King George VI & Queen
Elizabeth Stakes (Group 1)
IT wasn’t what most people expected, but victory in the King George for Pyledriver, trained by William Muir and Chris Grassick, and ridden by P. J. McDonald in the absence of regular rider Martin Dwyer, provided the flat season with one of those heart-warming moments which make the sport special in an age when it is increasingly dominated by wealth and power.
The Pyledriver story is worth repeating. Muir trained for three decades with the occasional decent horse, but nothing of Group 1 calibre until Pyledriver came along completely by accident.
The horse’s breeders were hoping to sell him as a potential hurdler, but couldn’t make it pay, so sent him into training with Muir, and he won on his debut at 50/1 before capturing two classic trials as a three-year-old as well as finishing third in the St Leger.
His fairytale has continued, and with Muir now formally teaming up under a joint licence with Grassick, he provided the dreamed-of Group 1 success in the Coronation Cup at Epsom last year and has taken connections around the world since.
Whatever Pyledriver had achieved was always considered something of an oddity, and he was sent off an unconsidered 18/1 chance against the likes of Irish Derby winner Westover and Mishriff.
He made a mockery of those odds under a clever ride by McDonald, jumping alertly and leading in the first furlong, but eased back in the field when Colin Keane and Ryan Moore decided to press on aboard Westover and Broome, respectively.
The early pace was notably quick, even to the naked eye, and while the leaders tried to drop anchor in mid-race, the damage was done, and it was a wise move for McDonald not to have gone with his main rivals as the initial dash began.
Westover and Broome were still battling head-to-head entering the straight, but the strain was already showing on the pair, and McDonald brought Pyledriver back up to regain the lead two furlongs out.
At that point Mishriff looked a big threat, as he briefly moved into second, but he had lost five or six lengths when standing still as the stalls opened and had to be ridden to make up that lost ground in the early stages.
The effort of producing a second burst quickly took its toll, and he flattened out, leaving the patiently ridden Torquator Tasso (Marcel Weiss/Rene Piechulek) to throw down the final challenge with a furlong to run.
The Arc winner tried hard on ground faster than ideal for him, but couldn’t really close the gap, and was beaten by two and three-quarter lengths lengths at the line. Mishriff was eight lengths behind Torquator Tasso in third.
With the winner 18/1 and the runner-up 16/1, this result is in danger of being filed under “fluke”, but, as Phil Bull drummed into all his Timeform recruits, there is no such thing as a fluke, and there are always valid reasons why an unexpected outcome has been reached.
In this case, the race became a stiffer test of stamina than expected, which was very much in favour of the strong-staying front pair, and against the free-running Westover, even if he hadn’t been responsible for making the punishing pace.
That point is also true in part of Emily Upjohn, who failed to settle, but was almost certainly not good enough in a gruelling encounter.
Mishriff barely stays a mile and a half on a stiff track, so conceding a start was disastrous given the way the race was run. Broome needs no excuses, and Torquator Tasso was well ridden in the circumstances, but also showed he his both tenacious and classy, as we already knew.
Pyledriver is flattered only by the margins back to the beaten runners, but the idea that he is somehow a lucky Group 1 winner needs to be put to bed.
In adding the King George to a battling win in the Coronation Cup, he has now proven himself at Group 1 level beyond doubt.
Bearing in mind he stayed one mile, six and a half furlongs as a three-year-old, Pyledriver will be best when stamina is at a premium over middle distances, but stamina is not a dirty word, and we should clamour to heap praise in a real warrior of a horse.
That type don’t come around very often – once in a lifetime is enough for Willie Muir.