"Race of the season" is a description which often has more outings each year than one of Martin Pipe's novice hurdlers, but in the case of the eight-furlong Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Saturday, it has at last found the contest it deserves. All but one of the nine runners declared for the race yesterday have won a Group One prize over a mile this season, the exception being Charnwood Forest, a relative prole in this company since he could manage only second place in the Lockinge Stakes in May. From the Classic generation, the field should include the winners of four of Europe's six major Guineas races, and also Bijou D'Inde, who took the St James's Palace Stakes at the Royal meeting. In addition to Charnwood Forest, their elders will send in First Island, the Sussex Stakes winner, and Soviet Line against them.
In terms of strength in depth, it is difficult to imagine a better field, although one man at least has learned to be wary of labels. "They said that the St James's Palace Stakes was the race of the season," Mark Johnston, the trainer of Bijou D'Inde, said yesterday, "until we won it. They said it about the Eclipse until we came second."
Like his stablemate Double Trigger, it seems, Bijou D'Inde does not receive the credit he deserves. The QEII will be his sixth race of the season, and his sixth in Group One company. Only once has he finished out of the frame, and yet the Tote believe he is no better than a 10-1 chance for Saturday's race. It is not just Johnston who is left to wonder whether their odds compilers have forgotten to renew their form-book subscription.
"It's absolutely unbelievable," he said. "He's met Ashkalani [a 7-2 chance] once and beaten him. They make Mark Of Esteem the favourite, but we've met him twice, beaten him easily once and went down by two short-heads on the other occasion. How can he be 5-2 and us 10-1? It doesn't make any sense."
Many trainers would consider half a dozen races at the highest level more than enough, but it is not a philosophy to which Johnston has ever subscribed. "He's a Group One horse and I wouldn't dream of running him in anything else. He's very big, strong and tough, and six races isn't a lot, is it?"
Nor will there be any rest after Ascot. "If all goes well we'll go to the Breeders' Cup, and then we'll be talking to the Darley Stud people about the possibility of coming back and staying in Dubai to run in the Dubai World Cup."
Since Ladbrokes offer just 6-1 against Bijou D'Inde, the Tote's price is an aberration which will probably wither like Count Dracula in the first shafts of daylight this morning. Anyone who does manage to take the 10-1 will have a betting slip to treasure.
Punters were more interested yesterday in Bosra Sham, winner of the 1,000 Guineas in May but unraced since due to niggling injuries. The Henry Cecil- trained filly joins Mark Of Esteem at the head of the market at odds as low as 9-4 (from 3-1) with William Hill. Shake The Yoke, the Coronation Stakes winner, is 8-1 with a run (with Ladbrokes), but will arrive at Ascot only in the unlikely event that the other French challenger, Ashkalani, does not.
Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (1m)
Horse (Trainer) Coral William Hill Ladbrokes Tote
Bosra Sham (H Cecil 5-2 9-4 5-2 5-2
Mark Of Esteem (Saeed bin Suroor) 5-2 9-4 5-2 5-2
Ashkalani (A de Royer-Dupre) 7-2 7-2 5-2 7-2
First Island (G Wragg 8-1 8-1 8-1 8-1
Shake The Yoke (E Lellouche) 8-1 7-1* 8-1* 9-1
Bijou D'Inde (M Johnston 9-1 8-1 6-1 10-1
Charnwood Forest (Saeed bin Suroor) 10-1 12-1 14-1 10-1
Matiya (B Hanbury) 33-1 33-1 33-1 33-1
Soviet Line (M Stoute) 20-1 25-1 33-1 20-1
Each-way a fifth the odds, places 1, 2, 3 (Ascot, Saturday). * -with a runReuse content