his major wins coming in the vicinity of 1 3/4 miles. With maturity, however, the Shadwell homebred has developed into an elite performer at this trip and even shorter. Hukum hit a new peak in the 2022 Coronation Cup, drubbing then-defending champ Pyledriver by 4 1/4 lengths, and signaled that much more was to come. Unfortunately, he sustained a career-threatening injury that sidelined him for a year.

Hukum returned over what was thought to be an inadequate 1 1/4 miles in the May 25 Brigadier Gerard (G3), also the comeback spot for 2022 Epsom Derby victor Desert Crown. That rival was logically favored and appeared poised to justify his odds-on price. Then Hukum, who didn’t have room to maneuver until Desert Crown had already flown, suddenly engaged turbo mode and collared him by a half-length. It was a magnificent training job by Owen Burrows and his team to get Hukum back to that level. They’re careful to keep him on ground with a bit of ease, and conditions should be right for him on Saturday.

Pyledriver underappreciated again?

Pyledriver has a history of delivering on the big occasion at generous odds, exemplified by his emphatic victory as an 18-1 shot in last summer’s King George. He was the same price when capturing the 2020 King Edward VII, and an 8-1 chance in his win in the 2021 Coronation Cup. If Pyledriver represented a higher-profile yard than William Muir and Chris Grassick, or sported a fashionable pedigree, he’d probably have garnered more market support.

His career has been interrupted by injury over the past couple of seasons, but like Hukum, Pyledriver too exceeded expectations in his comeback score. Off for 11 months since his King George heroics, he landed the course-and-distance prep, the June 24 Hardwicke (G2) at Royal Ascot.

Yet Pyledriver faces a stiffer challenge in this title defense. He’s also trying to join a very exclusive club of multiple King George winners – Dahlia (1973-74), Swain (1997-98), and Enable (2017, 2019-20).

Luxembourg the each-way play

As a multiple Group 1-winning European highweight, Luxembourg has the credentials to win this. But he’s now in the shadow of younger stablemate Auguste Rodin, and he accordingly finds himself in the unfamiliar role of the less-fancied Ballydoyle runner.

That could be an overreaction to Luxembourg’s recent loss in the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot, where he was harried early by Classic Causeway and outkicked late by the devastating Mostahdaf. Luxembourg kept on gamely to repel Adayar, the 2021 Derby and King George hero, for runner-up honors. Although Adayar let the form down when overturned as the 1-3 favorite next time in the Princess of Wales’s (G2) at Newmarket, the point remains that Luxembourg could appreciate the added ground.

The star of the 2021 Vertem Futurity Trophy, and Ballydoyle’s leading classic hopeful of 2022, Luxembourg missed the heart of his sophomore season with a setback. The Camelot colt proved his raw talent and hardiness to get back in form and win a loaded Irish Champion (G1) before pulling a muscle when seventh in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). That’s his only prior attempt at this trip, and obviously inconclusive. Luxembourg’s gritty wire job in the May 28 Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1) suggested that he can go further, and the way he was beaten for speed at Royal Ascot reinforced the idea.

With longshot stablemates Point Lonsdale and Bolshoi Ballet possibly there to assist with pace duties, Luxembourg can revert to more patient tactics in the King George. If that hypothesis is correct, he could offer value as the each-way play. Luxembourg is listed at 15-1 on the morning line in the past performances, and around 12-1 in the British markets.

Hamish could make his presence felt on soft going

Multiple Group 3 winner Hamish would need a career-best to make the frame, but the Motivator gelding is a genuine soft-ground performer. Trained by the crafty William Haggas, he owns a win over Hukum in the 2021 September (G3) on Kempton’s Polytrack, an excellent second to top stayer Kyprios in last fall’s Irish St Leger (G1), and a course-and-distance tally in the Cumberland Lodge (G3). Hamish enters in good form, having won both starts over longer this season.

Deauville Legend, in contrast, probably hopes that the course is riding more toward the good side of the spectrum. One of a trio of Sea the Stars progeny in the line-up, along with Hukum and Emily Upjohn, Deauville Legend would have been a player in last year’s St Leger (G1) – if he hadn’t been a gelding. The James Ferguson trainee ventured to Australia for the Melbourne Cup (G1) and finished a valiant fourth as the favorite on soft going. Returning in the Hardwicke, Deauville Legend was a troubled fourth behind Pyledriver. A much bigger step forward is required, though, from a campaigner whose signature win came in the 2022 Great Voltigeur (G2).