By Jon Lees for Breeders’ Cap — Auguste Rodin (IRE), winner of the 2023 Betfred (Epsom) Derby (G1), heads an all-star cast July 29 for the £1.25 million King George VI and Queen Elizabeth QIPCO Stakes (G1) at Ascot Racecourse. The winner will gain a guaranteed start in the $4 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) via the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In.
The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series is an international series of 80 stakes races whose winners receive automatic qualifying positions, with fees paid, into a corresponding race of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, scheduled to be held Nov. 3-4 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California.
Britain’s signature open-age flat race, run over 1 1/2 miles, has drawn a stellar lineup of 11 horses, seven of whom are group or grade 1 winners. The course condition at Ascot was changed to soft, good to soft in places, on Thursday after 17mm (0.67 inches) of rain.
Not only does 3-year-old Auguste Rodin meet older horses for the first time for owners Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Mrs. John Magnier, and Westerberg, but his opponents include the last three winners of the Coronation Cup (G1): Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tactful Finance & Stuart Roden’s filly Emily Upjohn (GB), Shadwell Estate Co Ltd.’s Hukum (IRE), and La Pyle Partnership’s Pyledriver (GB), who also won last year’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (G1).
Luxembourg (IRE) won the Irish Champion Stakes (G1) last year for Westerberg, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor & Derrick Smith, while Juddmonte’s Westover (GB) captured the Irish Derby (G1) in 2022 and landed the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1) in his latest start.
The other sophomore in the field, Amo Racing Limited’s Kentucky-bred King of Steel, won the King Edward VII Stakes (G2) over course and distance at the Royal Meeting after finishing second by a half-length to Auguste Rodin in the Derby.
Auguste Rodin, who added the July 2 Irish Derby (G1) to his Classic haul, is one of four horses declared by trainer Aidan O’Brien. Stable jockey Ryan Moore has the mount. Point Lonsdale (IRE) and Bolshoi Ballet (IRE) complete the quartet for the same ownership group as Auguste Rodin and Luxembourg.
“Auguste Rodin is from the last crop of Deep Impact (JPN) and has always been a special horse,” said O’Brien. “The minute he won the Derby the plan was always to come back to Ireland for the Irish Derby and then going on to the King George if everything was okay.”
O’Brien has won the King George and Queen Elizabeth QIPCO Stakes four times, clinching his first success with Galileo (IRE), who also won the Derby and Irish Derby in 2001.
Only three sophomore colts have won the Ascot middle-distance prize since then, with older horses claiming 16 editions this century.
King of Steel almost caused a huge upset at Epsom in June at odds of 66-1 in his 2023 debut and first start for trainer Roger Varian.
“It was great that he could back up his performance in the Derby at Ascot,” the trainer said. “There was a lot of pressure on the horse going into Royal Ascot. He confirmed what a good horse he is and what a good horse he can be for us.
“We are looking forward to the King George. There is no reason to think he won’t handle soft ground.”
Hukum returns to his favored distance after delivering a surprise defeat on 2022 Epsom Derby winner Desert Crown (GB) in the Brigadier Gerard Stakes (G2) in May after an injury layoff.
Trainer Owen Burrows said: “I don’t think he has a lot to prove. We were all caught a little bit by surprise as to how he managed to beat Desert Crown, but he is right up there.”
Emily Upjohn dropped down in distance to take on another O’Brien star, Paddington (GB), over 1 1/4 miles in the Coral-Eclipse Stakes (G1) at Sandown three weeks ago and finished a half-length behind the 3-year-old.
Frankie Dettori, who missed that race because he was serving a ban, returns to the irons needing one more win to overtake the legendary Lester Piggott as the King George’s most successful jockey. The duo are level with seven wins each.
Defending champion Pyledriver has had only one start since last year’s Ascot success, winning the Hardwicke Stakes (G2) at Royal Ascot in June.
“He has come on for his race and I couldn’t be happier with him,” said William Muir, the 6-year-old’s co-trainer with Chris Grassick.
As part of the benefits of the Challenge Series, Breeders’ Cup will pay the entry fees for the winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth QIPCO Stakes to start in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. Breeders’ Cup also will provide a travel allowance for all starters based outside of North America to compete in the World Championships.