St Leger: Doncaster's jewel in the crown
The age-old adage goes something like this: the fastest horse wins the Guineas, the luckiest horse wins the Derby, and the best horse wins the St Leger.
Sadly, that isn’t the case in this day and age. Breeding operations place more emphasis and value on speed than the kind of stamina attributes required to win Doncaster’s historic race.
A Champion Stakes or the Arc are more likely to be on the agenda of the top 10f and 12f 3yos, rather than a tilt at the 14f Classic. So there is little chance of revisiting the days when Guineas, Derby or Oaks winners in the mould of Oh So Sharp (1985), Reference Point (1987) and User Friendly (1992) landed the spoils.
However, the Ladbrokes St Leger is still a big deal. It is still the jewel in the crown of a four-day festival ranked among the best in the country. One that will attract more than 65,000 enthusiastic racegoers to Town Moor next week and equate to a £25 million shot in the arm for the Doncaster economy.
It might have become fashionable to knock the race in some snooty quarters. But Leger Day is a day out beyond compare for the many doyens of Donny. And let’s face it, the race is still a Classic, for heaven’s sake. The oldest too, dating back to 1776, and one that still forms the last leg of a Triple Crown, as revered as it elusive.
Who can forget the fervent anticipation of four years ago when the crowds flocked to witness Camelot’s bid to become the first horse since Nijinsky way back in 1970 to land the Guineas/Derby/Leger hat-trick? And equally the burst-balloon-type deflation of Aidan O’Brien’s colt failing.
Who can forget either the high drama of just 12 months ago when the winner, Simple Verse, was controversially disqualified on the day, only to win the race back on appeal, leaving O’Brien, trainer of the runner-up-come-winner-come runner-up, Bondi Beach, with more heartache?
Oh yes, the St Leger continues to give, make no mistake about that. So what might the race have in store this time round?
Not surprisingly, it again revolves around O’Brien, the best trainer in the business. Notwithstanding his disappointments of 2012 and 2015, he has saddled four winners since 2001 when Milan strode to probably the most impressive victory I have seen of the great race. And a week on Saturday, he will send out the red-hot favourite, IDAHO, third in the Derby and winner of York’s Great Voltigeur Stakes, one of the main trials for the Doncaster showpiece.
A class act, the son of Galileo is almost sure to win if he stays the 14f trip. But his pedigree, his style of running and the patient way he is ridden instil sufficient doubts to suggest you should cast your net in search of better value.
There is still time for supplementary entries to throw a spanner in the works. But at present, Idaho’s chief rival in the market is MUNTAHAA, trained by another successful patron of the race, John Gosden, who has fielded three winners since 2006. Another not exactly bred to relish the Doncaster distance, he has made rapid improvement this term, culminating in a taking pillar-to-post triumph over 13f at Chester two weeks ago. It was only a Listed handicap, but the son of Dansili had to defy a mammoth mark of 108 against older, more seasoned rivals and also the tight turns of a track far from sure to suit such a big, long-striding colt.
Two horses who were behind Idaho at Epsom, RED VERDON and ALGOMETER, might well get closer faced with an extra 2f, and don’t rule out the favourite’s own stablemate, HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT, reversing Voltigeur placings. He is guaranteed to stay and will relish the galloping expanse of Town Moor. Similar comments apply to a third O’Brien contender, Royal Ascot winner SWORD FIGHTER, while ORMITO is no mug and VENTURA STORM would have to be considered if the ground turned on the Soft side.
It’s a head-scratcher that makes punters grateful the Leger Festival is not all about the main event. Classy, competitive racing abounds on all four days, while the Leger Legends contest on the opening day, featuring past jockeys, continues to delight the crowds and raise valuable money for racing charities in equal measure. Last year, it was won by Tony McCoy no less. This year, two more ex-champions, Richard Hughes and Joseph O’Brien, Aidan’s son, are in the line-up.
Day two on the Thursday is DFS Ladies’ Day, highlighted, appropriately, by a couple of Group races for fillies, the Park Hill Stakes, where Sir Michael Stoute’s ABINGDON will be primed to continue her progression, and the Sceptre Stakes, which has been earmarked by Charlie Hills for his lightly-raced 3yo, JADAAYIL.
The historic Doncaster Cup for stayers is the star attraction on the Friday when PALLASATOR will be a warm fancy to repeat his 2015 success. Vying for the limelight are three crack 2yo contests, including the Flying Scotsman Stakes won so spectacularly by Frankel six years ago. The 5f Flying Childers Stakes could throw up a thrilling duel between unbeaten filly MRS DANVERS and Mark Johnston’s YALTA, while the Mallard Handicap on the same day might be a target for Roger Varian’s MONOTYPE.
The supporting card on Leger Day itself includes the Champagne Stakes, one of the leading juvenile heats of the season, in which RIVET and PEACE ENVOY would be interesting, and the 7f Park Stakes, which might yield as striking a winner as last year with NEMORALIA aiming to follow in the footsteps of Limato.
I’m hoping too that there might be openings over the four days for ANOTHER TOUCH, HAGGLE, EL VIP and CARTMELL CLEAVE. If not, best of luck in finding a few winners of your own.