In any sport that involves risk at high speed, the twin impostors are never far apart, and so it proved yesterday in a grimly unsatisfactory edition of the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Yes, the sharply progressive three-year-old Nathaniel came sweetly of age in the great middle-distance showpiece. But his closest rival in the finish, Workforce, sustained an injury in running that may have cost him the prize.
And infinitely worse, another of the competitors in the small but select field, Rewilding, suffered one that cost him his life. The four-year-old's right foreleg snapped early in the straight as he was launching his challenge, and he crashed to the ground. His rider, Frankie Dettori, thankfully, was no more than bruised but Rewilding could not be saved.
The 61st King George, with its Betfair-sponsored purse of £1 million, had been billed as the great showdown between the top seniors Workforce, Rewilding and St Nicholas Abbey, representing the power bases of Juddmonte, Godolphin and Coolmore respectively, with Nathaniel, trained by John Gosden, thrown in as a highly credible wild-card.
Right from the off, though, the contest threatened to fall apart as Rewilding's pacemaker, Debussy, ostensibly there to set an honest, building gallop behind which the big guns could settle, had his brakes applied by jockey Ahmed Ajtebi.
In an instant, Nathaniel's rider, William Buick, showed the measureof the talent that won him the retainerwith Gosden's powerful string at the start of last year. Instead of fighting his mount, headstrong without a lead, he let him roll on, controlling the pace until Debussy did take over.
Buick was the first to kick for home, a quarter of a mile out, and although his mount drifted slightly left in the straight, the chasing Workforce, feeling the effects of discomfort after being struck into, did so markedly, putting paid to any chance. At the line the 6-5 favourite was nearly three lengths down, with St Nicholas Abbey, who never threatened, a length and a quarter third.
"None of it was ideal," said Buick, 23, a former champion apprentice. "My fellow jumped off in front and once I saw the pacemaker wasn't going to, I let mine stride on. In the straight I could see Workforce coming out of the corner of my eye and, obviously, you have to have a lot of respect for a horse like that.
"But Nathaniel was not stopping and he galloped all the way to the line. We always knew he was a very good horse, and at home he has been getting better and better. But maybe I didn't know he was going to be as good as this, as soon as this."
With the watchers in the grandstand stunned by Rewilding's very public demise, Nathaniel, the first of his age to win for eight years, perhaps did not get the ovation his performance demanded. And it was altogethera day charged with emotion for Buick; he was born and brought up in Norway, where his father, Walter, was eight times champion jockey.
Nathaniel, who races for his breeders, the Rothschild family, could have run in the Derby, and on yesterday's display may have won it, but even with hindsight Gosden had no regrets about missing Epsom. "He would not have liked running downhill on drying ground," said the trainer, "and we made the right decision there. And the rain came in time for us this week."
The son of Galileo instead continued his education at the Royal meeting, where he routed his contemporaries in the King Edward VII Stakes. But the bold call to take on his seniors on this stage was made only on Monday, and a close one it was.
As a slow maturer, Nathaniel held no fancy entries and had to be supplemented for yesterday's fray at a cost of £75,000. A few hours before that deadline he showed his well-being with an exuberant post-exerciseplunge, but ripped off a shoe and punctured a foot in the process.
"Our blacksmith saved the day," said Gosden, "but we made the phone call to enter five minutes before the deadline." It was money well spent; Nathaniel won £600,000-plus here .
His next target is likely to be the Arc, for which he is now as short as 6-1 third favourite, behind the Derby winner, Pour Moi. "Today, we got the large three-year-old's weight concession and we made it pay," said Gosden, "and I hope we'll meet Workforce again in the Arc. Our fellow is still maturing and growing up."