There is a notable omission among the 10 horses declared yesterday for the second-richest race in Britain, Saturday's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. For the third year in succession, and the fourth time in seven years, there will be no three-year-old carrying the banner for his age group in what has traditionally been a showpiece confrontation between the Classic and older generations.
Four-year-old Duke of Marmalade is the hot favourite, ahead of the five-year-olds Youmzain and Ask. And the reason for the dearth of three-year-olds is probably not rocket science. The standard of older horse kept in training has risen and it now takes a special younger performer to take them on at this time of year.
The Derby winner, New Approach, might have been one, but has just resumed training after the injury that put him on the sidelines last month. The most recent three-year-old to take the Ascot 12-furlong showpiece was Alamshar five years ago, and before him Galileo in 2001. The last Derby winner to run was Kris Kin, third to Alamshar.
Of this season's other middle-distance Classic stars, Oaks heroine Look Here is on the Yorkshire Oaks and St Leger route and Derby runner-up Tartan Bearer and Irish Derby hero Frozen Fire also have Doncaster on their radar. The best of the French three-year-olds, headed by Montmartre and Zarkava, are having the customary Gallic summer holiday before building up to the Arc and other autumn targets.
In 57 running of the King George the score is 30-27 in favour of older horses, specifically 23 four-year-olds, six five-year-olds and a sole six-year-old. But proportionally, their juniors are easily better. Three-year-olds have provided a third of the runners and nearly half the winners.
The shift of power towards older, battle-hardened performers – the sort the public like to see staying in training – was fostered by the Godolphin operation and has been enthusiastically adopted by Ballydoyle. Duke Of Marmalade, already winner this year of the Prix Ganay, Tattersalls Gold Cup and Prince of Wales's Stakes, will lead Aidan O'Brien's bid for a 14th Group One prize this season. The Danehill colt would also be a third successive victor for the Coolmore ownership axis, after the four-year-olds Dylan Thomas (O'Brien) and Hurricane Run (André Fabre).
Duke Of Marmalade (whose Italian-trained namesake finished last in the race in 1976) will be trying 12 furlongs for the first time on Saturday and the one for money in recent days has been last year's runner-up, Youmzain, proven over the distance. The Mick Channon-trained son of Sinndar, also second in the Arc and Coronation Cup, shook off his "nearly horse" tag with a defeat of Duke Of Marmalade's stablemate Soldier Of Fortune in last month's Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.
Three others from Ballydoyle remain among the penultimate list of possibles for Saturday's £425,000 prize, Macarthur, Red Rock Canyon and Eclipse Stakes winner Mount Nelson. Others still in include John Gosden's charge Lucarno, the Sir Michael Stoute pair Ask and Papal Bull, the Godolphin colourbearer Literato and rank outsider Petara Bay, from Terry Mills's yard.
Literato will need ease underfoot to compete and, with mostly dry weather forecast for the week, the Ascot authorities started watering the course, which has been good to firm, good in places, yesterday.
One of the best sporting spectacles of the past week has been watching the pacemaking riders in the Tour de France bringing their squad's main man to the front in the sprint finishes. Although such blatant teamwork is frowned upon by racing's authorities, it was O'Brien's co-ordinated use of domestiques that contributed to the riveting Coronation Cup, in which Song Of Hiawatha and then Macarthur towed Soldier Of Fortune home.
Another, less edifying parallel with Le Tour – which has this year so far dismissed three riders for doping offences – came with an announcement yesterday from the British Horseracing Authority that from 2009, horses trained overseas and running in this country must be declared as not having been trained on non-therapeutic substances.
The catalyst for the move was disquiet expressed by some trainers that visiting non-European horses – particularly Australian sprinters – have benefited from steroids. "We need to make it abundantly clear that racing in Britain is fair and safe," said the BHA's Tim Morris. "There needs to be a level playing field and at the same time the welfare of the horse should be protected."