Like wine, racehorses from different vintages can vary in quality, as indeed they must.
Although the public craves a superstar every year, it is simply not possible for the bar to keep going up. And after enjoying a couple of genuine equine greats – Frankel and Sea The Stars – in the past five years, backed up by a decent selection of above- average performers, we should perhaps not be disappointed or surprised that the best on offer this season have duly regressed to the mean.
To call the field for tomorrow afternoon’s King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes supermarket plonk would be insulting, but neither is it grand cru. Twelve months ago, before the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe heroine Danedream nosed out the previous year’s winner Nathaniel, seven out of the ten runners had won 14 top-level prizes worldwide.
Tomorrow, four of the eight competitors can muster just seven Group 1 victories between them. That total would, of course, have been nearly doubled had poor St Nicholas Abbey been able to take part. The life of the six-year-old, six times an elite winner, is now in double jeopardy; having come through surgery to repair the pastern shattered on Monday, he was back in the operating theatre today after suffering a colic attack during the night. The prognosis for his recovery is now, according to his Coolmore connections, “very guarded”.
Despite offering a £1m purse, the King George (currently sponsored by Betfair) has, one way or another, lost its role as the season’s automatic first elite middle-distance generation game, the showdown increasingly eschewed by three-year-olds. Over the last ten years two of the age group have won, Nathaniel in 2011 and Alamshar in 2003. Since the last Derby hero to succeed, Galileo 12 years ago, just two of that ilk have run, Kris Kin (third to Alamshar) and Workforce, fifth three years ago.
Only two three-year-olds take on their elders today. But one of them is taken to reverse the trend and bring some honour to a Classic crop already much derided. The generation’s showcase, the Derby, may not be up to standard (apart from the horse who finished last, Dawn Approach, a tip-top miler) but young horses develop at different rates – as Trading Leather, who skipped Epsom, showed when he took last month’s Irish Derby.
The older brigade present the cast of international performers that is the norm at the top level nowadays. Chief among them is the challenger from France, Cirrus Des Aigles. The admirable seven-year-old is the highest-rated horse in training and will strip fit after last month’s opener behind another of tomorrow’s runners, the German raider Novellist, but his best form has been on easy underfoot conditions.
Trading Leather (3.50) will have his fast ground and the three-year-old weight allowance, and is handled by one of the profession’s shrewdest masters at developing the animals under his care. And the last time Jim Bolger won the Ascot showpiece, in 1992, it was with a similarly upwardly mobile type, St Jovite.
Chris McGrath's nap
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