Sunday 22 October 2017

Crown resting on King George

The race to be top UK trainer may be decided at Ascot, says Ian McClean

One of the more unlikely plots to unfold during this Flat season is the intriguing clash for the UK trainers' championship between Tipperary resident Aidan O'Brien and John Gosden based in Newmarket.

Having captured all four Classics thus far this campaign, O'Brien has a healthy cushion of nearly £500,000 over his rival at present. But it was hardly even a contest until Gosden's Nathaniel scooped the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown last Saturday. Ironically, his win was achieved following the last- minute withdrawal of Ballydoyle inmate So You Think, which had been odds-on in most lists.

The head-to-head moves to Ascot next Saturday where the trainers field first and second favourites (St Nicholas Abbey and Nathaniel) for the traditional middle-distance all-aged championship of Europe -- the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

The race's positioning a week earlier than usual to avoid a clash with the opening of the Olympics means there is just about enough time for Nathaniel to recover from his Eclipse exertions, although his trainer would have preferred another week.

Looking further ahead, the championship is likely to draw out right to the end of the campaign as Camelot's Triple Crown attempt in September's St Leger is likely to be sternly resisted by a couple of late-maturing members of the Gosden squad in Michelangelo and last week's Newmarket scorer, Shantaram. But, for now, all eyes are focused on the greensward in Berkshire.

The King George -- traditional showpiece of the summer -- had been in some decline but its fortunes seem to have been somewhat revived in the past couple of years. Historically, the King George was the vortex where the Classic generation engaged its elders to determine the definitive order of merit. However, the inception of the Group One Grand Prix de Paris over a mile-and-a-half for three-year-olds on Bastille Day in 2006 had an immediate and detrimental impact on the line-up for the King George.

The race was further undermined when long-time partners de Beers withdrew and the race ran without a sponsor in 2008. The importance of the Classic crop to the race was particularly highlighted during the decade 1985-'95 when eight of the 10 winners were three-year-olds. During that period, a total of 35 three-year-olds competed in the race. That compares with less than half that number in the past decade.

Ironically, last year's winner, Nathaniel, was the only three-year-old in the line-up, but he only ran there because ground conditions at Longchamp for the Grand Prix de Paris had been too quick. Indeed, this year's Derby runner-up, Main Sequence, would naturally have turned up at Ascot were it not for the presence of the French race yesterday.

The absence of a whole generation could easily be a terminal threat for the race and its prestige, but another recent trend seems to have come to the race's rescue -- at least for this year. The international fascination with the Ascot brand has been on the increase in recent seasons -- culminating in the largest number of overseas challengers ever at the Royal meeting in June and epitomised by Black Caviar's economically dubious trip halfway across the globe just to compete there.

The glittering attraction of the Royal meeting seems to have spilled over to the King George and it appears that the only

three-year-old likely to turn up next Saturday is the Japanese-trained Deep Brillante, son of Triple Crown winner Deep Impact, which has been stabled at Clive Brittain's in Newmarket for his preparation.

Small fields have been a further recent hallmark of the race. Last year, there were only five runners (the smallest since 1966) and just one more showed up the previous year.

Next Saturday's renewal is going to yield another small field but it looks like being packed with quality and jammed with overseas raiders.

As well as the Japanese runner, Peter Schiergen is likely to send Arc winner Danedream which bids to bounce back from a surprising defeat last time when a slow gallop proved her undoing.

French trainer Mikel Delzangles is sending Melbourne Cup winner Dunaden, considered unlucky to get no run in the Hardwicke. He will be joined by last year's French Derby winner Reliable Man, trained by Alain de Royer-Dupré.

The home defence will be strengthened by Michael Stoute's Sea Moon, a deeply impressive winner at the Royal meeting. A reflection of his fortune is that the former multiple- champion trainer currently languishes mid-division in the trainers' table with a little more than half a million in prize money. He has won the King George no fewer than five times, beginning with Shergar in 1981. He won in 2009 and in 2010, when he supplied half of the field, including Workforce and Harbinger. He might not have a say in the trainers' title for 2012 but I expect he would settle for just one more King George.

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