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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Final Whistle -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.