St leger

Jonathan Pow­ell looks at the fu­ture of the St Leger

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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.


Oh So Sharp

Ni­jin­sky Leger win

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