Racing: Ascot's open contest points to a vacant throne: By tradition the King George bestows prestige upon its victor but this year's pretenders to the middle-distance crown appear lacking in noble rank

THE CUSTOMARY role of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, to confirm the status of an already outstanding middle- distance horse, will not be fulfilled this year. The bookmakers bet 4-1 the field for Saturday's pounds 330,000 contest, a certain indicator that no one contender stands out among its contemporaries.

With Balanchine, who is widely considered the best of her generation, recovering from life-threatening colic, the Derby winner Erhaab is at the head of the market as he tries to restore his credibility after defeat in the Eclipse Stakes.

But at a top price of 9-2 it can be quickly seen that he is not held in the same regard as previous Derby winners to contest this race. Even Commander In Chief started at 7-4 last year and he was considered to be a below-average winner of the Blue Riband. Generous at 4-6, Nashwan at 2-9 and Shergar at 2-5 started at more typical odds for Derby winners running in the King George.

It is necessary to go back to 1962, to the 12th running of Britain's premier all-aged middle-distance event, to find betting on the Ascot race that is as open as this year. Then Val De Loir and Match III started as 9-2 joint-favourites and it was the latter that emerged the winner. In recent years only 1990, when In The Wings started the 3-1 favourite and Belmez won at 15- 2, has the race's betting had the same shape as this year's.

Yesterday, the main mover in the market was White Muzzle - 5-1 from 11-2 with William Hill - despite his owner's decision to replace John Reid on board with the Japanese champion, Yutaka Take.

Take, who arrived in Britain last night, partners the colt in a workout this morning. White Muzzle's trainer, Peter Chapple-Hyam, is attempting to secure some rides for Take at Ascot on Friday that would give him valuable experience of the track.

With the two outsiders Richard Of York and Ionio both unlikely to run unless the ground at Ascot is eased by rain, the field is likely to be slimmed to 12. The odds on the main contenders may also be trimmed and the contenders who could be regarded as overpriced at this stage are Petit Loup and Bob's Return.

The former, who is an improved performer this year having taken all four of his races, goes through his paces at Chantilly today, while Mark Tompkins reports that Bob's Return is in good heart and is unlikely to be asked to perform the front-running tactics that brought him second place, dividing Ezzoud and Erhaab, in the Eclipse.

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