A maximum of only 11 horses will line up for Britain's richest all- aged middle-distance race, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, at Ascot on Saturday. Although the field can undoubtedly justify a "small but select" tag - the Derby winner Shaamit, last year's runner- up Pentire, the Gold Cup hero Classic Cliche and Ireland's best four-year- old Oscar Schindler are among the acceptors - the fact that only two prospective runners are trained outside Britain emphasises the decline in the race's status as an international championship.
The 12-furlong race, established in 1951 and with a purse of pounds 500,000 this year, used to be perceived as equal in prestige to the great autumn decider, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. It was a multi-national contest which attracted runners from abroad (France, Italy, Germany, Ireland, the United States, Argentina, Japan, Belgium, New Zealand and Australia) as a matter of course, but lately has become little more than a domestic affair. The reason is the modern shift in emphasis from the early and middle part of the season to the end; the proliferation of rich prizes throughout the autumn, notably the Breeders' Cup series, means that connections of top-class foreign horses have become more inclined to rest them during the summer.
The first 27 runnings produced a score of Britain 13, Rest of Europe 14 (eight from France, five from Ireland and one from Italy), but since The Minstrel's victory in 1977 only one raider, St Jovite in 1992, has scored. The French used to run their best horses as a matter of course, but their last winner was Pawneese 20 years ago, and if her compatriot Swain turns out on Saturday - he will not if the ground is firm - he will be only the fourth from his country to do so in the 1990s.
The lowering of the King George's prestige is a shame because the test it provides is a fair one and it is more often than not won by the best horse in Europe. For quality in depth the Arc usually attracts the best field of the season, but for quality of winning performance racegoers at Ascot generally have best.
In the past 10 years five King George winners - Opera House, St Jovite, Generous, Nashwan and Reference Point - have achieved higher figures in the end-of-season International Classifications that the Arc winners of their year - Urban Sea, Subotica, Suave Dancer, Carroll House and Trempolino - two pairs (King's Theatre and Carnegie, Mtoto and Tony Bin) have been rated equal, and only Saumarez was judged better than his Ascot "oppo" Belmez. Lammtarra and Dancing Brave won both races.
Statistically, three-year-olds have an edge over their elders, having taken 25 of the 45 previous runnings. And of the 14 Derby winners to have competed in the year of their Classic triumph in the past quarter of a century, all but four have won, good news for the connections of Shaamit. But, unusually for an Epsom hero, he is likely not to start favourite, the last to have that dubious distinction being Snow Knight, who finished sixth to Dahlia in 1974.
If the weight of recent history favours Shaamit, one who will be trying to buck a trend is Classic Cliche. No Gold Cup winner has ever won a King George, and it is rare to even find a horse to go on from one to the other. Blakeney was second in both in 1970; 11 years before that Alcide, beaten a whisker in the stayers' race, became the only Gold Cup runner to successfully revert to the shorter distance. Sheikh Mohammed has already re-written the modern rule-books with the campaigns he plans for his horses, and it is greatly to his credit that Classic Cliche is to be given the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility.
With Michael Kinane partnering the Godolphin runner, Richard Hughes has picked up the ride on the Hardwicke Stakes winner Oscar Schindler for Kevin Prendergast. Hughes will travel to Ireland on Thursday to become acquainted with the colt.
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