There has been much clucking about the fact that, for the third year running, there will be no Classic generation three-year-olds running in Ascot’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the mid-season showpiece of British racing. That is largely explained by the build-up of the rival French Grand Prix de Paris.
But does it really matter when more quality horses are continuing their racing careers at four and upwards and that Saturday’s race offers an enticing contest between several of the best of them?
It has so far been Aidan O’Brien’s year. This month, his Mount Nelson won the Coral Eclipse and his Moonstone the Irish Oaks, bringing the Ballydoyle stable’s Group One total to an incredible 13 already.
Duke of Marmalade provided the first of them on April 27, winning the Prix Ganay at Longchamp. He added to the tally by winning the Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh and the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot. With that record behind him and given O’Brien’s run of success this season, he has been odds-on for the past fortnight to make the King George his fourth Group One victory of the year.
But there remains at least one big question mark about his chances. Duke of Marmalade, who would slaughter the field he faces on Saturday in a 10 furlong race, has never before run over the mile-and-a-half of the King George, let alone won over the distance. Jockey Johnny Murtagh believes that, with his relaxed style of racing, Duke of Marmalade should last the extra two furlongs. But some breeding experts beg to differ.
The other big question mark comes in the shape of Mick Channon’s five-year-old Youmzain, who was second to Dylan Thomas in last year’s King George and a much closer runner-up to him in last year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. If you want to be unkind, you can call Youmzain a “nearly horse” who has won once since his only previous Group One victory in the less prestigious Grosser Preis von Europa at Cologne in 2006.
The other way of looking at Youmzain’s career is that he has constantly competed internationally at the highest level and never been beaten by more than a few lengths. True, he is not a particularly easy ride. He tends to stop once in front and, as his trainer admits, when ridden handy to the pace, he doesn’t finish his races. But I go with Mick Channon, who says that his stable star has improved from three to four to five. He insisted at Newbury last weekend: “I think the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud was a stronger race than the King George will be.”
Certainly there is nothing of the calibre of Dylan Thomas in Saturday’s field. But the contestants include St Leger winner Lucarno, successful in this year’s Princess of Wales’s Stakes at Newmarket, and the duo trained by Sir Michael Stoute, Papal Bull and Ask. Papal Bull, a horse with a mind of his own, is to be ridden by French jockey Olivier Peslier, a decision that saw a sharp contraction in his odds. Jockeys’ championship leader, Ryan Moore, will partner Ask.
Neither of the Stoute pair will need the ground too firm. Nor will Youmzain, so the weather could yet play a part in the result. Duke of Marmalade won’t want it too sticky.
The pace of the race will be important too. Youmzain triumphed in France last month because he got the testing pace he needs. But he has no pacemaker and, if that is the role allotted to Red Rock Canyon, O’Brien’s third entry alongside the Duke and Macarthur, it won’t be to rev things up for Youmzain’s benefit. So “crouching tiger” rider Richard Hughes will be hoping the proved stayer Lucarno will make it enough of a test to bring out the best in his mount, Youmzain – and to expose any flaws in Duke of Marmalade’s stamina.
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