The feature race on day one of the Ebor Festival at York is the extended 1m 2f Group 1 Juddmonte International.
Trainer Sir Michael Stoute has won this six times before and Crystal Ocean brings leading claims into this year’s renewal on Wednesday (15:35).
This five-year-old son of Sea The Stars, who won the race a decade ago, has got better and better with age.
Crystal Ocean progressed throughout 2017 and chased home Capri in the St Leger at Doncaster when held just half-a-length.
After winning the Gordon Richards at Sandown and Aston Park at Newbury in each of the last two seasons, Sir Evelyn De Rothschild’s horse scored back-to-back victories at Royal Ascot.
In the first of those, the 2018 Hardwicke Stakes, Crystal Ocean routed his rivals and went on to the King George over the same course and distance.
He was unlucky to bump into thriving stable companion Poet’s Word in that Ascot Group 1. A ding-dong battle between the Stoute pair ensued up the straight.
Crystal Ocean went down by just a neck but lost little in defeat.
He then had an impossible task when trying to give dual Arc heroine Enable 8lb in the Group 3 September Stakes at Kempton.
Crystal Ocean was far from disgraced when chasing home the mud-loving Cracksman in the Champion Stakes back at Ascot on his final start of last season.
Top rated and still clear of three-year-old trio
He landed a hat-trick when returning to Berkshire after familiar prep runs with a deserved first Group 1 success in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes during the royal meeting in June.
As Crystal Ocean handled tough conditions best, he outstayed Aidan O’Brien trained filly Magical for a 1 1/4 lengths victory.
The runner-up had won her last three going into Royal Ascot, so this was a fine effort conceding a sex allowance.
Old rival Enable proved a neck too good for Crystal Ocean last time out when back up in trip for another tilt at the King George.
He fought on bravely and was just held in the final half-furlong by a truly wonderful mare. This is easier, as Enable contests the Yorkshire Oaks against her own sex.
In her absence, bookmakers showed absolutely no hesitation in installing Crystal Ocean as favourite for the Juddmonte International.
Even considering the 7lb weight-for-age he gives away to the three-year-olds, he still comes out top on adjusted ratings.
Crystal Ocean has 2lb and upwards in hand on the field off these terms. He has been a magnificent servant to connections.
With nothing to fear from his fellow older horses, who have 7lb and more to find, Crystal Ocean gets our Juddmonte International vote this year at 6/5 with Bethard for a second success at the highest level.
King Of Comedy the pick of the youngsters
Each of the three-year-olds getting weight from their elders have questions to answer. Is this trip too sharp for Japan?
Can Circus Maximus be effective on a sounder surface? Will King Of Comedy have the stamina for an extended 10 furlongs?
The latter is trained by John Gosden and a son of top class miler Kingman. King Of Comedy is the most lightly-raced horse in the Juddmonte International this year after just five career starts.
His yard landed the spoils 12 months with Roaring Lion. King Of Comedy won his first two outings this season with plenty in hand, so connections stepped him up markedly in class for the Group 1 St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.
As King Of Comedy stayed on into second and was beaten a neck by the re-opposing Circus Maximus, the step up in trip makes for an intriguing rematch for the pair.
The winner has since seen the form of that race reversed on him by the third horse home, Too Darn Hot.
If getting the trip, he has less to find than the 2lb official ratings difference with Circus Maximus. King Of Comedy is thus an unexposed danger at 7/2 with Boylesports in the Juddmonte International.
Japan looks the classier type of the O’Brien trio after impressing in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot and following-up in the Grand Prix de Paris.
The Epsom Derby third finished about five lengths ahead of Circus Maximus in the premier Classic. A drop back down in trip is not necessarily in Japan’s favour, however.
Punters will also have to forgive his below par fourth in the Group 2 Dante Stakes over course and distance on reappearance, although he wasn’t knocked about ahead of more important targets.
Remainder must improve to take Juddmonte International
It’s 10/1 bar Crystal Ocean and the three-year-olds at the time of writing. The other older horses include course and/or distance winners Elarqam, Thundering Blueand Lord Glitters.
None of this trio are the most consistent. Elarqam has won three of his five starts for Middleham trainer Mark Johnston this season and two from three at this venue, however.
He reversed Royal Ascot form from an ultra-competitive renewal of the Listed 1m 2f Wolferton Stakes with Addeybb in the Group 2 York Stakes last time out.
Both of those races came on soft ground, however, and the forecast is good going.
Thundering Blue is another that puts his best foot forward on the Knavesmire. Trained by David Menuisier, the six-year-old grey gelding has course form figures of 1213 from last season.
He was half-a-length too good for Elarqam in the 2018 York Stakes before running a fine third in the Juddmonte International 12 months ago.
This is probably easier than last year, but a subsequent loss of form means Thundering Blue is the rank outsider and has the most to find.
As he was well-beaten by Crystal Ocean and Elarqam on his first two starts this term, Thundering Blue must roll back the years in this.
Lord Glitters, meanwhile, landed the Group 3 Strensall Stakes over 1m 1f at this meeting last year.
This other six-year-old grey gelding is trained by David O’Meara and, if turning up in the same form as when winning the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot, would have claims.
As Lord Glitters is very in and out, and hasn’t done the trip for several years, he isn’t a betting proposition here.
Japanese outsider Cheval Grand completes the Juddmonte International field of nine, but was way behind Crystal Ocean in the King George.