Since its inauguration in 1960, only Prominent (1971 and 1972) and Chaumiere (1985 and 1986) have managed to win back-to-back renewals of the prestigious handicap.
Since striking gold on the Knavesmire 12 months ago, the King Power Racing-owned Pivoine has done himself proud in races like the Arlington Million and the Canadian International, but returns to York to defend his crown just 2lb higher in the weights.
Balding said: “Pivoine obviously won the race last year. It’s a very difficult race to win and to win it back-to-back is probably even tougher, but we’ll give it our best shot.”
The six-year-old has not been seen in competitive action since finishing fourth on the all-weather at Chelmsford in February.
“It has been the plan for a while, to come back here,” Balding added.
“I would have liked to have got another run into him as he is a horse who seems to improve with racing, but things haven’t been right for him and at least he had a run in February – it’s not like he’s been off the track for a year.
“He’s working well and he’s got a nice draw (stall four), so we’re hoping he’ll run well.”
The Kingsclere handler has a second string to his bow in Good Birthday, who was last seen finishing down the field in the Duke of Edinburgh Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Balding said: “Good Birthday is a horse we’ve always liked, but unfortunately he is drawn out in the car park (stall 22) and he’ll need a lot of luck from there.”
Following a market move earlier in the week, the Ed Walker-trained Caradoc heads the market with some firms.
The four-times winner has run only once so far in 2020 – making late gains to finish sixth on Derby day at Epsom a fortnight ago.
“He’s in very good form and the John Smith’s Cup has been the long-term plan. We had to get a run in prior and I’m hoping Epsom will have brought him on,” said Walker.
“I thought he ran very well (at Epsom) – from where we were drawn we had no option but to drop in and I thought he came home nicely.
“We’ve got James Doyle riding and I think the trip, track and ground are all perfect for him, so we’re excited about his chances.”
Other leading contenders in a 22-strong field include Sir Michael Stoute’s Solid Stone – a winner at Sandown last time out – Roger Varian’s Fifth Position, the William Haggas-trained Desert Icon and Harrovian from John Gosden’s yard.
At bigger odds, Martyn Meade is hoping for an improved performance from Rise Hall.
He said: “He’s been a bit disappointing the last couple of runs, but we’re going to run him with a tongue-tie.
“There’s nothing wrong with him, but I think it will give him that bit of confidence. Hopefully that will help him.
“He seems to like York. It’s a bit of a cavalry charge, but on his day he’s good.”
Veteran sprinter Alpha Delphini returns to the scene of his finest hour for the John Smith’s City Walls Stakes at York on Saturday.
It will be two years in August since Bryan Smart’s charge claimed victory in a thrilling renewal of the Nunthorpe on the Knavesmire – grabbing Group One glory by a nose from the Michael Dods-trained Mabs Cross.
Alpha Delphini has only made two competitive appearances since – and has been off the track since chasing home the brilliant Battaash in the Temple Stakes at Haydock in May of last year.
The son of Captain Gerrard is very much in the twilight of his career at the age of nine, but Smart is pleased with his condition.
“He’s as well as we could expect after a long time off,” said the Sutton Bank handler.
“I’m very happy with him, he looks well and is in good form.
“We know he likes York, obviously. He deserves to have a crack at it.”
At the other end of the age scale is the Dods-trained four-year-old filly Que Amoro.
Twice a winner at York last season, the daughter of Es Que Love looked better than ever when making a successful return to action in a Listed event at Ayr last month.
Dods said: “It’s a tough-looking race, but it should be nice, fastish ground and she’s run well there, so it’s the race to go for with it being hard to find races at the minute.
“She seems in good form, so I’m sure she’ll run well.”
John Quinn’s speedball El Astronaute also has a couple of wins on the Knavesmire to his credit and is back once more after showing the fire still burns brightly on his reappearance when winning at Doncaster.
“He’s very well. I’m very happy with him, so I’m hoping for a good run,” said Quinn.
The Charlie Hills-trained Equilateral drops in class after finishing ninth in last week’s July Cup at Newmarket.
Major Jumbo (Kevin Ryan), Moss Gill (James Bethell), Al Raya (Simon and Ed Crisford), Tarboosh (Paul Midgley) and Aberama Gold (Keith Dalgleish) complete the line-up.
Just five runners are set to go to post for the Group Three John Smith’s Silver Cup.
The standard is set by Communique, who turns out nine days after finishing second when bidding for a second win in the Princess of Wales’s Stakes at Newmarket.
Mark Johnston’s charge is taken on by Eagles By Day, having his first run for David O’Meara, Moonlight Spirit (Charlie Appleby), Ranch Hand (Balding) and Universal Order (David Simcock).Get your free Racing TV fleece - the latest in our range of high-class Racing TV merchandise! Click here for more details.
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