Enticed by the chance of rain at Ascot, European champion Cracksman remains in a field of eight declared for Saturday’s King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1). Thus a grudge match with Poet’s Word, who famously overturned him in the June 20 Prince of Wales’s (G1) at the Royal meeting, is in the offing – if the ground eases enough for Cracksman to line up.
And that’s not the only storyline swirling around the King George, a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Until the forecast unexpectedly put Cracksman back into the mix, much of the attention focused on Poet’s Word’s trainer, Sir Michael Stoute. With the well-fancied Crystal Ocean representing him as well, Stoute appeared to have cornered the market in pursuit of a record sixth King George.
But Cracksman will have something to say about that, weather permitting. The John Gosden trainee was devastating on rain-affected going in the second half of 2017, from the Great Voltigeur (G2) at York to Chantilly’s Prix Niel (G2) and finally in the Champion S. (G1) at Ascot, where he drubbed Poet’s Word by seven lengths. Cracksman extended his streak to five earlier this season. After a dominant comeback in the Prix Ganay (G1) on good ground, the Frankel colt was nearly upset in the Coronation Cup (G1) at Epsom, reviving memories of his unease on the course when third in last year’s Derby (G1). But Cracksman found his top gear late to catch the upset-minded Salouen in the shadow of the post.
Returning to Ascot for the 1 1/4-mile Prince of Wales’s was supposed to help Cracksman turn the page, but he didn’t travel with his usual verve, and Poet’s Word beat him fair and square on the good-to-firm turf. Cracksman fans hope that the step back up to 1 1/2 miles, on an easier surface, will see him back to his best. Jockey Frankie Dettori misses out, thanks to a suspension, so veteran Rob Havlin, who rides Cracksman in his daily work, gets the opportunity aboard the Oppenheimer homebred.
Both Poet’s Word and Crystal Ocean fit the mold of the typical “Stoute improver” as older horses. Saeed Suhail’s Poet’s Word burst onto the scene last season with a victory in Goodwood’s Glorious S. (G3), over 1 1/2 miles on soft going, but proved himself at the highest level when just missing in the Irish Champion (G1) and finishing best of the rest behind Cracksman in the Champion at Ascot. A useful sixth from a poor post in the Hong Kong Cup (G1), and second to loose-on-the-lead Hawkbill in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night, the five-year-old has reached another level back on British soil. Poet’s Word moved forward from a convincing win in the May 24 Brigadier Gerard (G3) to floor Cracksman in the Prince of Wales’s. James Doyle retains the mount.
Crystal Ocean, a Sea the Stars half-brother to highweights Hillstar and Crystal Capella, progressed throughout his sophomore campaign. Third in the 2017 Dante (G2) and King Edward VII (G2), the Sir Evelyn de Rothschild homebred broke through in the Gordon (G3) and finished runner-up in a vintage St Leger (G1). Crystal Ocean has carried that form forward to this term, overcoming ring-rustiness to prevail in the April 27 Gordon Richards (G3) and outclassing them in both the Aston Park (G3) and Hardwicke (G2), the latter over the King George course and distance. Yet this is the acid test for Crystal Ocean, who picks up a new rider in William Buick.
Jockey Ryan Moore, previously aboard Crystal Ocean, has a commitment to pilot the Aidan O’Brien-trained Hydrangea. A gritty winner of last fall’s British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1) at this track and trip, she inherits the mantle of first-string now that stablemate Kew Gardens is absent due to a dirty scope. Hydrangea has yet to reach those heights in 2018, following an encouraging second in her Lanwades Stud (G2) comeback with a flop in the Duke of Cambridge (G2) at Royal Ascot. The Galileo filly is eligible to do herself justice back up in trip, especially if the rain comes. Yet she didn’t peak until later in 2017 and must find a new top in her first start versus males. Stablemate Rostropovich, a Frankel half-brother to Zoffany, threatened to spring a front-running upset in the Irish Derby (G1) before succumbing to Latrobe. Although O’Brien runners can keep improving in a hurry, he still has plenty to find on form, and the weight break he receives from his elders is unlikely to be enough to bridge the gap.
Gosden also sends out a filly in Coronet, who would make for a potent one-two punch for the trainer if Cracksman takes his chance. The daughter of Dubawi had smart form at three, her highlights including a victory in the course-and-distance Ribblesdale (G2) and a second to all-conquering stablemate Enable in the Yorkshire Oaks (G1). Fifth in the St Leger, Coronet was a nose away from a major win over males in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1) in her latest. Olivier Peslier renews their partnership.
The aforementioned Salouen likewise comes off a fine run in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud. By finishing third to Waldgeist and Coronet, he proved his Coronation Cup gambit was no fluke. Rounding out the octet is Desert Encounter, perhaps best known for placing third at 50-1 in the 2017 Eclipse (G1). He’s been no threat to Poet’s Word, however, and wheels back one week after chasing home Emotionless in the Steventon S. at Newbury.
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