Homecoming King Bids to Rule California

King Of Steel alongside his trainer Roger Varian, with Robson Aguiar up | Emma Berry 

By

ARCADIA, USA — We may be biased over here in the European edition, but for the turfistes out there, the race of this weekend is the GI Longines Breeders' Cup Turf.

Primarily there's the scintillating prospect of a rematch between the first two home in the Derby, Auguste Rodin (Ire) (Deep Impact {Jpn}) and King Of Steel (Wootton Bassett {GB}), who between them have picked off the Irish Derby, Irish Champion S., King Edward VII S., and Champion S. since Epsom. 

To that duo we can add the top-rated horse still in training in Europe, Mostahdaf (Ire) (Frankel {GB}), whose victories in the Prince of Wales's S. and Juddmonte International have made a significant contribution towards Sheikha Hissa's Shadwell operation being named champion owner in Britain in 2023. 

Then, for France, there's Onesto (Ire) (Frankel {GB}), who featured in these pages on Tuesday, plus the Japanese Derby winner of 2021, Shahryar (Jpn), another son of Deep Impact who added victory in the Dubai Sheema Classic to his travelling portfolio and has looked picture of poise and contentment these last few mornings during trackwork. 

If he handles the step up to a mile and a half for the first time, the hugely consistent Up To The Mark (Not This Time) shouldn't be overlooked as the best of the home-based challengers either, coming into the race off three straight Grade I wins for Todd Pletcher.

Of these leading contenders, arguably the horse who brings the biggest buzz with him is King Of Steel, who left the United States as a yearling but appears to be enjoying his homecoming of sorts as he strolls and struts about Santa Anita Park in the morning. The man who helped create the buzz on Champions Day, Frankie Dettori, has not been allowed back aboard him yet: that pleasure belongs to Robson Aguiar, who oversaw King Of Steel's early days of pre-training and has been in the saddle the last two mornings since the horse was released from quarantine. 

King Of Steel's trainer Roger Varian and his wife Hanako arrived in California on Tuesday evening and were out at the track early on Wednesday to watch him exercise just 11 days on from his epic mud-spattered victory at Ascot.

Varian, cautious by nature, said that his stable star gave him no reason not to travel to the Breeders' Cup for one last spin this year ahead of a winter break.

“He's really well,” the trainer confirmed. “We'll probably have to wait for the gates to open on Saturday to see for sure, but he's just had the five races this year, nicely spaced out, and he came out of Ascot so well it was hard not to bring him. 

“Obviously you have to listen to the horse but he was giving off very positive signals at home after Ascot and from what I've seen this morning he looks fantastic. He hasn't left an oat since Ascot, he hasn't left an oat since he arrived, he's drinking well and he looks a picture. He looks like he wants to race and it's a long winter so why not have another go?”

Why not indeed. While his Epsom conqueror Auguste Rodin is nestled in among his nine stable-mates out on the track each morning, King Of Steel has been going out solo and is certainly a quieter fellow than Mostahdaf, who left the quarantine barn moments before him on Wednesday and is clearly rehearsing for his future career in the stallion barn. 

Varian said, “He's got a great constitution and he takes it all well. It was his second morning out on the track and he didn't turn a hair.

“It's a good race with some good horses, but it's a $4 million race so it should be a strong contest. These are the races we want to be involved in, and in every run this year he's never run a bad race and he's looked a Group 1 horse. It's fair to say that he's still improving. A return to a mile and a half will suit him and I think a return to better ground will suit him.”

King Of Steel initially had two Breeders' Cup entries, with the Classic having been ruled out last week in favour of the Turf option, which will be a much firmer surface than he encountered at Ascot.

Varian continued, “He probably doesn't have the gate speed to consider the dirt at the moment but he might have the constitution for it, so I wouldn't rule it out one day. 

“He found a way to win at Ascot but I'm not sure he enjoyed the conditions. He never looked that happy from when the gates opened but Frankie was so good on him and left him alone. On a day of racing when pace was favoured throughout he was brave enough to leave the horse alone and let him find his feet and find a way to win. I think he's a better horse on better ground. He's a beautiful-moving horse, very well balanced, and he handled the undulations of Epsom on fast ground on Derby day. He shouldn't mind the ground here and he should improve for going around here.”

King Of Steel's owner Kia Joorabchian had signalled his keenness to bring the horse to California but Varian said that the decision was ultimately left to him.

“Kia wants to be here, yes, there is no hiding that fact,” he said. “But, equally, he was saying that unless I was 100 per cent happy with the horse then we shouldn't come. In a conservative way, I suppose I was looking for a reason not to come. Was he flat? Was there any reason? We could have finished on a high, waited for next year. But the horse has ticked every box since Ascot. We talked about it every day, myself and Kia. We could have easily said 'let's not go'. But he just got better and better through the week.

“We could have waited for next year but this is horse racing and next year doesn't always come. They can stand on a stone, they can get hurt in their stable, they can not be in as good form. But, in my opinion, he looked like he could run again, and that's why we are here. We won't be proven right or wrong until the day.”

Despite the build-up to what was in theory Dettori's final ride in Britain aboard King Of Steel in the Champion S., Varian admits that he was caught off guard by the rousing reception given to horse and rider as they returned to the winner's enclosure.

“Of course I knew it was his last ride but I hadn't prepared myself for what it would be like on the day. Maybe nobody had,” he said. “Who knew it would build into that final crescendo? I was caught out in the paddock. I didn't speak to Frankie. Of course I had spoken to him on the day but in the paddock I was 10 deep behind everyone else. I was just worried that the noise in the paddock would set the horse off. There were camera guys running up alongside him, I was trying to keep people quiet. Really, everything I did was on instinct as it could have unraveled. 

“The horse kept himself under control, the jockey kept himself under control – just about! Thankfully it all ended well and the aftermath was something I will never forget. Nobody will. It was incredible.”

 

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