While it's less than two weeks to the Breeders' Cup, the most recent weekend saw one of Europe's premier racing events, British Champions Day at Ascot. On ground softened to an extreme degree by rain, the two highlight events saw 3-year-olds upset their elders, each gaining a first win at the highest level. In the one-mile Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (G1), Big Rock delivered a Frankel-like performance, going from the gun, opening up by as much as eight lengths, and then coasting home six lengths clear. By way of contrast, in the Champion Stakes (G1), the giant gray King of Steel raced in last and only headed the mare Via Sistina well inside the last furlong, before going on to score by three-quarters of a length.
Despite his stature, King of Steel was forward enough to make his debut in October of his 2-year-old career. Successful by 4 3/4 lengths in that event, an 8 1/2-furlong maiden at Nottingham, just 10 days later, King of Steel lined up for the Futurity Trophy Stakes (G1), but on heavy ground trailed home seventh of eight.
King of Steel wasn't seen in public again for more than seven months. Remarkably, the race chosen for his reappearance was the Epsom Derby (G1), and even more remarkably, he came close to capturing the 12-furlong classic, taking over two furlongs out, only to be caught inside the final furlong by Auguste Rodin, going down by just a half-length.
King of Steel confirmed his class three weeks later at Royal Ascot, capturing the King Edward VII Stakes (G2) by 3 1/2 lengths from the subsequent St Leger (G1) victor, Continuous. He was third to the top older horse Hukum and Westover in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes (G1). On his only other start, King of Steel ran as if 10 furlongs was too short for him, never reaching a striking position when finishing fourth to Auguste Rodin in the Irish Champion Stakes (G1).
If the styles of victory for Big Rock and King of Steel are a contrast, so are their pedigrees. Big Rock is from the final crop of the late Rock of Gibraltar, while King of Steel is by Wootton Bassett, who is still reaching new peaks as a stallion at the age of 15.
Rock of Gibraltar retired under the Coolmore umbrella with as commercial a background as one could find, a European champion and a son of the breed-shaping Danehill. By way of contrast, Wootton Bassett—named after a village in the English county of Wiltshire— began his career at Haras d'Etreham in France at a fee of 6,000 euros, which dropped to 4,000 euros for his third and fourth season.
Although he captured only one black-type event, Wootton Bassett was actually an undefeated champion 2-year-old. As a juvenile, he rattled through wins in maiden and novice events, two richly endowed sales events, before going wire to wire in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (Grand Criterium) (G1) by 2 1/2 lengths, an effort that earned him a title as France's top 2-year-old.
Wootton Bassett's first inexpensively sired first crop contained only 23 foals, but they included two stakes winners, one of which was European champion Almanzor, winner of the Prix du Jockey Club-French Derby (G1), Irish Champion Stakes (G1), Prix Guillaume d'Ornano (G2), and Prix de Guiche (G3). Overall, the first four crops by Wootton Basset contained 138 foals and a total of six stakes winners, including another top runner in Audarya, successful in the Prix Jean Romanet (G1) and Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1). Subsequent crops have seen Almanzor and Audarya joined by not only King of Steel, but also additional group one scorers Wooded, Zelie, Incarville, Al Riffa, and the 2023 2-year-old Bucanero Fuerte.
The Phoenix Stakes (G1) and Railway Stakes (G2) scorer, Bucanero Fuerte, is significant, as he is from the first crop sired by Wootton Bassett since he moved to Coolmore in Ireland, where he now stands for 150,000 euros. That crop has already produced six 2023 2-year-old stakes winners, including other group winners River Tiber and Zabiari.
King of Steel is out of Eldacar, a daughter of Verglas (by Highest Honor, from the Kalamoun branch of Grey Sovereign), who won two races at up to nearly two miles. She is a sister to Miss Crissy, another staying filly who took second in the Prix de Pomone (G2) and Prix de Royallieu (G2). The second dam, Seracina (by Nashwan), is half sister to French group 3 winner Serisia, the dam of Contributor, champion miler in Australia, where his successes included the ATC Chipping Norton Stakes (G1) and Ranvet Stakes (G1), and granddam of U.S. listed winner Semble Juste. Seralia is also half sister to stakes-winning and group-placed Mayyadah and stakes-placed Sandbox, the dam of Glory Power and granddam of Sotteville, both French listed winners. Yet another half sister to Seracina, Sailor Moon, also bred a pair of French black-type scorers in Straight Right and Stone Roses.
King of Steel's third dam, Seralia, won the Prix Yacowlef, was group placed in France, and is half sister to the Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1) scorer Shaka. Seralia's own fifth dam, Sail Serenely, is a sister to Futurity Stakes and Dwyer Stakes winner and good sire Cyane. She was out of the Louis B. Mayer-bred Your Game—ancestress of nearly 70 stakes winners, including other group or grade 1 winners Ninisky, Yelapa, Grand Vitesse, and Biz The Nurse—by Mayer's stallion Beau Pere out of the imported Winkle II, a granddaughter of the great mare Pearl Cap, champion at 2 and 3 in France, and the first filly to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (G1).
King of Steel is linebred 5x5 to Mr. Prospector and Northern Dancer, both through Wootton Bassett's sire, Iffraaj (by the Gone West horse Zafonic) and Rahaam, the dam of King of Steel's broodmare sire, Verglas. That duo has a very similar background as they both also have Secretariat close up in their pedigrees. King of Steel's third dam also combines Secretariat—who appears four times in this pedigree—and Nijinsky II, where Zafonic has Secretariat and The Minstrel, a three-quarter brother to Nijinsky II.