There is an adage that states – cynically or realistically, depending on your point of view – that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Seven weeks ago the racing world hailed as the possible second coming of Pegasus a Derby winner who took the great race by seven lengths in a record time.
Yesterday the superlatives flowed for Harbinger, who won the 60th running of the sport's great all-aged summer showpiece, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, by an even wider margin, 11 lengths, in a course record time. And that Epsom hero, Workforce, trailed in fifth of six runners as 8-11 favourite, beating only his pacemaker.
Whether or not that makes yesterday's winner Pegasus's fleeter half-brother incarnate, and worthy of being made even-money favourite for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris in early October, will be revealed only by time. But undeniably, his effort here was visually astounding, even to his trainer Sir Michael Stoute, who also has charge of Workforce and who has been in the business for more than 40 years, long enough to have worn most T-shirts. "It wasn't a shock he won," he said, "but the way he won was. You don't see that sort of performance often; it was absolutely breathtaking. You could see he was looking good from a long way out. He was always just cantering."
Harbinger was Stoute's fifth King George winner, after Shergar, Opera House, Golan and, last year, Conduit. The first-named was a brilliant three-year-old, the other four late-maturing older horses of the type with which their trainer excels.
Harbinger, a four-year-old, was the catch ride to end catch rides for Olivier Peslier after stable jockey Ryan Moore opted to stick with the colt who had given him his first Derby in such spectacular style. Peslier anchored Harbinger in fourth place as Confront dashed to the front to fulfil his trailblazing duties, followed by Workforce and his contemporary Cape Blanco, winner of the Irish Derby.
But, as the two three-year-olds, still running as if in double harness, went past the hare early in the straight, it was apparent that as far as Peslier was concerned it was a matter of when, not if, as he cruised alongside. The moment came approaching the furlong marker when he gave his mount the slap that evoked an electrifying response that left his rivals, headed by Cape Blanco, leaden-hooved.
"You cannot imagine how I felt in the last furlong when I looked up at the big screen and saw the others so far behind," he said. "I had hardly had to ask him anything, and when he did go it felt as if he was flying, and he kept flying. Today, he was a king."
Harbinger is owned by one of the up-market Highclere syndicates managed by Harry Herbert; its 20 members paid £36,500 apiece to cover purchase (£189,000 as a yearling) and training costs. The son of Dansili has proved a worthy investment; his share of yesterday's £1 million Betfair-sponsored purse was £565,000, but that is back-pocket change alongside his value as a potential stallion. Before his second career, though, he must finish his first and the Arc is the one gap on Stoute's CV. "It will certainly be considered," he said. "He has done nothing but progress this year. He has matured physically as an athlete but his great quality is his mind. He is level-headed and sensible and worries about nothing."
Cape Blanco, staying on gamely as Workforce faded, took the three-year-old bragging rights for Ballydoyle, three and a quarter lengths in front of perennial best man Youmzain, who added a third King George placing to his three Arc runner-up spots.
"He ran his heart out," said Aidan O'Brien of Cape Blanco, "never stopped trying, and he's still progressing." The chestnut may drop back in trip to the 10 furlongs of next month's York International; the stable has another of the season's best four-year-olds, Fame And Glory, reserved for the Arc.
As for Workforce, Stoute promises there will be another day. "We've never pitted him and Harbinger against each other at home," he said, "so I really didn't know which had the best chance today. Ryan said afterwards that he was a bit on edge, a bit keen, and that the ground was quick enough for him. But this was only his fourth race. He'll be back."
The caravan moves on to Goodwood this week with the next Group One pitstop Wednesday's Sussex Stakes, the season's first elite all-aged clash over a mile, with Cape Blanco's stablemate and last year's winner Rip Van Winkle set to test the mettle of the star three-year-olds, headed by the Richard Hannon-trained Canford Cliffs.
With his first outing of the campaign, a sixth place at Royal Ascot, under his girth O'Brien is relishing seeing the four-year-old square up against the younger horses. "He was a bit fresh at Ascot," he said, "but he's come on a lot since then. It's going to be an interesting race."
Before Cape Blanco emerged as leader of the three-year-old pack, hopes down Co Tipperary way were pinned on St Nicholas Abbey. Ruled out by a minor injury after failing as favourite in the 2,000 Guineas, O'Brien reported yesterday that the colt is now back in routine exercise and the faith is still kept that he may prove a champion. There is the intriguing possibility that he will remain in training as a four-year-old. Watch this space in 12 months' time.