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Ascot mid-summer showcase remains a race to savour

July 09, 2014 01:31:49 PM
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The King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes that will take place at Ascot on July 26 is all but guaranteed to provide a superb race in what is generally acknowledged as the premier European all-aged middle-distance mid-summer horse race, the likes of Telescope, Magician, Taghrooda, and Eagle Top being sure to provide racegoers with a contest to savour.

The mile-and-a-half showcase event has been won by some of the best racehorses ever since the inaugural running back in 1951 won by the Charlie Elliott-ridden Supreme Court, a three-year-old who went unbeaten through his classic season winning not only the King George, but also the Chester Vase and Royal Ascot’s King Edward VII Stakes. Other great horses to win the race during the 1950’s and ‘60’s included Pinza, Aureole, Ballymoss, Ragusa, and Royal Palace, before the race’s already lofty reputation was further enhanced by the victory of the all-time great Lester Piggott-ridden Triple Crown winner Nijinsky (1970), who remarkably found the time and energy to add the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes to his amazing 2000 Guineas, Derby, Irish Derby, and St Leger victories in what was an astonishing, stellar season.

Later in the 1970s the great mare Dahlia became the first dual winner of the race, winning back-to-back renewals in 1973 & ’74 for the great French trainer Maurice Zilber, a feat that was repeated more than 20 years later when Saeed bin Suroor saddled the high-class Swain to win in both 1997 and ’98. The 1980s saw more memorable winners, including the ill-fated superstar Shergar, Time Charter, Teenoso, Dancing Brave, Mtoto, and Nashwan, while the ‘90s, besides featuring Swain’s double strike, also provided more top-notch winning performances from such as Generous, the unbeaten Lammtarra (who passed away recently at the age of 22), and Daylami.

The new century continued where the previous century had left off, ensuring that Ascot’s feature mid-summer contest remained at the very top of the pecking order of middle-distance international pattern races. Subsequent super-sires Montjeu and Galileo led the way, ably supported by other great winners including Hurricane Run, Dylan Thomas, and Conduit, before the amazing performance of the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Harbinger (2010), whose 11-length defeat of a high-class field was simply breathtaking and is regarded as officially one of the best performances ever seen on a British racecourse over 12 furlongs.

The international nature of the ‘King George’ has seen the last two renewals won by horses trained in Germany, a nation that has well and truly come of age in the thoroughbred world over the last decade. The 2012 win of the previous year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Danedream was followed by the slightly more surprising success of the fellow German-trained Novellist in 2013, Andreas Wohler’s colt putting up a splendid performance and providing the great Johnny Murtagh with one of his last big-race successes before hanging up his riding boots and turning his hand to training.

Usually run on a sound surface and often on quick ground, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes is a terrific test of a thoroughbred racehorse over a mile-and-a-half. The undulating Ascot course means that horses have to be well balanced, while the gradual rise throughout the final mile from Swinley Bottom all the way to the finishing line places stamina at a premium in a race where a serious turn of foot is also a pre-requisite for any horse with pretentions to reach the winners’ enclosure.

This year’s race looks set to provide us with yet another star turn with the ante-post market having been well and truly turned upside-down by a tremendous performance from Sir Michael Stoute’s Telescope at Royal Ascot in mid-June. The Galileo colt had never quite lived up to expectations last season as a three-year-old, the one-time Epsom Derby favourite never making it to the blue riband race following a series of niggling injuries before landing an arguably below-par Group 2 Great Volitgeur Stakes at York’s Ebor fixture last August.

Two defeats at the hands of the much improved Noble Mission on his first two outings of the current campaign did little to silence Telescope’s critics, but they were left eating their words when Stoute’s charge tore apart a quality field in the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes at the Royal meeting, storming away to beat stable companion Hillstar by seven lengths, very much in the manner of his predecessor Harbinger who won the very same race in fine style before putting up that awesome display in the King George five weeks later.

The key to Telescope’s terrific Ascot win was not only his return to 12 furlongs (having competed over two furlongs less on his first two starts of the season), but also the fact that he was encountering quick ground for the first time since winning the Great Voltigeur last term. Clearly requiring fast ground to produce his best performances, Telescope’s Ascot romp saw betting firms and punters very quickly revise their odds as he was slashed from pre-race quotes of as big as 14/1 to his current market position of 2/1 favourite to follow up over the same course and distance in the forthcoming championship race.

Another reason for the tumbling odds was the Royal Ascot defeat of the odds-on Treve in the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe heroine having failed to show the superb form of her win at Longchamp last autumn and clearly not being 100% when only third under Frankie Dettori, behind The Fugue, and Magician. Treve reportedly returned to her French base somewhat under the weather and all reports suggest she is being giving a mid-season break with a view to recovering in time to defend her crown in Paris in October.

So, with Treve seemingly out of the way, the task has been made somewhat easier for Telescope, although he still has to take on some of the best horses in the business, including his new main market rival Magician (5/2 with the likes of Betfair), the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt who produced a memorable turn of foot to land the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita last November before failing to land a blow when sixth and a beaten favourite for the Dubai World Cup at Meydan at the end of March.

