Ben Linfoot takes an in-depth look at the King George taking into account pace and tactics while he tries to answer the key question: is Enable as good as she was?
It’s the 70th renewal of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes on Saturday and a potentially history-making one with Enable going for a record third win in the contest.
Frankie Dettori could equal Lester Piggott’s seven wins in the race, as well, so it could be memorable despite the negativity surrounding the small field and assumed lack of support for the race.
Prize-money is down from a total pot of £1.2million to £400,000 in this pandemic-affected season, despite the wedging of QIPCO into the race title, but moulah has not really been the attraction of British racing’s crown jewels for a while now, so that can hardly be raised as the main reason for the shallow turnout.
The truncated season and the proximity of the Derby and Oaks is another factor, but the small pool of top-class middle-distance horses being concentrated in a small number of yards takes a large portion of the blame.
Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden simply have the best in the business and, after having lost April and May’s races, it’s hardly surprising they’re not pitching a three-year-old into this.
And who can really chide connections of the beaten Derby horses like Khalifa Sat and English King for not turning up? After all, it’s a pretty large step from being beaten in a Classic to defeating a dual-Arc winner.
Likewise, the lack of an international challenger this year is hardly surprising.
In an ideal world we’d have more runners and a better race to go through, but it just sometimes works out like this and in this season, above all others, it’s most understandable.
Since 1999 there have been 14 Group One races in the UK and Ireland that have attracted just four runners, so it’s nothing new.
Some of those races were won by giants of the turf like Frankel, Sea The Stars, Kingman and Enable herself, and no wonder, as great horses do sometimes scare away the opposition.
But that’s not to say this will be a walk in the park for the daughter of Nathaniel.
In those 14 races there were 12 odds-on favourites and eight of them won, with the four defeated horses being Sapphire at 10/11 in the 2012 Pretty Polly Stakes, Camelot at 4/11 in the 2013 Tattersalls Gold Cup, Dolniya at 8/11 in the 2015 Coronation Cup and Order Of St George at 1/7 in the 2016 Irish St Leger.
With Aidan O’Brien responsible for two of those vanquished hotpots, he now gets the chance to win a four-runner Group One at the expense of a strong odds-on favourite.
Weather & Ground
A total of 10mm of irrigation has been applied to Ascot’s round course since last Sunday, with the ground described on Friday afternoon as ‘Good, Good to Firm in places’.
Rarely are things simple in BST, though, with a band of rain due above Ascot on Saturday and it’s forecast to get heavier throughout the afternoon. The course are predicting 7-8mm of the wet stuff, but who knows?
Prediction: Good, Good to Soft in places (but keep a close eye on conditions).
Pace & Tactics
The fascinating element of a four-runner Group One is trying to foresee the tactics and this looks likely to go one of two ways in the early stages; either Sovereign will lead and Frankie will tuck in just behind him, or he’ll take the bull by the horns and front run on Enable.
She has been there before, after all, and every time in small fields. In the 2017 Yorkshire Oaks she made all in a field of six, on her comeback in the 2018 September Stakes she made all in a four-runner race, and, most significantly, she made all in the 2019 Yorkshire Oaks against three rivals.
That latter race is crucial as Dettori took no chances against a couple of O’Brien-trained horses, including Magical, dictating from the front the moment the gates opened.
But it’s hard to envisage the O’Brien trio dancing to Dettori’s tune in Saturday’s King George. And given Sovereign won last year’s Irish Derby from the front, he’s the one that all logic says will go forward under William Buick this weekend.
We have to acknowledge, though, that he was held up last-time out. However, that was on his first run for a year, on his first go at 1m6f, with a regular front-runner in opposition. Back at 1m4f, it would be no surprise to see him push forward in this contest.
In that scenario I can see Dettori just sitting off the lead in second, much like he did when winning the 2019 Coral-Eclipse on Enable when he just sat off the gallop set by Ballydoyle pacemaker Hunting Horn, who teed things up for her that day very nicely indeed.
Japan has never led before, but he’s sure not to be far away. He sat just off the lead set by Circus Maximus when winning last year’s Juddmonte International and he got first run on Enable in the Eclipse last time, before she wore him down to ensure second by a cosy head.
That just leaves Anthony Van Dyck, last year’s Derby winner, who looks most likely to be held-up in last. He ran a really encouraging race in the Coronation Cup between Ghaiyyath and Stradivarius, but flopped for the second time at Ascot when running below that level in the Hardwicke Stakes.
If it’s not the track for him, it’s the ground, and the forecast rain looks very much against Oisin Murphy’s mount.
The Key Question: Is Enable as good as she was?
With a master rating of 128 and two King Georges and two Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes under her belt, at her best this would be a penalty kick for Enable.
But she’s six now, has been beaten on her last two starts and any regression opens the door for three colts that have all achieved a good, if not great, level of form on their best days.
Japan is clearly the best of the trio on his Juddmonte International win, his Arc fourth and Eclipse third, three pieces of form that could trouble Enable if she doesn’t come forward from her Sandown second.
Yet everything she did that day suggests she will improve for her first run of the season. Japan had had the benefit of a run in the Prince Of Wales’s at Royal Ascot, but she still beat him in the Eclipse, shaping as though she’ll come on enormously both fitness-wise and for the step back up in trip.
She also made up several lengths on Japan to beat him on a day when it was tough to make up any ground.
So, even if she’s not at her very best on Saturday, the feeling is she won’t be far off it. And an Enable two or three pounds off her absolute optimum should be good enough to see off these O’Brien colts.
Let’s not beat about the bush, this race hardly appeals from a betting perspective.
ENABLE at 8/15 is clearly the most likely winner and Japan at 100/30 is the one most likely to chase her home. The only bet to consider is Japan, but, while I don’t think it’ll be easy for her, I do think Enable just has too many guns for him and will get the job done.
Watching the Eclipse back it’s hard to conclude that Japan can reverse that form over two furlongs further, but it was a step forward from his Ascot run and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he improved again.
His problem is Enable looks sure to improve, too, but going back up to 1m4f could unlock a season’s best in Japan and in that scenario I’d expect him to give the favourite a real race, so much so that we could be talking about the 3lb she received from him as crucial in the final analysis.
With rain forecast, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Sovereign hold on for third after a front-running role, with Anthony Van Dyck bringing up the rear in unsuitable wet conditions.
King George Verdict
4. Anthony Van Dyck
One To Keep An Eye On – Anthony Van Dyck
That’s not to say I’m downbeat about Anthony Van Dyck’s campaign as a whole, far from it.
His run in the Coronation Cup was a major positive and he simply bumped into a very good horse in Ghaiyyath that day. It was just the second time since the Derby he’d encountered ground with ‘Firm’ in the description, though, the other being his unlucky in-running third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf - and it’s international targets like that he’s worth bearing in mind for.
He needs the ground rattling quick, so don’t dismiss him from end of year calculations if conditions do go against him again on Saturday.
Preview posted at 1510 BST on 24/07/2020
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