King George blockbuster looks worthy of hype
The Ascot showpiece will answer a lot of questions this year, says Ian McClean
The pre-eminence historically enjoyed by the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes may have diluted (along with the former 'diamond' in the title from the heady De Beers days), but next Saturday's renewal threatens to pack a powerful punch nonetheless.
With some of the highest rated competitors from Ireland, the UK, France and Germany throwing their hat into the parade ring across crops ranging in vintage from three to seven years, it cannot be accused of lacking in plots, sub-plots and intrigue this year.
The highest-rated horse at the start of the season after the retirement of Frankel, seven-year-old gelding Cirrus Des Aigles, is there to prove he still has la force after an unexpected seasonal debut defeat when favourite for the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud. I say unexpected while acknowledging the freak of nature, sired by that less-than-regal stallion Even Top, for all his exploits, has never actually won on his first run of any campaign.
Lying in wait at Ascot, St Nicholas Abbey has an old score to settle with Cirrus Des Aigles. Allowing the French caprice first run in last year's Dubai Sheema Classic led to a diminishing quarter-length defeat that the colt Coolmore once described as capable of "walking on water" will be seeking to avenge. In addition, Joseph O'Brien came in for some criticism for his ride in the race last year and will be hoping for a fairer crack of the whip this time, especially now connections have discovered the colt no longer requires the exaggerated waiting tactics once thought essential.
Given the sizzling summer so far it appears the ground is more likely to favour the Ballydoyle six-year-old which thrives on rattling hooves. In his 16 wins, his year-older nemesis has never won a race on anything faster than 'good'. The fact that Cirrus Des Aigles suffered a ligament strain when preparing for the Hong King Cup last back-end means he will be even less endeared to quicker conditions. Furthermore, St Nicholas Abbey seems to really be maturing into the racehorse Coolmore always believed him to be and, following consecutive wins in the Sheema Classic and the Coronation Cup, is now bidding for his third Group One on the bounce.
However, with glowing home reports coming from France; strong support registered with sponsors Betfair on Friday inspiring the press release – "Cirrus Des Aigles has attracted a wealth of support and as a result he is our new market leader. Connections have been positive concerning his well-being and punters have latched on'' – it appears that both horses (aged six and seven respectively) are arriving in Berkshire at the peak of their powers.
In saying all that, the King George has always been most revered for its clash of the ages, the homeplace of established elders facing down the impudence of the Classic generation. In the period 1985-'95, three-year-olds won eight of the 10 iterations of the race. However, since then the youth has managed only three wins – and only a single strike in the last decade.
The introduction of the Group One Grand Prix de Paris confined to the Classic age at Longchamp on Bastille Day since 2005 has had a detrimental impact on the number of three-year-olds participating in the King George. In fact, the solitary three-year-old winner of the King George in the last decade, Nathaniel in 2011, only ran at Ascot because the ground was too quick at Longchamp.
Jim Bolger's single victory in the King George came during that golden age for three-year-olds in 1992 when St Jovite careered away with the race under an aggressive front-running ride from Stephen Craine. St Jovite had previously scorched away with the Irish Derby and this year, 21 years on, Trading Leather brings the same credentials to Ascot. As an uncomplicated, improving colt, his participation will give us an accurate gauge of the relative merits of the generations.
Indeed, having looked like Trading Leather might be the sole standard-bearer for those aged three, it appears increasingly likely the Michael Stoute-trained Hillstar will be supplemented for the race. The Newmarket trainer has already won the Ascot midsummer showpiece five times, beginning with the incomparable Shergar back in 1981. Sir Michael hasn't managed to cultivate enduring owner loyalty by unnecessarily squandering their entry fees over the years, so it is pretty certain Hillstar, which finally delivered on his home reputation when winning the King Edward at Royal Ascot, is a rapidly progressive colt.
Should Hillstar turn up on Saturday, then German raider Novellist will be on the look-out for a new jockey as Ryan Moore was on board when he defeated Cirrus Des Aigles and Co at Saint Cloud last time. German form has been in upward motion for some time now, and the King George trophy went to the Rhineland last year with the filly Danedream, so it would be folly to underestimate the colt which has won seven of his nine starts and is himself probably still improving.
Throw in the Hamdan Al Maktoum selected of either Mukhadram or Ektihaam, and the doughtily resilient Princess of Wales's winner Universal and you've got a horserace – at least this year – worthy of the diamond in the former title.