March 3, 2024

Hukum outduels Westover in BC WAYI King George VI & Queen Elizabeth

Hukum edged Westover in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (Photo by Kaz Ishida/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM)

With a star-studded field assembled at Ascot on Saturday, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) promised to be the race of the season so far – and likely one of the finest editions in the race’s richly embroidered history. A titanic tussle down the straight only enhanced the idea, as Shadwell’s homebred Hukum edged Juddmonte’s Westover, and the pair drew well clear in this “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).

The drama began even before then, though, for hot favorite Auguste Rodin weakened right out of it entering the turn. Aidan O’Brien’s Epsom and Irish Derby (G1) hero had been drafting behind Westover on the outside, but when he needed to be asked to maintain position, the handwriting was on the wall. Auguste Rodin dropped back abruptly and finished tailed off in a manner reminiscent of his 2000 Guineas (G1) debacle.

Still, given how Hukum and Westover powered ahead of Derby runner-up King of Steel, Auguste Rodin presumably would have found them difficult to beat in any event. The drying-out course proved testing, playing to the strengths of the top two, and contributing to the margins of defeat in a strung-out field.

Hukum brought superb credentials into the King George, but such was the race’s depth that he went off as a 6-1 chance and paid $15. An older full brother to the nearly-flawless Baaeed, the Owen Burrows charge took longer to achieve his Group 1 laurel. That breakout performance came in last year’s Coronation Cup (G1) at Epsom, where he dethroned Pyledriver, and stamped himself as a prime player for the King George.

Unfortunately, Hukum sustained a career-threatening injury. Instead of competing at Ascot, he had to watch from the sidelines as Pyledriver went on to star in the 2022 King George. Connections could well have retired Hukum off the back of his signature win, but Sheikha Hissa, daughter of the late Sheikh Hamdan, sportingly opted to give him a chance to return at the same level.

Hukum rewarded her decision straightaway by winning the May 25 Brigadier Gerard (G3) at Sandown, in a comeback that spoke volumes. Not only did he cut down Desert Crown, last seen taking the 2022 Derby, but he did so at a 1 1/4-mile trip that appeared on the short side for him. If Hukum could pick up where he left off, at what used to be an inadequate distance for him, what could he accomplish stretching out to 1 1/2 miles again?

The King George furnished the answer. As Auguste Rodin’s teammates Point Lonsdale and Bolshoi Ballet went forward on their pace duties, Ballydoyle stablemate Luxembourg was tucked in their wake on the rail. Westover, who had overraced early when bombing as the favorite in last summer’s King George, was enjoying a much better passage as an outside stalker. Hukum was nestled nearby, just about midpack, but well in range for Shadwell jockey Jim Crowley.

Turning for home, the Ballydoyle front runners made sure to steer wide and give the saloon passage to Luxembourg, who seized the gap to enter contention. King of Steel followed Luxembourg through and found room between foes. Defending champion Pyledriver had to launch his bid wider out, Westover circumnavigated the field, and Hukum angled out for run after straightening.

For a brief moment in upper stretch, the race was up for grabs. But Westover soon hit top gear and struck the front. Hukum managed to stay close enough to cover his move. So did King of Steel, initially, only the sophomore was unable to keep up the gallop in the final furlong.

Hukum gained momentum, on the other hand, the further they went. Westover, all heart trying to fend off Hukum, succumbed by just a head in a final time of 2:33.95 on going labeled good-to-soft.

King of Steel was an honorable third, 4 1/2 lengths adrift. Luxembourg churned on another 3 1/4 lengths back in fourth, followed by Pyledriver, Bolshoi Ballet, 7-2 second choice Emily Upjohn, Point Lonsdale, and the eased pair of Deauville Legend and Auguste Rodin. Mudlark Hamish was scratched when more rain did not materialize.

As that order of finish illustrates, the favorite wasn’t the only one to run below well form. Luxembourg arguably didn’t find as much as might have been expected, and Pyledriver failed to quicken as usual, but Emily Upjohn was the biggest flop. Well supported after slamming Westover in the June 2 Coronation Cup and just missing to Paddington in the July 8 Eclipse (G1), she was never involved, beaten more than 27 lengths in a patently too-bad-to-be-true result here.

The six-year-old Hukum has reached a new pinnacle, advancing his scorecard to 17-11-1-2. The son of Sea the Stars won a course-and-distance handicap at Royal Ascot in 2020, the King George V, and the 2021 Tapster S. at Goodwood, but he racked up bigger scores over further. Twice successful in the Geoffrey Freer (G3), he captured the 1 3/4-mile John Smith’s Silver Cup (G3) in 2021. His placings in that year’s Hardwicke (G2) and September (G3) suggested that 1 1/2 miles was his minimum, but he did finish his four-year-old season with a runaway score in the Cumberland Lodge (G3) here on soft ground.

Hukum continued his upward curve at five, proving that he was a top-class operator at 1 1/2 miles, and not requiring longer distances to win majors. He began 2022 with a victory in the Dubai City of Gold (G2) at Meydan, checked in a close seventh in a blanket finish in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night, and jumped up in the aforementioned Coronation Cup.

Although Hukum has made an incredible comeback from his serious injury, he won’t be risked on firm ground. That’s why he was withdrawn from the June 24 Hardwicke during the Royal meeting, when the ground was riding very quick. Hence connections probably wouldn’t be inclined to take up the Breeders’ Cup Turf engagement at Santa Anita, especially since Shadwell’s Mostahdaf also secured a free berth via the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot.

Hukum has the Breeders’ Cup in his bloodlines, however. His dam, French stakes winner Aghareed, is by Kingmambo (a son of Mile [G1] legend Miesque) and out of 2007 Filly & Mare Turf (G1) vixen Lahudood. Moreover, Lahudood is by champion Singspiel, the 1996 Turf runner-up whose sire In the Wings starred in the 1990 Turf. Lahudood is out of a mare by Arazi, the sensational winner of the 1991 Juvenile (G1), from the outstanding tribe of Height of Fashion.