Traditionally the showpiece is where the classic generation’s middle distance stars go tete-a-tete with their older rivals for the first time, but today’s race is poorer for the absence of three-year-old competitors and, it seems, genuine aspirants to glory.
It being a Group 1 race, one thing is constant; Aidan O’Brien is well represented and, in the shape of his number one representative, Duke Of Marmalade, he handles the favourite to continue Ballydoyle’s dominance at the top level.
A well regarded son of Danehill, he suffered a setback in his two-year-old season that had a lasting effect to the point that he failed to record a single victory throughout his three-year-old campaign.
There’s been a marked turnaround in the colt’s fortunes this season however and his 2008 form reads three wins from three runs, culminating in a sleek course victory over Phoenix Tower in the Prince Of Wales’ Stakes at the Royal meeting.
The runner-up and the third placed finisher, Pipedreamer, did their bit for the form when filling the same positions behind Ballydoyle’s Mount Nelson in the Group 1 Coral Eclipse at Sandown.
In the Ascot race, Duke Of Marmalade pulled readily clear inside the last couple of furlongs indicating today’s extra quarter of a mile would induce further improvement.
The main danger is the brilliantly consistent Youmzain from the Mick Channon yard. A runner-up behind last year’s King George winner Dylan Thomas when the pair met in the Prix de l’Arc, he produced a super performance to reverse Coronation Cup form with O’Brien’s Soldier Of Fortune in last month’s Grand Prix de Saint Cloud.
That was Youmzain’s first success for almost two years but it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Often appearing unlucky, the five-year-old entire was placed in no less than five Group 1s since his only previous top level success — in the Preis von Europa at Cologne in September 2006.
Michael Stoute saddles two runners this afternoon with Ask the apparent stable selected based on jockey bookings. Ryan Moore takes the mount aboard the five-year-old but there’s nothing to suggest that he’s ready to reverse Ascot form with Duke Of Marmalade.
Fifth over an inadequate ten furlongs that day, the 2006 St Leger fourth has never won at a level above Group 3 and it seems an unlikely scenario today. He was beaten just a nose in the Grade 1 Canadian International at Woodbine last year but this is a tougher assignment and improvement is required.
The stable’s other representative is the talented but quirky Papal Bull. He finished behind Youmzain in the Coronation Cup but there may be a glimmer of hope of revenge given that it was his seasonal debut.
Last time out he finished well to take second place behind another of today’s runners, Lucarno, in the Princess Of Wales’ Stakes at Newmarket. The winner was given a canny ride from the front by Jimmy Fortune and Papal Bull didn’t look entirely happy when asked to go and chase the winner.
The stable clearly feel that Ask is their most likely hero but, on raw talent alone, Papal Bull could be the one to provide a shock.
Last year’s Derby fourth, Lucarno had Macarthur five places behind when winning the St Leger but couldn’t be guaranteed to maintain his superiority now.
Aidan O’Brien’s pair, Red Rock Canyon and Macarthur, should ensure that he is not afforded an easy lead and this trip may prove too sharp for John Gosden’s runner.
Rank outsider Petara Bay makes up the eight-strong field but, in a race that inevitably falls to the favourite, Duke Of Marmalade is expected to continue his belated rise to the top of the thoroughbred tree.