Team tactics set to come under spotlight again in King George face-off
John Gosden’s star Enable will face challenge from six horses trained by Aidan O’Brien
Enable, ridden by Frankie Dettori, wins the Darley Yorkshire Stakes in August, 2019. Photograph: Nigel French/PA Wire
Saturday’s King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes is shaping into a remarkable face-off between the two most powerful trainers in Britain and Ireland.
John Gosden’s superstar mare Enable tops eight potential contenders for Ascot’s historic midsummer highlight with her stablemate Fanny Logan the only other entry not trained by Aidan O’Brien.
Enable’s old rival Magical heads the half-dozen horses left in by Ireland’s champion trainer and could be joined by both last year’s Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck and Japan.
Whether or not some of the Ballydoyle hopefuls will be diverted to the following day’s Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh is unclear.
What isn’t is how the latest Group One highlight of a campaign unfolding in the unprecedented context of the coronavirus pandemic could end up being singularly loaded with significance.
A unique third victory in October’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is Enable’s ultimate goal but a record-breaking hat-trick in Saturday’s race is also on the cards for the mare who has been initially installed a general 10-11 favourite.
That is despite a rare defeat on her comeback effort this season when runner-up to Gahaiyyath in the Eclipse at Sandown.
However, such a rare top-flight head-to-head between the champion trainers of Britain and Ireland also means the controversial topic of team tactics may once again come under the microscope on the run-up to Saturday’s race.
O’Brien has already this season had to reject suggestion that team tactics play a role when he has large numbers of runners in big races.
Prior to the Epsom Derby – won by his 25-1 outsider Serpentine – the Irishman insisted all his horses run on their merits.
That was after some high-profile dissatisfaction on the back of Royal Ascot’s St James’s Palace Stakes when Qatar Racing’s Sheikh Fahad tweeted: “There’s no place for team tactics in racing, such a shame to watch the St James run like that.”
O’Brien wasn’t named but he was the only trainer with more than one runner in the race.
“We knew through the history books what the Ballydoyle riders were going to try and do,” Lyons said, although he added: “All is fair in love and war. It’s a big boys’ sport and you just put on your big boy pants and get out there and do the job.”
In the aftermath of Enable beating Magical in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs Gosden was clearly unhappy at how another O’Brien runner, the outsider Hunting Horn, “was attending us all the way” as the Englishman put it.
That obviously still rankled with Gosden prior to Enable’s victory in last year’s King George when he referenced the likelihood of a tactical battle.
“We’ll see what happens. I stood with a senior US racing correspondent at the Breeders’ Cup and he was aghast at Hunting Horn hunting us, harassed as it was put the other day,” he said.
On that occasion Gosden also referred to a trio of stable companions to Anthony Van Dyck as “wingmen”.
Accusations of team tactics have dogged O’Brien for years including in 2008 when both he and jockeys, Johnny Murtagh and Colm O’Donoghue, were penalised by the British Horseracing Authority after Duke Of Marmalade’s success in the Juddmonte International.
With no three-year-olds lining up, and horses such as French star Sottsass staying at home, the absence of other competition prompted widespread criticism of the race on Monday.
However there is no querying its star power as the partnership of Enable and Frankie Dettori has been a headline act for three years.
Lord Grimthorpe, racing manager to Enable’s owner, Prince Khalid Abdullah, said: “We’re very happy with Enable. Everything has been straightforward since the Eclipse and we think she’s come on for that run.”
Reacting to the entries he added: “It is what it is. These big races are not supposed to be easy to win.
“It’s not going to be a very big field obviously but there are only so many horses at that level. It’s a shame there’s no three-year-old in the race but we’re just concentrating on ourselves and Enable seems in good shape.”
Both O’Brien and Gosden are chasing a fifth win in the King George.
The Irishman last won it in 2016 with Highland Reel, while Galileo was his first King George hero in 2001. In all there have been a dozen Irish-trained winners of the race.
Gosden’s other entry, Fanny Logan, landed the Hardwicke Stakes over the King George course and distance at Royal Ascot last month. She won in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed.