Think Ascot Racecourse and it’s more than likely your mind immediately switches on an image of that great meeting in the middle of June. Royal Ascot: one of the world’s most famous, most hallowed, most prestigious occasions, five days of elite racing, huge crowds, high fashion, royalty, and celebrities.
It has 30 exceptional races, eight of them G1, and the racecourse has zealously pushed and promoted them so that they have continued to grow in value and status, and have attracted some of the best animals from around the world to what is arguably the finest race meeting anywhere.
Yet the track’s biggest race - the one that’s worth the most, the one it prizes above all others - isn’t run at Royal Ascot. The 65th running of the mile-and-a-half King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, now worth £1.25 million, takes place this Saturday, and it’s a renewal they are particularly proud of.
The King George was founded in 1951 as the ultimate clash of the generations, the chance to measure the Epsom Derby winner and the other leading 3-year-olds against the best older horses, and it was an immediate success.
Some of Europe’s greatest have triumphed, Ribot, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Dahlia, Shergar, Dancing Brave and Montjeu among them. And some of its epic battles have become legend, including the 1975 “Race of the Century” when Epsom Derby winner Grundy eventually ground down the mighty 4-year-old Bustino, and the 2001 classic when Coolmore’s outstanding Epsom hero Galileo held off the prolific Godolphin 5-year-old Fantastic Light.
More recently, however, a question mark began to hover over the race. Fewer 3-year-olds were stepping up, rarely was a Derby winner sighted. In the five years from 2004 to 2008, just two members of the classic generation took part (one in 2004 and one in 2005). No Epsom Derby winner ran in the King George at all between Kris Kin (third in 2003) and Workforce (odds-on favourite when a below-par fifth in 2010).
Was a mile and a half becoming a little too off message for a stallion prospect, especially if he had already won over that trip? Certainly many connections appeared anxious to drop their charges back to a mile and a quarter instead to show their horse had speed despite the stamina.
Then again, perhaps it was felt a run in the King George could compromise a horse’s chances of a successful campaign aimed at one or more of the big, increasingly fashionable autumn races.
Was the King George losing its lustre?
Well, if it was, it has certainly regained it now. And this weekend’s contest is the perfect illustration, with this year’s Epsom Derby winner, Golden Horn, now top of the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings - rated 2 pounds ahead of U.S. Triple Crown hero American Pharoah, staking his reputation against a stellar collection of older horses, led by the formidable Juddmonte 4-year-old Snow Sky, stunning winner of Royal Ascot’s Hardwicke Stakes over the same course and distance last month.
And this after a vintage renewal in 2014, when the filly Taghrooda, hugely impressive winner of the Epsom Oaks, accounted for a field that included the winners of the Eclipse, the Hardwicke, the Irish Derby, and the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
“The King George is in a good place right now,” said Ascot’s head of communications, Nick Smith. “With Taghrooda winning the Oaks and then coming to the King George last year, and Golden Horn coming to this race, it does feel the resurgence of its importance is well under way.”
Smith said much of the credit should go to race sponsors Qipco. “The King George is our most valuable race outside of the industry day [the end-of-season-finale British Champions Day in October] and it is our most important race. We feel incredibly protective of the King George. In Qipco over the last couple of years, we’ve found a partner who are ready to invest both financially and in terms of marketing and publicising the event and who totally understand where it should be.
“We’ve been very lucky this year and last year of course with the fields, but nevertheless we have worked together to orchestrate a campaign to have people talking about the King George in the way they always used to.”
It was not realistic to expect the Derby winner to go for the King George every season, he said. “Apart from anything else, the Derby winner may not be good enough. The point of the King George being the ultimate test for the Derby winner is only relevant when the Derby winner is of the quality of a Golden Horn. It’s not easy for a 3-year-old to win the King George and therefore it’s a brave thing to do. And, if you’ve been through a campaign that gets you to the Derby and possibly the Eclipse as well, it’s part of a busy summer.”
Smith said talk of the race’s “declining years” was misguided. “We were still seeing great horses win the race. We had the Arc winner Danedream [King George winner in 2012], plus we had Novellist coming and making it two in a row for Germany. We’ve had fascinating and great renewals, albeit when the 3-year-olds haven’t held centre stage, and that’s the nature of horse racing in the 21st century.
“But what’s happened in the last couple of years has shown that trainers, owners, breeders are definitely not averse to running in the race with a 3-year-old but that the 3-year-old simply has to be a champion.”
Smith said he believed there has been less negativity recently about the mile-and-a-half distance of the race. “That was a slight quirk that went on for a few years,” he said. “Of course, it’s important for horses to prove that they are effective over 10 furlongs. We all understand the realities of the breeding industry, but the idea that you can’t do both is dropping away slightly.”
Indeed, the King George is one of the three races for which Ascot has particularly lofty ambitions. “The King George, plus two Royal Ascot races - the Queen Anne and the Prince of Wales’s - those would be our three focus races,” he said.
“The Queen Anne [one-mile G1 for older horses] and the Prince of Wales’s [10-furlong G1 for older horses], because they stand within a great meeting which is the sum of its parts, are never going to be examined too much because if one race is not quite up to standard another race will be. But the King George stands alone. It is in its entirety what this weekend is about and for that reason we want the race to shine.”