Racing: So tough it turns victors into victims

Greg Wood looks at a race in which triumph frequently leaves its mark
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If they were boxers, an astonishing collection of belts would precede them to the ring. They are the middle-distance turf champions of three continents, lining up for a King George which promises to be the race of the season, perhaps the decade. And if there is one thing which the rich history of the King George teaches us, it is that what it promises, it generally delivers.

It is the youngest of the great British Flat races, just 42 years old, but the high-summer championship has proved to be a precocious child. You do not even need to have been born when Grundy beat Bustino in 1975 to know that most of those who were would name it as the most exciting contest in living memory, and on either side of that pinnacle there are images which are no less evocative.

In just its fifth running, in 1955, Ribot, rated alongside Sea Bird II as the finest racehorse since World War II, galloped home by five lengths, while the epic manner of Grundy's victory must not overshadow the names immediately before his on the roll of honour: Park Top, Nijinsky, Mill Reef and Dahlia, who remains the only dual winner of the King George.

And mention of Dahlia is a timely reminder of how important French-trained horses have been to the history of the King George. She was third behind Grundy and Bustino, in a race which was billed as a potential classic and outstripped even the pre-publicity, and when Pawneese won for Daniel Wildenstein 12 months later, the prize crossed the Channel for the third time in four years.

Ever since, though, it has been the French fashion to save their best for the Arc in October, and Triptych, third behind Reference point 10 years ago, was the last runner from France to even make the frame. All of which makes the arrival of Helissio at Ascot this afternoon especially welcome.

But if the French were an important presence during the 1970s, then the somewhat unlikely location of Pulborough, in Sussex, provided some major players in the following decade. Guy Harwood sent out Kalaglow to win in 1982, and then the brilliant Dancing Brave to beat Shardari and Triptych four years later, the latter colt demonstrating in the process that Shahrastani had been fortunate indeed to beat him in the Derby at Epsom.

In 1989, meanwhile, Harwood's Cacoethes came off second-best to Nashwan after a frantic battle to the line, one which scraped the last remains of courage from Nashwan's unusually deep reserves.

When Nashwan travelled to Paris for his Arc trial two months later, he had nothing more to give when Willie Carson asked him to quicken. He was beaten for the first time in his career and immediately retired, both the victor and the victim of the King George.

In that, he is far from alone. Grundy was lifeless in the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup at York three weeks after Ascot, and never raced again, while Brigadier Gerard went to the same race after his King George and suffered the first and only defeat of his 18-race career, going down by three lengths to Roberto. There are many others, among them The Minstrel, who showed astonishing courage to beat Orange Bay by a short head in 1977, for whom the King George was a glorious but final appearance before retirement.

It is not an image which many of today's racegoers will wish to dwell on - the desire to see a race which lives up to the cast list and the traditions of the King George is too strong for that. Helissio, Singspiel and Pilsudski have already achieved enough on the track to deserve a place in the history books, but if one of them earns a chapter to himself at Ascot this afternoon, let us hope that his spirit survives the experience.


Year Winner Trainer Jockey Time

1996 Pentire G Wragg M Hills 2.28.11

1995 Lammtarra S Bin Suroor L Dettori 2.31.01

1994 King's Theatre H Cecil M Kinane 2.28.92

1993 Opera House M Stoute M Roberts 2.33.94

1992 St Jovite J Bolger S Craine 2.30.85

1991 Generous P Cole A Munro 2.28.99

1990 Belmez H Cecil M Kinane 2.30.76

1989 Nashwan Dick Hern W Carson 2.32.27

1988 Mtoto A Stewart M Roberts 2.37.33

1987 Reference Point H Cecil S Cauthen 2.34.63

1986 Dancing Brave G Harwood Pat Eddery 2.29.49

1985 Petoski Dick Hern W Carson 2.27.61

1984 Teenoso G Wragg L Piggott 2.27.95

1983 Time Charter H Candy J Mercer 2.30.79

1982 Kalaglow G Harwood G Starkey 2.31.88