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Tuesday, 11 December, 2018

Nunthorpe clash could be the start of a beautiful rivalry

David Carr on a thrilling head-to-head as two stars collide on the Knavesmire

Lady Aurelia scorches home at Royal Ascot for the second year in a row
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If this doesn't get them through the gates, nothing will. What more could you ask for than an impossible-to-call, head-on clash between two superstars in Battaash and Lady Aurelia?

Coolmore Nunthorpe day has been something of a hard sell at the revamped four-day Ebor meeting, its crowd eclipsed by ladies' day and dwarfed by the turnout on the new Saturday finale.

Yet this should be the hottest ticket of all – York's equivalent of Ali taking on Frazier at Madison Square Garden, Coe racing Ovett at the 1980 Moscow Olympics or Borg staring at McEnroe across the net on Centre Court that same year.

Something has to give and we'll find out who really is invincible in what promises to be an 'I was there' battle of epic proportions.

As when Kauto Star took on Denman in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the form book does not conclusively prove which is the better, just that each is darned good.

It is not just for PR purposes that, when it appeared the ground was going to be quick at York, one bookmaker quoted odds-on that the track record would be broken. That five-furlong best of 56.16sec has lasted since Dayjur bolted up by four lengths in 1990, earning the rarely seen comment of 'very impressive' from the generally sober and serious Raceform close-up team, and few sprinters with his brilliant speed have been seen in the 27 years since.

A flying filly

Yet Lady Aurelia has looked something special since she scorched to a seven-length victory in last year's Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot. That effort caused the Raceform boys to reach for an 'impressive', as did her stunning win when she returned there for the King's Stand this summer.

This has been the American filly's aim ever since, with her ebullient trainer Wesley Ward keen to space out her races as "really great sprinters give you 120 per cent" – that might explain why she is so good!

Calm down, calm down

Battaash has taken a more scenic route to the top and created a rather different impression when running at Royal Ascot the day before Lady Aurelia last year, rearing violently in the stalls before the Windsor Castle Stakes, unseating his jockey, and finally trailing in well held.

That bull in a china shop, to quote trainer Charlie Hills, has calmed down since being gelded and turning three, unbeaten in the face of three progressively stiffer tasks this season.

He earned the Raceform 'impressive' for the way he has dismissed his rivals in two Pattern races this summer and nobody who saw him cruise through the King George Stakes at Goodwood last time will have any doubts that he is a genuinely top-drawer sprinter.

Battaash: proved that he is a topnotch sprinter in the Prix de l'Abbaye

The handicappers certainly agree as Racing Post Ratings suggest that the fast-improving Battaash's form is actually 1lb better than that of Lady Aurelia, who receives a 3lb fillies' allowance.

It's always risky to focus solely on two horses, especially in a race who has been won by 40-1 and 100-1 shots in the past seven years, but the favourites are the ones that everyone has come to see – and defeat need not necessarily be conclusive.

Frazier, Ovett and Borg all came out on top in their famous showdowns yet each was then beaten by their rival next time, while Kauto Star and Denman took turns in landing three successive Gold Cups between them.

With Battaash a gelding, and Lady Aurelia expected to stay in training next year, this could be a series rather than a one-off.

Rolling back the years

That said, neither is likely to stick around for as long as Gordon Lord Byron or High Jinx, who both ran well at this meeting in 2012 – the year of Frankel's stunning Juddmonte International victory – and keep coming back for more.

Gordon Lord Byron won the Sky Bet City of York Stakes as an improving four-year-old that season, just a few weeks before landing the Group 1 Prix de la Foret.

Seven of his rivals weren't even alive then, yet age is unlikely to be a factor as he bids to regain his crown having run to within 4lb of his Longchamp Racing Post Rating when a close third in the Phoenix Sprint Stakes at the Curragh last time on his 77th appearance. He can't be discounted.

High Jinx finished second in the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup in 2012 and was an honourable third behind Dartmouth in the Yorkshire Cup this spring.

But Willie Mullins has rather more recent Lonsdale form having won this with Max Dynamite in 2015 before sending out Wicklow Brave to finish third last year.

That suggests his Ascot Stakes winner Thomas Hobson is worth another chance after being outstayed in the Queen Alexandra Stakes four days later.

York Friday card and betting

Something has to give and we'll find out which one really is invincible in what promises to be an 'I was there' battle of epic proportions
E.W. Terms
Sky bet