The easy thing, Roger Varian pointed out, would have been to stay at home. How could Ascot and the fairytale that still leaves him shaking his head 11 days later be topped?
It was a question Varian carefully considered, as he stood outside the quarantine barn in Santa Anita.
He hadn’t anticipated being here two weeks ago, standing in the Californian sunshine, and had been trying to find a reason why he and King Of Steel should stay in Newmarket.
Why go to the Breeders’ Cup when the domestic season had finished in such a blaze of glory? Frankie Dettori conjured a scarcely believable triumph in the QIPCO Champion Stakes, lifting King Of Steel over the line in the nick of time. Surely that effort, on that rain-sodden terrain, had taken a toll?
Varian smiled as he weighed it all up — and there was a reason for that smile. Moments before we spoke, King Of Steel had cruised around the course on which he will contest Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Turf, skipping off the surface like a stone skimming across a lake.
King of Steel will lock horns again with Auguste Rodin and Mostahdaf on Saturday
King Of Steel would be the heavyweight boxer floating around in a pair of ballet shoes. He’s 570kg with a knockout punch but dainty on his feet and — crucially — he is thriving, showing the same enthusiasm for this assignment as his owner Kia Joorabchian.
It is why taking things easy was not an option for Varian.
‘Kia wants to be here, yes,’ said Varian. ‘There is no hiding that fact. 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. He never left an oat after that race, he hasn’t left an oat since he’s been out here. Kia said to me, “If he is giving you all the signs that he has come out of the race well, let’s do it”.
‘We could have waited for next year but this is horseracing — next year doesn’t always come. They can stand on a stone, they can get hurt in their stable, they might not be in good form. But he looked like he could run again. That’s why we are here. It’s a long winter to stay at home.’
And why wouldn’t you want to be here? This is what top-class Flat racing is all about and, with the exception of the retired Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Ace Impact and Equinox, who is in Japan, it is as fine a field as you could wish to see.
King Of Steel, who will be ridden by Dettori, locks horns again with Aidan O’Brien’s dual-Derby winner Auguste Rodin and John Gosden’s outstanding Mostahdaf, who will have his final outing at Santa Anita before heading to the covering sheds. ‘It’s a $4million race, so it should be a strong contest,’ Varian said. ‘These are the races we want to be involved in.
‘He’s never run a bad race and he’s looked a Group One horse all year. It’s fair to say he’s still improving and a return to a mile-and-a-half will suit him.
‘You know, I have found Kia very easy to work with. Yes, he wanted to be at Royal Ascot; yes, he wanted to be at the Breeders’ Cup. But through it all, we only ever went to these races if we were sure the horse was 100 per cent and he wouldn’t put any pressure on me to run.
‘We have a good relationship and he is good for racing. He has put a huge amount of money, support, investment or whatever you want to call it into this sport. And he is enthusiastic — which is great.’
The progress of Joorabchian’s horses, easily distinguishable in purple silks with a white cap, have added a welcome new narrative to the campaign, but he has certainly benefited from having a trainer on his roster like Varian, whose attention to detail is masterful. During that frenzy at Ascot, when cameras were clicking and people were screaming for Dettori, Varian had the quick wits to ask those in the paddock to be calm, so as not to spook King Of Steel.
Such precise intervention made the difference between the colt using up too much nervous energy and having enough in reserve to sustain his glorious winning run.
‘I hadn’t prepared myself for what it would be like on the day, maybe nobody had,’ Varian reflected.
The three-year-old will be ridden by jockey Frankie Dettori in the Breeders’ Cup Turf
‘Who knew it would build into that final crescendo? I was caught out in the paddock. I didn’t speak to Frankie, I was 10 deep behind everyone else. I was worried the noise would set the horse off.
‘There were camera guys running up alongside him, I was trying to keep people quiet. Everything I did was on instinct because it could have unravelled. But the horse kept himself under control and the jockey kept himself under control, just about!
‘Thankfully it all ended well and the aftermath was something I will never forget.