Jonathan Powell looks at the future of the St Leger
Jonathan Powell discusses the future of the geat Classic
When an unnamed horse won a long distance race without a title at Doncaster in 1776 it laid the foundations for the world’s oldest Classic.
These days the St Leger is a rock solid fixture in the calendar,the last of the five Classics which are part of the unique fabric of racing,though the identity of its sponsor in years to come is the subject of much speculation as the BHA continues its stand off from the big bookies.
Back in 1776 the race was something of a novelty, a sweepstake for threeyear-olds.
It’s name was chosen, as you might expect, at a lavish dinner party hosted by Lord Rockingham whose unnamed colt won the first running of the event.
Had the cards fallen differently that evening we might be talking about the Rockingham, but he declined the proposal that the race should be named in his honour and gave the credit to a friend Lieutenant Colonel Anthony St Leger, for suggesting the race that remains the heartbeat of Yorkshire racing to this day.
“It was St Leger’s idea. Call it after him,” he is supposed to have said.
There was a time not so long ago when the final Classic was showing distinct signs of neglect. Interest began to wane as sponsors came and went with depressing regularity.
In addition Derby winners who once travelled to Doncaster as a matter of course were held back for more tempting engagements further afield at shorter distances as the increasing emphasis on speed among those who influence the breeding industry forced many European turf authorities to open up their St Legers to older horses.
But the pattern committee stood firm, thank goodness, preferring tradition to a quick fix, and the famous old race remains in vibrant good health.The key sponsorship of Ladbrokes these past eleven years has certainly helped raise its profile but the deal ends on September 10 and you would not be wanting to take a short price about it being renewed during the current unhealthy bout of sabre rattling by Ladbrokes and the BHA over the Authorised Betting Partner Scheme.
Ladbrokes have already lost the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and are unlikely to be signing up with Doncaster again during the current stand off with the BHA whose chief executive, Nick Rust, can you believe, was previously a high-flyer at Ladbrokes! Talk about poacher turned gamekeeper.
In June,Ladbrokes showed their hand by agreeing terms with the Football Association to become a new official betting partner for the national governing body for English Football.
Early in August Ladbrokes chief executive Jim Mullen challenged British racing to bring an end to the authorised betting partner row. He was speaking from a position of strength after his company disclosed a 34 per cent growth in operating profits.
Mullen raised the stakes recently in an interview in the Racing Post as he pressed for the BHA to come to the table to resolve their differences with the big bookies who have so far failed to sign up the funding deal imposed during Nick Rust’s stewardship.
At the heart of the increasingly acrimonious dispute is just how much of their profits bookmakers should be paying to racing.
Mullen insisted: “I have a cheque book ready to sponsor racing but if I
feel unwelcome I need to look after the firm which is why some of that money was ultimately spent on the FA deal.
“I am frustrated by racing’s position on APB and think it is deepening divisions. We pay over £50 million to the sport and racecourse groups in levy, streaming and media rights.
“That dwarfs what most of the APBs are paying put together and some of them have gone to the wall, yet racing now serenades them and not us.
“We’d like this to be resolved but Lad- brokes will not be held to ransom by a sport that makes us feel unwelcome. Please can we not just get over this and resolve it?”
Much the same rhetoric has been heard from Hills, Corals, Betfred, and Paddy Power yet there is no sign of a settlement even though major new sponsors are hardly rushing to the doors of the BHA.
The impact of all this on future St Legers is hard to gauge. The race moved to its present home at Town Moor in 1778. Initially it was run over two miles but the distance is now one mile, six furlongs and 132 yards.
The St Leger is the final leg of the Triple Crown following on from the 2,000 Guineas and Derby. Fifteen horses have completed the elusive treble, the last of them being Nijinsky in 1970. He was the first to do so in 35 years,though the splendid tough Oh So Sharp achieved the fillies’ version in 1984.
More recently the hugely talented
We’d like this to be resolved but ladbrokes will not be held to ransom by a sport that makes us feel unwelcome
and wonderfully named Camelot was arguably unlucky not to complete the Triple Crown in 2012.
I was at Doncaster to witness the famous victory of Nijinsky. He appeared to win with plenty to spare with Lester Piggott anxious to give him as easy a race as possible ahead of some major autumn engagements but there was a painful price to pay.
NIjinsky subsequently lost his unbeaten record with a narrow defeat in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and then bowed out with another unexpected reverse in the Champion Stakes.
