Diamond sparkles with classy contenders

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Forget those theories about the best horses being saved for the rich prizes of autumn. At Newbury on Saturday you can feast your eyes on a dozen contenders for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes – the biggest field for two decades—who have won 20 Group Ones between them.

The all-age classic, being run this year at Newbury during Ascot’s rebuilding, features among others a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner (Bago), an Irish Derby winner (Grey Swallow), the filly who won this year’s Oaks at Epsom (Eswarah) and the winner of nearly £2m in prize money on the international circuit (Phoenix Reach).

Rarely has the King George produced such an intriguing field – for every plus there is a minus. Short-priced favourite is the Aga Khan’s Azamour, the impressive victor of the Prince of Wales Stakes during this year’s Royal Ascot at York. His trainer rarely sends across a raider without a serious chance. But Azamour has never before raced over the King George distance of 1m 4f and John Oxx admits: “Racing is littered with trainers and jockeys who have believed that a horse will stay and been proved wrong.” He will, however, be favoured by the fast ground expected.

Jonathan Pease’s Bago will cope with the ground too. Never out of the frame in 12 starts, he has, his Chantilly-based trainer proudly points out, won five Group Ones over four different distances. Bago was well beaten by Alkaased on his latest outing at Saint Cloud, but the stable explains that by saying he was suffering from a bad back. Most of us say the same after losing at tennis.

Hamdan al Maktoum is boldly taking them all on with his Oaks winner Eswarah, despite the fact that no filly has won the race for nearly 30 years. Michael Jarvis’s charge is unbeaten and still improving. But it is asking a great deal to take on such experienced colts in only your fourth race.

The enigma of the race is last year’s winner Doyen, from Godolphin. He took the Hardwicke too in 2004 but has lost his spark this year. His handlers can find nothing wrong with him physically, and would love to see the former star give their disappointing season a lift. But he is just not doing it on the racetrack.

Aidan O’Brien, by contrast, is having a scorching year and Kieren Fallon has preferred his only candidate, Ace, to Sir Michael Stoute’s Gamut. Few, though, see Ace springing the kind of surprise that Oratorio did in the Eclipse. Norse Dancer and Mubtaker seem past their best and owner Alec Wildenstein’s decision to supplement his Policy Maker for the race at a cost of £60,000 looks quixotic.

For me, the each-way value at 11/1 is Andrew Balding’s Phoenix Reach. This horse is a tough customer, having undergone a series of leg operations and then this year recovering from both a bad eye infection and a painful bout of bowel trouble.

With most of his £1.9m prize money acquired in seven different countries abroad, including Group Ones in Canada, Hong Kong and Dubai, Andrew Balding concedes that he would probably improve the horse’s chances by loading Phoenix Reach up for an aerial joyride, giving him an equine in-flight meal and having him escorted round the paddock by a couple of stewardesses. But with question marks about so many of the others, jockey Martin Dwyer really fancies his chances.

After Newbury, next week it is on to Glorious Goodwood. There, despite the Eclipse winner Oratorio dropping back to a mile to take her on in the Sussex Stakes, the glory may be provided by James Fanshawe’s magnificent filly Soviet Song. She looked in perfect trim when taking her second Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket this month. Distinction, second in the Ascot Gold Cup, is fancied to go one better in the Goodwood Cup, and Marcus Tregoning’s unbeaten Sir Percy will attract plenty of support in his chosen race. Watch out too for Sir Mark Prescott’s entries – his horses are currently catching pigeons on the gallops.

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