Last seen chasing home The Fugue at Ascot, Magician has had the King George as his target all season as confirmed by O’Brien in a post-race interview at the Royal meeting, in which the Ballydoyle maestro stated, “He[Magician]  loves fast ground and plenty of pace. The King George is absolutely the option. We know he gets a mile and a half and gets it well. He won a Guineas [the 2013 Irish 2000 Guineas] but he beat the mare [The Fugue] over a mile and a half [in the Breeders’ Cup].”

Another horse who will surely have plenty of supporters should he make the starting line-up come the big day at Ascot is the John Gosden-trained Eagle Top, a son of Pivotal out of the classy Gull Wing, who set plenty of tongues wagging when very easily accounting for Aidan O’Brien’s Adelaide by three-and-a-half lengths in the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes, on only the third run of his life. Eagle Top does not hold an entry for the King George but it seems quite likely that Gosden and the colt’s owner-breeder Lady Bamford will fork out a significant sum to supplement this rapidly progressive performer into the big race.

“I loved the way he quickened down the outside, then William took a pull” Gosden enthused after Eagle Top’s Royal Ascot win. “That´s when you know you have a good horse. I´m not saying there were Group 1 horses in the race, but he ran like one, and Adelaide is a nice yardstick. He´s not in the King George, but we would not be frightened of supplementing him. We did it with Nathaniel [2011 King George winner]. If this horse is right it will be considered… but let´s take it one step at a time.”

Having been unraced as a juvenile it is fair to say that Eagle Top remains open to further improvement. With just three runs under his belt since making a winning racecourse bow at Newbury in April Gosden’s unexposed rising star is a definite ‘dark horse’ for the big race. A solid 5/1 chance across the board in the ante-post market for the July 26 feature race, Eagle Top is expected by many good judges to indeed be supplemented into the contest and to provide a stern test for Telescope in what is building up to be a cracking event.

Another fascinating potential rival for the market principals at Ascot is the recent Coral Eclipse Stakes hero Mukhadram, a horse who failed to get the plaudits his Sandown effort deserved as a result of some arguably injudicious riding tactics from a number of his market rivals at the Esher track. The fact remains however that William Haggas’ five-year-old comfortably accounted for last season’s Irish Derby winner Trading Leather by two lengths, a much deserved big-race success having run some fine races in defeat in recent seasons including finishing a neck second to Al Kazeem in last season’s Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot , and occupying the same position when a tremendous runner-up behind African Story in the richly endowed Group 1 Dubai World Cup at Meydan this spring.

If Mukhadram has an Achilles Heel though it is the fact that he has yet to race beyond  10 furlongs in his 13-race career, a stat that suggests connections have long since decided that a mile-and-a-quarter is his optimum distance. Some horses do stay further as they get older though, and the son of Shamardal was certainly not stopping on the steep uphill run to the line at Sandown. His debatable stamina has prompted most firms to rate Mukhadram a 6/1 shot in the ante-post market.

The Epsom and Irish Derby hero Australia has an entry in the big race but is an unlikely runner. Should connections changed their collective minds though and have a crack at the King George, Aidan O’Brien’s tremendous colt would surely usurp Telescope at the head of the market. At the time of writing though that seems most unlikely, most observers expecting Magician to lead the charge for the Ballydoyle team.

Only two fillies have won the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes in the last 30 years – Time Charter in 1983, and Danedream in 2012 – so the stats don’t really offer a huge amount of hope for the impressive Investec Oaks heroine Taghrooda, but everything about her style of racing suggests that John Gosden’s unbeaten filly would go well should connections decided to bypass what appears to be her original mid-summer target of the Darley Irish Oaks at the Curragh on July 19 and come to Ascot a week later to take on the colts and older horses for the first time.

The Sheikh Hamdan al-Makhtoum-owned daughter of stallion-of-the-moment Sea The Stars simply oozes class. The Irish Oaks would appear to be very much at her mercy, but should Mukhadram not tackle the big race – he is also owned by the Sheikh – the temptation to switch Taghrooda to Ascot might prove irresistible. She is generally on offer at 7/1.

With other possible contenders including last season’s Grand Prix de Paris winner and this season’s Coronation Cup runner-up Flintshire (8/1), Epsom Derby runner-up Kingston Hill (8/1), a shade disappointing when only fourth behind Mukhadram at Sandown recently, Lady Cecil’s late bloomer Noble Mission (10/1), classy stayer Brown Panther (25/1), and last year’s Epsom Derby winner Ruler of the World (10/1), the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes is sure to be a great race.

On balance Telescope looks a worthy favourite, but he does have to prove to some judges that his Hardwicke Stakes success was no fluke, and an unsettled weather forecast could turn the ground against him. Should Eagle Top be supplemented – as most people expect – he would appear to be solid value at current odds and is possibly open to enough further improvement making him a genuine contender for top honours in a truly fascinating contest.

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