It transpired that he had suffered from a bad bout of ringworm ahead of the St Leger which hampered his preparation even though the spots on his skin had cleared up.It is entirely possible that his late summer training setback was the cause of his below par run in the Arc at Longchamp though his trainerVincent O’ Brien blamed Piggott for lying too far out of his ground in the early stages of the race. His verdict seemed overly harsh since Nijinsky briefly headed Sassafras a hundred yards from home before his rival found more where it matters most.
Classic winners are now seen at Doncaster about as often as a coal miner at midnight while User Friendly, heroine of the 1992 Oaks,was the last Classic winner to go on and prevail in the St Leger.
The all-conquering Aidan O’Brien is normally the first point of reference when it comes to searching for serious contenders in this race. Enjoying a stellar season with £5 million prize money already harvested in this country and over 3 million in Eire, he is responsible for more than a third of the entries with no fewer than 16 of his horses standing their ground.
O’Brien’s Doncaster plans will become clearer after the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York in which the Derby third Idaho holds a favourite’s chance.A year ago O’Brien looked set to plunder another St Leger with the imposing Order of St George until a late change of plan saw him switched to the Irish St Leger which he won in a canter.
The Irish trainer also triumphed with Bondi Beach at Doncaster, albeit on an objection though the result was eventually reversed on appeal.
John Gosden also has an outstanding record in the St Leger wth four wins and two placed horses in recent years so it could pay to take the hint if he relies on the progressive Muntahaa from his two entries.
In past days a whiff of scandal was never far away from the St Leger.Northern trainers and owners who resented their southern rivals regularly carrying off their top prize employed a variety of ingenious and undeniably illegal practices to give themselves an advantage.
One year ten false starts were arranged to upset the southern trained favourite and on another occasion all the water troughs were poisoned.In addition card sharps and thimble-riggers often caused riots by fighting among themselves for the best pitches.
Matters improved when the local trainer John Scott dominated the race in the 19th century with 16 victories in 35 years at a time when the best three years of their generation tended to prevail in the St Leger. Scott trained on Langton Wold near Malton while his brother William did his bit for the family by riding the winner of the race nine times.
More recently Lester Piggott was successful seven times. His final St Leger triumph was a vintage display of power and determination in 1984 on Commanche Run owned by his great friend Ivan Allan.
The wonder was that he as fit to take part after an X rated fall at Yarmouth at the end of a humdrum selling plate early in August.Piggott clung on briefly as his
saddle began to slip in the closing stages before being flung to the ground with his right foot entangled perilously in the stirrup.
It was the time of fall all rider’s dread and Piggott was dragged beneath the flailing feet of Royal Octave for fully fifty yards before he managed to break free. It was a terrifying incident but typically the jockey forbade the hospital to comment on his condition before discharging himself overnight.
The damage was much more serious than he cared to admit and there was speculation that it was could end his career. We should have known better and he duly came back much sooner than expected with a winner on September 1.
Meanwhile the American Darrel McHargue was anticipating a first Classic success on Commanche Run for Luca Cumani who retained him as stable jockey until stories began to circulate that Piggott might replace him.
As the St Leger approached Cumani declared that McHargue would keep the ride but behind the scenes Piggott was working hard on Ivan Allan and it was not the greatest surprise when the announcement came in midweek that he would be seeking his 28th Classic victory in Commanche Run.
Abruptly grounded McHargue revealed that he would be spending the afternoon playing tennis. As Piggott made his way north in steady rain on the big day he was heard to observe,“I hope this doesn’t spoil Darrel’s tennis!”
Few doubted that Piggott made the difference as Commanche Run prevailed after a thunderous duel with Baynoun and Steve Cauthen in a finish which almost stopped the clock.
A deep seem of entertaining stories embroiders the rich history of the St Leger. None is more compelling than the tale of the 1822 race when the first four were trained by James Croft who made no secret that he fancied Theodore least of all after he finished tailed off last of the quartet in a trial, and was found to be suffering badly from corns. Theodore thus started at the extraordinary odds of 1000-5 which regular punters will recognise as 2001.
No wonder.Theodore appeared to be so lame at Doncaster that his jockey John Jackson was seen to burst into tears when instructed by Croft to spur the horse forward from the start and attempt to lead all the way.
The jockey was not the only one crying at the finish after Theodore duly made all the running. Although Croft delivered the first four home Theodore’s owner Edward Petre,aware that his horse was a cripple, had sold all his bets to a friend Rodes Milnes.
Both men were said to be broke within twelve years.
We will not be getting 200-1 for our money this time but the legend of the St Leger lives on.
Nijinsky Leger win
Oh So Sharp