A race that could scarcely accommodate any fresh intrigue obtained a mildly sensational new dimension yesterday when the final declarations were made for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. As expected, the big prize at Ascot tomorrow is all about quality, not quantity. Only five runners stood their ground, including the Godolphin pacemaker. Few, however, had envisaged the possibility that one of the key protagonists might be partnered by a teenage apprentice who will not, in contesting so prestigious a prize, be permitted to use his claim.
Joseph O'Brien is to ride St Nicholas Abbey, trained at Ballydoyle by his father, Aidan. Joint-champion apprentice of Ireland last year, O'Brien Jnr has since confirmed himself an assured and precocious talent, notably with a maiden Classic success on Roderic O'Connor in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. Even so, this opportunity represents a pretty momentous vote of confidence.
O'Brien Jnr has ridden precisely one winner in Britain, in an apprentice handicap at Ayr last summer. On his last visit to Ascot, moreover, he hardly covered himself in glory on the pacemaker when So You Think was collared by Rewilding, one of his rivals tomorrow. On the other hand, he rode a very cool race from the front on Memphis Tennessee before holding out for fourth when taking his first Derby mount at Epsom. He is understood to have escorted St Nicholas Abbey in plenty of his work at home, and that has become as pertinent a qualification as any since Ballydoyle adopted its present, ad hoc solution to the vacancy created by Johnny Murtagh's departure as stable jockey at the end of last season.
John Magnier and his partners at Coolmore have sacrificed the benefits of continuity in order to grant Ryan Moore every opportunity he can take, consistently with his current obligations to Sir Michael Stoute. As such, Moore rode St Nicholas Abbey to win at both Chester and Epsom this season, only to switch now to Workforce, for Stoute. Certainly, it seems fair to assume the Ballydoyle job is Moore's for the taking, should he decide to leave Stoute. For the stable has plainly abandoned its original, professed policy of using the best available, in favour of deploying its own stalwarts – Colm O'Donoghue, Seamus Heffernan and O'Brien Jnr – as back-up to Moore.
If nothing else, however, missing out on St Nicholas Abbey would appear to reprove Heffernan and O'Donoghue against any delusions concerning their relative seniority. O'Donoghue, indeed, will watch the race from the Ascot weighing room, having been booked to come over for other mounts on the card.
But the one charge that cannot concern the close-knit Ballydoyle team is nepotism. For all that Coolmore represents very big business, none of those involved forget the pleasures of the sport itself. The empire was itself founded by a partnership between Magnier and his father-in-law, Vincent O'Brien; and many of its horses are nowadays trained by Magnier's own son-in-law, David Wachman. And it is an incontestable privilege of the Turf's biggest investors to seek an additional, personal frisson of satisfaction. Sheikh Mohammed, after all, did not hire two Emiratis to train for Godolphin – or indeed Ahmed Ajtebi to ride the pacemaker tomorrow – because they had already proved themselves as top-class operators on the world stage.
St Nicholas Abbey continues to drift among traders with the race sponsors, Betfair. Workforce was being offered at 6-4 last night, with the Irish colt out to around 11-4, and Rewilding 100-30. Nathaniel has come in to 13-2.
The meeting opens today in relatively low-key fashion, albeit Keys and Colour Vision – both ahead of the game in the John Guest Brown Jack Handicap, under a penalty for runaway wins over the past week – provide a fitting prelude to imminent, somewhat more momentous clashes between different generations. For the dust will barely have settled on tomorrow's race when the circus rolls on to Goodwood for five days of top-class racing. There were nine five-day acceptors yesterday for the Qipco Sussex Stakes, but another small field looks set to turn up on Wednesday against those Titans, Frankel and Canford Cliffs.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Point North (4.30 Ascot) Stranded by the draw on both starts since an impressive reappearance success, but berthed next to the rail here, remains progressive after a light career to date, with further rain no hindrance.
Hello Glory (2.10 Ascot) Made promising start in a hot maiden at Newmarket, keeping on nicely on to the heels of the placed horses.
One to watch
Beyond Conceit (Tom Tate) Has a top-class middle-distance pedigree, and showed abundant promise for farther when staying on powerfully for third on his debut over 7f at Redcar on Sunday.
Where the money's going
Workforce, as big as 4-1 before being confirmed an intended runner at the end of last week, is now 6-5 favourite from 6-4 with William Hill for the King George at Ascot tomorrow.