Workforce-Blanco rematch restoring King George's lustre
Clash of rival Derby winners makes for vintage renewal after fallow decade, says Ian McClean
Ascot's PR Director Nick Smith must have trumpeted loudly on his vuvuzela when Aidan O'Brien confirmed in the shadow of last Sunday's Irish Derby that Cape Blanco would renew rivalry with Epsom Derby winner Workforce on his next start in the King George.
It can't have been easy for a PR man trying to make a banquet out of the empty basket the race was threatening to become these last few years. A basket, that is, missing the vital ingredient of the classic crop. Historically (to use a PR man's vernacular) the USP (unique selling point) of the King George was the clash of generations over the classic distance in balmy midsummer. The years between 1985--1995 featured a glowing era for the three-year-olds who won eight of the 10 renewals in that decade. But the last 10 years tell a different story, with older horses accounting for eight of the 10 latest winners.
What those statistics camouflage is the fact that in recent years the flow of youth was drying up, with far fewer three-year-olds bothering to even turn up. Thirty-five of the classic generation reported for King George duty during 1985--'95, but a reduction closer to half that number appeared in the last 10 years. A clear breach of the trade descriptions act occurred in certain years when only the elders turned up for the 'clash of the generations'.
But now, this year, the restoration. Not only do we have the Epsom Derby winner (on his eagerly awaited next outing), he is opposed by the Irish Derby winner. While not quite in the Halley's Comet frequency, it is 2003 since Alamshar beat Kris Kin into third in the last clash of the Derby winners. And whereas those two Derby winners had never previously met, we have the delicious additional sub-plot of the rematch of Workforce and Cape Blanco where there is an old score to settle after York's Dante.
The case for Workforce is pretty straightforward. Visually he was the most impressive Derby winner for many years, with a winning distance in the Slip Anchor/Shergar/Troy category. He covered the Epsom circuit in the fastest recorded time, clipping over a second off Lammtarra's record in 1995. His acceleration in the home straight to overtake a pacemaker who seemed to have stolen the race was "frightening", even to jockey Ryan Moore.
The King's Best colt improved enormously from his York run and (in what will only be his fourth public appearance) he can be expected to improve again, with connections opting to give him an extended break, sensibly resisting the temptation of the Irish equivalent.
The case for Cape Blanco, however, is equally compelling. He beat Workforce fair and square at York by three and a quarter lengths in a fast time. He skipped Epsom because of doubts about the trip but laid those doubts to rest by out-battling a proven stayer in a fiercely-run Curragh Derby. He is unbeaten in his career -- with the exception of the French Derby diversion where he suffered a bump and didn't run anywhere near his form.
Apart from the Dante, collateral form lines between the pair are pretty clear-cut. Workforce beat At First Sight seven lengths at Epsom and Cape Blanco beat him six at the Curragh. Both Midas Touch and Jan Vermeer, however, got a closer sight of Cape Blanco at the Curragh than they did of Workforce at Epsom and they probably provide a better gauge. This, in part, explains why Workforce heads the market at even-money while Cape Blanco is available at 6/1 for the Ascot showpiece. It may explain it, but it doesn't justify it. The other explanation lies in our perception of brilliance. No matter what Cape Blanco achieves in his career, it is unlikely he will ever be proclaimed as "brilliant". He never has been. Even at home in Ballydoyle. In spite of retaining his unbeaten record when winning the most recognised Epsom Derby trial, all Johnny Murtagh wanted to talk about in the aftermath was the "brilliance" of St Nicholas Abbey. When St Nicholas Abbey was finally withdrawn from Epsom the Coolmore press release spoke of how their precious colt could "walk on water". Cape Blanco always packs a scuba suit. Even before last Sunday's Derby, Murtagh was inclining towards Midas Touch before his trainer put him straight on Cape Blanco.
Workforce, by contrast, has always had the aura at Newmarket. His SP at York (2/1) after a single maiden win as a two-year-old was a fraction of the odds of Cape Blanco (9/2), who had already won three from three -- a Group Two and Group Three amongst them. Workforce's Epsom victory smacked of brilliance. His King George odds are a reflection that he will reinforce the impression created in early June.
Of course, the focused Workforce v Cape Blanco debate is an amusing distraction from the macro question: how good is this year's classic crop actually? Viscount Nelson provided the first clue in yesterday's Eclipse. Workforce's Epsom form has already taken a hammering. Runner-up At First Sight has failed to make the frame twice since, while every other runner has been beaten on his next start. It didn't stop Lammtarra, who beat a crop of trees to break the course record at Epsom in 1995, from following up in a vintage King George.
But then he was a 9/4 shot, not even-money.