Racing: Theatre's triumph continues the variety season: King George: Victory restores pride for the Classic generation, but the mystery of its merits will not be solved until the season's final act

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The Independent Online
THE King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes was meant to be the race that opened the box and answered some of the season's most important questions. It should have told us whether this year's Classic crop was comparable with its forebears, and whether its leader, Erhaab, is among the vanguard of recent Derby winners.

When the lid was taken off, however, this became a Babushka doll of a problem and every answer provided on Saturday brought with it another puzzle. In defeat, Erhaab suggested his generation was poor, but the race itself was taken by a fellow three-year-old, the little vaunted King's Theatre.

Henry Cecil's colt led home a field including eight previous Group One winners, yet, between them, the first three (White Muzzle and Wagon Master completed the frame) had won just one of their previous 14 contests.

The bookmakers did not seem that impressed with the race. Coral's reaction was to offer White Muzzle at 12-1 for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and King's Theatre at 10-1, with the rider that if Balanchine, the latter's Irish Derby conqueror, had not been removed from the racecourse by illness, then she would have been 4-1 for Longchamp in October.

An exact interpretation of the race was made impossible by the presence of the runaway Ezzoud. At the start, Michael Stoute's horse leant on the inside of the stalls with Walter Swinburn, like a drunken Lee Marvin and his mount propped on the saloon exterior in Cat Balou. When the gates opened Ezzoud swerved left then right in the manner of a Five Nations three-quarter and threw his partner to the ground.

'The fall knocked the breath out of him and he felt a sharp pain in his side,' Wally Swinburn, the jockey's father, reported yesterday. 'He has bruised a rib and also his leg, where he hit the gate.' Nevertheless, Swinburn Jnr will be back in the saddle today at Lingfield.

Ezzoud's careering path across the front of the field ensured the validity of any result would be open to debate, though it has to be said that on the evidence of the paddock the best horse won.

In contrast to parade ring onlookers with sweat-patched shirts, the old equine professionals looked thoroughly composed. There was Apple Tree swishing his tail in full rotation like a helicopter blade, Bob's Return, who probably did not appreciate a sheepskin noseband on one of the hottest days of the year, and Urgent Request, who tottered around on stilt-like legs, as if he was tipsy, stilettoed nightclub-goer. There was little doubting, though, that King's Theatre looked the best of the lot.

In the maelstrom of the straight, it was Michael Kinane who again looked the best of the jockeys, weaving through to gain a second King George from two rides (Belmez four years ago was the other). Racing folk are no longer surprised by the deeds of Kinane, but Cecil was, for once, staggered by this big-race success.

On Saturday morning he had told Alec Stewart, Wagon Master's trainer, that he thought their horses should not be in the race. Cecil added that everything was against his horse, and the owners had sportingly decided to have a go, which was hardly the stuff of a man expecting to pen a victory speech. (The pens Cecil brought with him on Saturday patterned another of his gay ties, which he chooses with as much diligence as yearlings at the Keeneland Sales).

'He was terribly well but I wasn't quite sure if he was up to beating those older horses,' Cecil said yesterday. 'He was physically better, more rounded over his quarters, the best he's ever been, but I just wasn't sure he was good enough. But now I know he is.

'He was the champion staying two-year-old, he's been second in two Derbys and won the King George. He's not bad is he?'

Cecil felt the ground was not bad either, though some jockeys felt it had been overwatered and made dangerously greasy on top of a crusty hard core. 'There was no jar in it; it was perfect,' Cecil said.

King's Theatre will probably now take the natural route of the International Stakes at York followed by a break and the Irish Champion Stakes and the Arc.

By late season, the judgement on this season's Classic crop may finally be known and Cecil may once again have to change an opinion which has been wavering this weekend. 'I wasn't sure that the three-year-olds were quite up to the four-year-olds this year,' he said. 'But yesterday proved me completely wrong and turned everything upside down.'

Whether the small sample of a single, extraordinarily-conducted race is good enough is open to discussion. Another clue will be thrown on the table on Wednesday, though, in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, where Bigstone, Barathea and Sayyedati, the old stagers, come up against the new kids on the block in Mister Baileys, Grand Lodge and Distant View.

(Photograph omitted)

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