Golden Horn's connections keep eyes on the biggest prize
Saturday morning brought the not entirely surprising news that Golden Horn was withdrawn from the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (G1) due to the soggy ground at Ascot. That of course sparked a discussion -- or perhaps more accurately, recriminations -- on Twitter, to the effect that he should have taken his chance anyway.
Such a view might have been bolstered by the fact that the victorious Postponed, always regarded as a fast-ground horse, coped far better than expected in the conditions. Given a superb ride by Andrea Atzeni, Postponed stalked in second, pounced, was headed by the swooping Eagle Top, and fought back like a lion to force his nose in front at the line. For a King George that had lost its leading man, it certainly served up a spine-tingling finish.
The jockey angle was a prominent subtext. Atzeni regained the mount on Postponed after Adam Kirby was rightly criticized for his jockeyship when third in the Hardwicke (G2). Frankie Dettori regained the mount on Eagle Top in less satisfactory circumstances. The regular rider of Golden Horn, Dettori became available following the scratch, and therefore switched to trainer John Gosden's new number one hope, Eagle Top.
That late switch must have been a bitter blow to jockey Richard Hughes, who was initially named to ride Eagle Top. Since the champion jockey is due to retire upon the conclusion of Glorious Goodwood next weekend, this was Hughes' literal last chance to win the King George. Getting jocked off by the yard's go-to rider is par for the course, but in these special circumstances, one would have hoped that "Hughesie" could have kept the opportunity.
Reportedly the booking of Atzeni came at the insistence of owner Sheikh Mohammed Obaid, who also made the call to run Postponed despite the soft ground. Indeed, Atzeni said afterward that if it were up to him, he would have scratched Postponed! So the owner deserves extra credit for his inspired decisionmaking on both counts.
Yet it wouldn't be fair to apply the same standard to Golden Horn's connections and wish he'd run. For starters, the two horses were not similarly situated. Postponed is a four-year-old whose major aim of the season was the King George; his entire 2015 campaign so far had been tailored to this very race. The best case scenario happened; the worst case scenario would have been that he didn't accomplish his objective. Turn the page and plan again.
In contrast, Golden Horn is the undefeated Derby (G1) and Eclipse (G1) winner who is on course for a showdown the entire racing world wants to see -- tackling Treve in hopes of thwarting her three-peat in the October 4 Arc (G1). After breaking The Grey Gatsby's heart in the Eclipse, and thereby proving himself against a crack older horse, Golden Horn was supposed to handle these as well. All things being equal, it would have been great for him to do so and add another laurel to his record.
But the ground changed the equation. Gosden's never been afraid of getting Golden Horn beaten, so he wasn't trying to preserve his perfect record. Rather, the concern was that whatever he did today -- win, lose,or draw -- may have left its mark on the colt. Tough slogs over 1 1/2 miles can do that, especially if that's the upper limit of your stamina range.
As Gosden told Racing Post, the chief issue was the bottomless section of Swinley Bottom.
"The ground in the straight would be no problem - it's just the old track," the horseman said. "It rides deep, deep down there and holding. If it was all on the new track I wouldn't hesitate on running, but it is not.
"Once I got down to Swinley Bottom the stick went in 12 inches and made a pop sound as it came out. You know what kind of ground it is, holding, sticky. He can go on good to soft no problem. He can probably go on genuine soft, but I don't want to involve him in a sticky, holding ground."
Gosden said elsewhere that you'd need a 13-furlong or even a St Leger (G1) horse to get through it, and tellingly, that this wasn't the right time to set him such a task.
The decision to scratch was a judgment call. It's unknowable whether Golden Horn would have come through unscathed, bucking, squealing, and spoiling for a fight with Treve. If Gosden were assured of that, he'd have run.
But since he wasn't, the question simply boiled down to this: would you rather beat Postponed, stablemates Eagle Top and Romsdal, Snow Sky et al. here, or Treve at Longchamp? Everyone knows the answer. Of course, many things could happen between now and then to scuttle the showdown, but you have to do the best you can to ensure they both get there in peak form.
Discretion was the better part of valor, and I think that Golden Horn's remaining in port was the wiser course. He'll now set his sights on the August 19 Juddmonte International (G1) over the same course and distance as his Dante (G2) win in May. Ground conditions won't be a concern going 10 1/2 furlongs. Really bad ground in the 1 1/2-mile Arc would likely hurt his chances versus Treve, but that's the main prize, so the gamble is worth taking there.
By taking the direct Eclipse to Juddmonte route, Golden Horn's following the same itinerary as another great Derby-winning son of Cape Cross, Sea the Stars. It worked for him, since he went on to land the Arc.