KING GEORGE VI & QUEEN ELIZABETH STAKES

Duke Of Marmalade is toast of Ascot after brave fightback under Murtagh

Arc could be on agenda after a superb performance which landed trainer Aidan O'Brien his 14th Group One success of the season

The qualities that come togetherto make a great athlete are many and varied but in the horse, who has no concept of glory, perhaps the most pertinent is being able to compete without pain. This season, since being freed of some niggling discomfort caused by an earlier injury, Duke Of Marmalade has been a revelation and here yesterday, in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, he added another couple of strings to an already mighty bow.

On his first run over a mile and a half, the 4-6 favourite cruised to the front two furlongs out, towed there by the unremitting pace set by his stablemate Red Rock Canyon, with Johnny Murtagh exuding confidence as he strode clear.

But Papal Bull and Olivier Peslier had not read the script; they went after the leader and not only caught him but, deep into the final furlong, passed him. In his three previous top-level victories this year, Duke Of Marmalade had already established the wings on his feet. Now the four-year-old had to show courage in his heart and staminain his sinews. And, responding willingly to Murtagh's reminders that the job needed doing again, he put down his handsome head and rallied in the last six strides to win by what was, in the end, a comfortable enough half-length.

An iron Duke indeed, who was, extraordinarily, landing a 14th Group One winner of the year for his trainer, Aidan O'Brien.

The duel, shorter and sharperthan that between Grundy and Bustino or Galileo and Fantastic Light but nonetheless compelling, took the two colts nine lengths clear of last year's runner-up, Youmzain, with the gallant Red Rock Canyon fourth.

"I just can't emphasise how well this horse quickened to get to the front," said Murtagh. "He had got there so easily and strongly, so to suddenly find another alongside me was areal surprise.

"But mine has all that makes a real champion. He looked the other horse in the eye and ate ground. He has that will to win."

Duke Of Marmalade, one of the last of the Danehills, has been able properly to express histalent since it was discovered last year that a metal pin used to repaira minor fracture was compromising his movement. "He's been hard to assess," said O'Brien, "because he now finds everything very easy, and he's got a bit lazy.

"But I knew, watching, that Johnny had a bit left in the tank when the other horse went to him. He rode a masterful race and the horse must be a great one to do what he did. It takes some special horse to win a King George after being headed."

Duke Of Marmalade was the first horse to win the race on the stiff 12 furlongs here on his first try at the distance since Brigadier Gerard in 1972, in a time less than a second outside the track record.

"We didn't go out to try to slow the pace for him," said O'Brien. "We wanted to find out if he did stay, and now we know."

The colt, who was placed in six top races last year before his injury, is now one of the favourites to follow his erstwhile stablemate Dylan Thomas's example last year of taking both the King George and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. But in the immediate aftermath O'Brien did not commit to further ventures over a mile and a half.

"All options are open," he said, "but we wouldn't mind dropping back to 10 furlongs again."

Although Duke Of Marmalade's role last term was more domestique than stable star, one man has never had any doubts. Seamus Brady, one of the Ballydoyle backroom team always credited by O'Brien, rides the tall bay every morning and has been a key part of his rehabilitation. "His power and balance are a joy to experience," he said. "He always gives me the same sort of feel as Hawk Wing."

Earlier, two-year-old African Skies, fourth to Cuis Ghaire at the Royal meeting, paid a compliment to the 1,000 Guineas favourite as she broke her maidenby an efficient length from Rosabee in the Princess Margaret Independent Stakes, and will have her next chance to enhance her own Classic prospects over further, in the Group One Fillies Mile back here in September.

The daughter of Johannesburg, ridden by Neil Callan, was outstanding in the preliminaries, both in her demeanour and the rude health of her imposing physique. "I was worried, because sometimes a hardish race at Royal Ascot can send fillies the wrong way," said her trainer, Kevin Ryan. "But this one has thrived since then and though I was sweating like a pig on a day like this, she stayed cool as you like. She needs at least another furlong already and with her size and scope there's plentyof improvement to come."

There are a variety of last-minute reasons why horses do not take up their engagements, with injury and unsuitable ground being the most usual.But surely none could be more apposite than the excuse forwarded on behalf of Honey Monster in the last race. According to his trainer, yesterday morning he did not eat up.

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