Doncaster folk restore St Leger to its former glories
The oldest Classic has been revived by the south Yorkshire town rallying round the race, writes Marcus Armytage
A crowd in the region of 30,000 will turn out for an event that is as old as America
Tomorrow, Doncaster racecourse hosts the St Leger, the fifth, the last and longest Classic of the domestic season and, like swallows gathered on telephone lines and stubble fields disappearing under the plough, a harbinger of autumn.
On paper, the oldest Classic, and my favourite Flat race because it caters for the late developing three-year-old, looks the best Leger for years.
To give you some idea of the Leger’s heritage, it was first run in 1776 when, across the pond, the American Revolution was raging. In a sporting context, that was four years before the first Derby at Epsom, about 50 years before William Webb Ellis picked up a ball, ran with it and decided, quite rightly, it was a lot more fun than football, and almost a century before the first FA Cup final.
Of course, the race has had its share of ups and downs and been in and out of fashion since Allabaculla won the first running of a contest conceived by local politician and soldier Anthony St Leger.
One of racing’s old maxims was that the “fittest horse wins the Guineas, the luckiest wins the Derby but the best wins the St Leger”.
That is outdated now, though, given how disappointing the 2,000 Guineas winner, Churchill, has been lately, and with the Derby winner, Wings of Eagles, prematurely retired, but the St Leger claim could hold true this year for the first time, arguably, since Bustino won it in 1974.
The maxim gives an indication of the esteem the race was once held in and, as the third and final leg of the Triple Crown (Guineas-derby-leger), it was hugely sought after.
The 15th and last colt to win the Triple Crown was Nijinsky in 1970. When his trainer Vincent O’brien suggested that winning at Doncaster had contributed to the horse’s defeat in the Prix de l’arc de Triomphe, it inadvertently stuck the boot in.
That coupled with the stampede, begun by O’brien’s principal patron Robert Sangster, to import fast American blood and, half a century before our current need for everything yesterday, owners started to want a return on a two-year-old rather than wait to the back end of its threeyear-old career.
Far from being prized for his stamina-laden genes, these days a Leger winner is more likely to arrive at stud having been labelled a potential sire of jumpers.
Now that the old-style owner-breeders of yesteryear who could afford to wait are all but history, it is difficult to see the Leger coming back in vogue from a breeding point of view, but you never know – wearing socks will be popular with young male racegoers again one day, so it is not impossible.
The Leger paradox is, however, that in all other respects, it is on a high and that, as much as anything, is because it has been reclaimed by the people of Doncaster, for whom tomorrow is their big day out of the year.
In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the councilowned racecourse was tired and worn out and the race struggled to attract any long-term sponsor or an audience. But the course was redeveloped in 2007 and, though it pains me to praise a bookmaker for anything, Ladbrokes took the race like a stray dog off the street, gave it a shampoo and a square meal, provided it with the comfort of stability, threw a lot at marketing it and generally reinvigorated it.
Tomorrow, when William Hill will be in the oldest Classic’s sponsor’s suite for the first time, a crowd in the region of 30,000, the vast majority from Doncaster, will turn out for an event that is as old as America. They love it and that, perhaps, is what matters most.
Star of the day: George Baker on Harbour Law after winning last year’s St Leger