07/22/2004 12:00AM

Doyen favored in King George

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Doyen, the early favorite at 5-4 (1.25-1), looms large at Ascot on Saturday in the $1.4 million King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, in which American invader Hard Buck faces the toughest test of his career.

Seven of the 11 runners in the 1 1/2-mile Group 1 race are Group 1 or Grade 1 winners, Hard Buck and ex-Kiaran McLaughlin trainee Lunar Sovereign among them, but the 4-year-old Doyen is, surprisingly, not a member of that elite group. While the King George has not been won by a non-Group 1 winner since Belmez in 1990, and not by a 4-year-old nonwinner of a Group 1 since Nasram in 1964, Doyen hardly lacks credentials.

In his last start, Doyen set an Ascot record for 1 1/2 miles when he beat High Accolade by six lengths in the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes. His time of 2:26.53 broke Stanerra's 21-year-old Hardwicke mark by 0.37 seconds and was 1.08 seconds faster than Petoski's 1985 King George record.

Doyen, second and fourth last year behind Dalakhani in the Prix Niel and the Arc when trained by Andre Fabre, debuted for Godolphin this season with an unlucky second to Warrsan in the Coronation Cup. Frankie Dettori, in search of his fourth King George crown following those of Lammtarra, Swain, and Daylami, has the ride.

Warrsan and High Accolade renew their rivalry with Doyen, who will carry Godolphin's blue colors along with Lunar Sovereign and last year's runner-up, Sulamani.

A greater threat is Vallee Enchantee. The winner of last December's Hong Kong Vase, Vallee Enchantee was unfortunate when third in the Coronation Cup, just a nose behind Doyen. Olivier Peslier has the ride aboard Vallee Enchantee, an Elie Lellouche-trained filly who is the value play at 4-1. Gamut, recent winner of the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, is on the improve for Michael Stoute, but Bandari, a multiple Group 2 winner at the King George distance, appears out of his depth.

The same can be said of Hard Buck, whose best effort when second to Polish Summer in the Dubai Sheema Classic marked him as a European Group 2 type. Ken McPeek will give Gary Stevens a leg up, but Hard Buck, a Brazilian-bred 5-year-old, will do well to make the first six.