“OH, OH, look at this.”
That was a spectator’s reaction as Hukum ranged alongside Desert Crown in the final furlong and went ahead after an almighty tussle to win the Brigadier Gerard Stakes at Sandown in England on Thursday night.
Desert Crown, the 2022 Epsom Derby winner making his first start since that career-defining triumph 355 days ago last June, was the prohibitive 2-5 favourite on the Tote, with the oncourse bookmakers going to 4-11, while Hukum, who had last raced a day before Desert Crown when he won the Coronation Cup over the Derby course and distance, could have been easily backed at 5-1.
A large crowd came out on a sunny but chilly day to witness Desert Crown’s return to the track in the feature ten-furlong Group Three event at what is labelled “Britain’s most prestigious evening meeting”.
Before the off at 7.42 p.m., they were packed in around the parade ring, with the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Desert Crown, a very laid-back character, looking around as he left the ring, seemingly aware that this wasn’t another routine exercise gallop and he was getting back into the real thing after all those months out of action due to a minor injury.
And when jockey Richard Kingscote pulled him out into the clear from the back of the six-horse field, three furlongs out on Sandown’s long straight, and he eased his way to the front with a furlong to go, it looked all over and Desert Crown would retain his unbeaten record.
But Hukum, who had three screws inserted in a hind leg after suffering a fracture in that Coronation Cup victory, was just getting wound up, with jockey Jim Crowley having found himself in a pocket between horses. And he came up on the outside of Desert Crown and stuck his head in front just before the finish as a hush fell over the crowd.
Hukum, a six-year-old son of Sea The Stars handled by Stoute’s former assistant Owen Burrows, was half-length clear of his four-year-old rival, with four-and-a-half lengths back to third-placed Solid Stone, also trained by Stoute.
“I thought he had the race won so it was a little disappointing when he got caught, but he has been off a year and hopefully that race will do him a power of good, mentally and physically,” Desert Crown’s Barbados-born trainer told the Express after the race.
Asked if he still gets nervous leading up to such an event, with his charge having been laid up for such a lengthy period, Stoute hesitated a moment, laughed, then replied: “Yes.”
Earlier, speaking to reporters outside the winner’s circle, when told that Hukum also had a long layoff, Stoute responded: “Has he? Well, he’s (Burrows) done a better job than me at getting him ready,” the Racing Post reported.
As he walked off towards the paddock to check on his horses in the next race, Stoute was questioned by the Express about his plans for Passenger, who finished an unlucky-in-running third in the Dante Stakes at York the week before, when Kingscote found his passage blocked and was denied a clear run, going under by a neck and a length and a quarter to winner The Foxes and runner-up White Birch. Passenger was in a dead-heat for the minor placing with Continuous.
“We’re going to work him at the weekend (today) and then decide if we supplement him on Monday (for the Derby on Saturday June 3). We’ll see how he comes out of that and on Monday, we’ll have to make our decision,” stated Stoute.
That supplementary fee to get into the Derby would cost the Niarchos family’s Flaxman Stables the tidy sum of 85,000 pounds, so it would be a good indicator of what they think of Passenger’s chances if he is among the entries come Monday.
In ante-post betting for the Derby, Passenger is currently the third fancy at a best-priced 6-1 and as low as 9-2, with Military Order heading the market at 3-1. Dante winner The Foxes is fifth on the list at 10-1, with White Birch eighth at 14-1.