As ever with year-in-review perspectives, personal criteria play the decisive role, and that’s why I’ve ventured abroad for my 2019 race of the year. The King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) at Ascot offers the most persuasive combination of world-class combatants, high stakes, some adversity, and a stretch-long duel that evoked a gladiatorial performance from Enable.
If my focus were on an iconic race that sparked the most neuralgic controversy, the Kentucky Derby (G1) would be a clear-cut choice. Fans will argue over the disqualification of Maximum Security until kingdom come (and maybe beyond), and the fact that the Derby left more questions than answers makes me less willing to tab it as race of the year.
Other likely U.S. champions have turned in memorable efforts too. Mitole’s Metropolitan H. (G1) over McKinzie and Thunder Snow, Midnight Bisou’s determination to best Elate in the Personal Ensign (G1), and Covfefe’s Test (G1) battle with Serengeti Empress all made a lasting impression. Not forgetting Bricks and Mortar – who will get my Horse of the Year vote – but his winning streak gloms together in my mind rather than serving up one landmark moment.
The King George, however, has all the dramatic tension plus historical magnitude, and the top three finishers are now the joint highest-rated horses in the world.
Enable, the 2017 King George winner who missed her title defense in 2018 due to injury, was aiming to become only the third horse ever to win the British summer highlight twice. But the great racemare Dahlia (1973-74) and Swain (1997-98) had scored repeats. Enable was trying to make history as the first to regain the King George throne after vacating it.
The chief opponent standing in her way was Crystal Ocean, the King George near-misser from 2018. This time he entered in the form of his life after making it three in a row in Royal Ascot’s Prince of Wales’s (G1) over Magical. Aidan O’Brien tossed in Derby (G1) hero Anthony Van Dyck and globetrotting Magic Wand, and although both flopped, their presence underscored the race’s strength in depth. France’s Waldgeist and Japan’s Cheval Grand made it a properly international affair.
The odds-on favorite riding a 10-race winning streak, Enable was thrown a tactical curveball with the far outside post 11. Instead of being able to secure a good early position, regular rider Frankie Dettori found himself hung out wide in no man’s land. If it weren’t for the Ballydoyle tag team, perhaps the John Gosden mare could have rolled forward.
That wouldn’t have been clever in these circumstances. Dettori ended up being forced to sacrifice placement to drop in and get cover, trusting that Enable would rally from much farther back than usual. Her anxious fans could only see the Juddmonte colors uncharacteristically in the latter part of the field.
Meanwhile, Crystal Ocean backers had to love how the race was unfolding. The Sir Michael Stoute trainee was parked in fourth, with a Ballydoyle trio going an unsustainable pace in front of him. Considering that Crystal Ocean had toppled Magical by getting first run, the King George appeared to be handing him a similar advantage on a silver platter.
But Dettori had been the mastermind on Crystal Ocean that day, so he knew best of anyone not to let him get away. Thus he had to cue Enable to improve earlier than preferable. When Crystal Ocean cruised to overtake the spent leaders, Enable was already alongside him. She’d had to work more than he did by that point, and Crystal Ocean had deep swells still in reserve.
The battle was joined a full quarter-mile out, neither flinching, as they pulled away from Waldgeist. When Enable got the upper hand, Crystal Ocean responded, until in the final yards her will prevailed.
I admit to paying more attention to Waldgeist’s third in hindsight – only after he gained revenge on Enable in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), denying her a unique three-peat. Yet that postscript just adds to the mystique of the 2019 King George.
The final words belong to Enable’s ever-quotable connections.
Gosden summed it up to Racing Post:
“You had the best older horse and the best older filly taking on horses with that level of quality and they outclassed the whole field. It was a proper King George – what more could racing have asked for?
“She showed a lot of guts. Crystal Ocean said to her ‘I’m going to win this’ and she said back ‘no, I am,’ and she really showed mental toughness and so did he.”
Dettori provided perspective:
“In all my career that’s probably the hardest-fought Group 1 I’ve ever had. Two great champions, the last two furlongs. It doesn’t come along every day.”