Racing: King George rediscovers old dignity: Midsummer's meeting of the generations will take place without fear but with perhaps some favour. Paul Hayward on a race savoured as keenly by participants as by spectators.

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CLIVE BRITTAIN would probably struggle to spell 'fear', never mind feel it, but in the face of the most competitive King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in recent memory even User Friendly's trainer has been listening to demons. 'Last year we started out with nothing and ended up with a champion,' he says. 'This year we've started out with a champion and have to be careful we don't finish up with nothing.'

The King George has rediscovered its prestige. Nobody can accuse this year's race of being a lucrative victory lap for the Classic generation. While three of the last four winners - Nashwan, Generous and St Jovite - have been odds-on three-year-olds consolidating gains made at Epsom or The Curragh, Saturday's race draws together top-class contenders from four age groups and (possibly) four countries.

For once, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe will do well to emulate such a midsummer gathering. The King George has developed two problems since the great showdowns of the 1970s, both of which have been overcome this time. One is the belief that three- year-olds are unduly favoured by the scale of weights; the other is the growth in stature of autumn events like the Arc and Breeders' Cup. According to modern training theory (especially in France), the intensity of competition at Ascot diminishes a horse's chance of thriving in the autumn

Again and again we have seen it. Nashwan, Generous and St Jovite failed to win another race after their King George wins. Belmez, who beat Old Vic in 1990, managed to capture the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York, but was helped in that by the fact that he had missed the Derby with an injury and so was relatively fresh in July and August. The Eclipse Stakes has also suffered from the belief that horses, like MPs, require a midsummer recess to gather strength for the autumn.

'There's no question that the King George does favour the younger horses,' Brittain said yesterday, 'but having said that, we feel we've got very good prospects of winning, so we're going for it.'

Similarly combative impulses have been felt by the trainers of Drum Taps, twice the Ascot Gold Cup winner, Platini, the German champion with the French name, and Opera House, whose ascent to the premier league at the age of five supports a theory long held by Willie Carson, who will probably ride Tenby on Saturday. 'Often,' Carson says, 'people lose patience with four-year-olds when they don't appear to have trained on, but if you give them another year to mature they often come into their own at five.'

However many head rushes have been felt by trainers of older horses, the statistics still suggest that Commander In Chief, Tenby and White Muzzle are the spoilt kids of the race.

Apart from winning the last four runnings, three-year-olds have won seven of the last eight and 14 of the last 20. In the Arc, where the weight differences are smaller because the Classic generation are deemed to have matured more by October, three-year-olds have won only two of the last five (through Saumarez and Suave Dancer) and eight of the last 20.

'There's a definite feeling that in the King George the weights are set to encourage the three-year-olds to run against the older horses,' Brittain says.

There is another chilling historical footnote for backers of Opera House, Drum Taps, Platini and Environment Friend to consider. Only three horses over the age of four have won a King George: Aggressor in 1959, Park Top in 1969 and Mtoto in 1988. The fact that Saturday's race has attracted such a strong contingent of senior middle-distance runners will lessen the pressure to reduce the bias, but some sort of alteration will still be needed if the earlier trend reasserts itself over the next few seasons.

The joy of the King George was always standing in hair-bleaching sunshine while the best of countries and ages swung in coach formation into the Ascot straight. Watching a St Jovite pummel inferior elders is fine for sadists, but the Grundy- Bustino or Belmez-Old Vic encounters are really the stuff for which the bell tolls on that final bend. With User Friendly, Opera House and Platini there, the tyranny of youth could yet be overturned on Saturday.

Brittain recites the cast list as an eager spectator as much as a participant. He says: 'There's a tremendous range there. You've got the German champion, who's no mug, the winner of the Coronation Cup and Eclipse, the dual Derby winner and the horse who won the Ascot Gold Cup.' Not to mention White Muzzle, who took the Italian Derby, or User Friendly, who won last year's Oaks, Irish Oaks and St Leger before finishing runner-up in the Arc.

Brittain says User Friendly's 'prep work has been fully on song' and that her gallop yesterday was of the 'good to be alive' type. Humans at Ascot will be experiencing a similar sensation when the bell tolls on Saturday.

(Photograph omitted)