Sir Michael Stoute is happy to let Crystal Ocean and Poet’s Word do battle for the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on Saturday.
The master of Freemason Lodge has saddled a joint-record five previous winners of the midsummer showpiece and this year’s twin assault gives him a strong chance of going ahead of Dick Hern and Saeed bin Suroor by becoming the most successful outright trainer in the race’s history.
Crystal Ocean and Poet’s Word are vying for favouritism following their respective triumphs at Royal Ascot and Stoute admits it is difficult to split the pair.
He said: “They have separate owners and it’s a logical race for both of them mid-season.
“The official handicapper has 1lb between them, so there’s not a lot between them and we don’t work them together at home.
“They’re very easy and straightforward horses. There’s nothing complex about either colt.”
Crystal Ocean claimed his third victory from as many starts this season with a dominant display in last month’s Hardwicke Stakes and returns to the highest level for the first time since he was narrowly denied Classic glory by Capri in last season’s St Leger.
Stoute said: “Crystal Ocean has won all three of his starts this year and he’s won at Ascot over the course and distance.
“We ran him in the Leger last year – the owner-breeder was very keen and liked that idea. I didn’t think he’d quite get the trip and I think he didn’t quite get the trip. He looked like the winner all the way down the straight and just ran out of petrol. He’ll never go beyond a mile and a half again.
“The ground may be fast, but actually he’s impervious to ground, so I’m not concerned about that.
“He’s entitled to go and take his chance, for sure.”
Poet’s Word already has a Group One victory to his name, having lowered the colours of Cracksman in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes.
Although that career-best performance came over a mile and a quarter, Stoute is confident his charge is just as effective over the mile and a half.
He added: “That would have been his (Poet’s Word’s) best performance to date, in the Prince of Wales’s. The second (Cracksman) may not have been at his best, but even so, the others were a long way back. It was a good performance.
“He ran very well in the Sheema Classic (over a mile and a half), too, so he is effective over that trip as well.
“He has been recording high levels of form and seems versatile in terms of distance – 10 or 12 furlongs. He has won at the track, too, and his preparation has gone well.”
Asked if he was excited by the prospect of a potentially historic win, Stoute said: “‘Excitement’ may not be the right word – I just want to get them both to Ascot on Saturday in one piece. I am looking forward to the race.
“It is a very high-level race and is always competitive. My horses have decent form and are first and second favourite. They may not finish first and second, but they are entitled to be in there.”
Aidan O’Brien believes a step back up in distance can help Hydrangea raise her game.
The Ballydoyle maestro has saddled four previous winners of the midsummer highlight in Galileo (2001), Dylan Thomas (2007), Duke Of Marmalade (2008) and Highland Reel (2016).
It is fair to say O’Brien’s hand is not as strong as in some years, with the defection of Kew Gardens a significant blow.
However, Hydrangea is already a Group One winner over the course and distance, having landed the Qipco British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes last October, and O’Brien is hopeful she can bounce back from a disappointing effort over a
mile in the Duke of Cambridge Stakes at Royal Ascot.
He said: “Hydrangea is in good form. She’s had two runs (this season) and she’s back up a mile and a half again.
“She got a mile and a half last year and maybe a mile is a bit tight for her now. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens.”
O’Brien has a second string to his bow in Rostropovich.
The son of Frankel filled the runner-up spot in the King Edward VII Stakes at the Royal meeting before going down by just half a length to Joseph O’Brien’s Latrobe in the Irish Derby.
O’Brien added: “Rostropovich is in good form. He’s a solid horse. He had a very good run in the Irish Derby, gets a mile and a half, handles quick ground and seems to be in good form since the Curragh.
“I think he has improved since stepping up in trip.”
John Gosden claimed a third King George victory within the last seven years when star filly Enable trounced her rivals 12 months ago.
The Clarehaven handler has taken out Cracksman, but can still call on high-class filly Coronet.
The Sylvester Kirk-trained Salouen got to within a head causing an almighty shock and beating Cracksman in the Coronation Cup at Epsom last month.
The four-year-old was last seen finishing third in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and Kirk is happy to shoot for Group One glory again rather than lowering his stable star’s sights.
Speaking ahead of another leg of the Qipco British Champions Series, the trainer said: “It gives the place a different feel when you’ve got a fellow like him knocking around. He gives everyone a lift and you could not wish for a horse who is more honest, genuine, consistent or easy to deal with.
“We keep aiming at the highest level and Saturday will be another big ask, but we’d rather take our chance at the top level again.
“It’s frustrating not to have got his head in front for a while, but we’d probably only end up bumping into an improver if we dropped him in grade.
“He’s consistent and if he puts his best foot forward he should again be there or thereabouts.”
Rank outsider Desert Encounter, trained by David Simcock, completes the line-up.