I remember clearly in the autumn of 2012, arriving at Doncaster for the St Leger in the hope that there would be no headlines. No Triple Crown. Even though it had not been achieved for over 40 years, I was convinced that Camelot was not of sufficient quality to be added to the list of greats. Encke’s victory turned out itself to be controversial owing to the subsequent Al Zarooni doping cases but the triple crown needs to be won by one of the greats. Camelot wouldn’t have been. In 1970, Nijinsky most certainly was.
Nijinsky and Lester Piggott were made for each other. As a two-year-old, Nijinsky was given plenty of experience, his romp in the Dewhurst was ridiculously easy, setting him up for a high-profile Classic year. His first run at three came in Ireland and then to the Guineas where, once again he proved a class apart, Lester barely needing to move on him to dispatch his rivals.
The Derby, leg two of the triple crown, saw Piggott use his whip for the first time. Briefly, Nijinsky looked to have a race on his hands but soon Gyr, a son of the marvellous Sea Bird, and the rest were toiling and Nijinsky proved his class over a mile and a half for the first time to stunning effect.
Nijinsky proved his brilliance twice more over twelve furlongs with easy victories in the Irish Derby and the King George at Ascot, a visual delight where he cantered all over the previous year’s Derby winner Blakeney. But then a setback. Nijinsky contracted ringworm and his preparation for Doncaster was compromised.
Even so, after a change of diet which according to legend included copious amounts of Irish Stout, seeing him win the Leger never becomes a chore. Piggott with his backside pointing to the skies was never troubled, breezing to the front a long way out, easily securing the win. He was a real superstar. Such a shame he couldn't quite land the Arc and by the time he ran in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, he had completely lost his form.
But he is the standard bearer. Camelot came up short but it’s not designed to be easy. Will we ever see another one? When asked if Nijinsky was the best that Piggott had ever ridden, Lester conceded that he had "never ridden such an imposing horse, he had everything." Nijinsky's 50th Leger anniversary is next year; why not begin the celebrations a year early by taking a look back at his wonderful achievement?
Commanche Run (1984)
Another chance to see Piggott shine but this time in complete contrast to Nijinsky. Throughout his dazzling career, Piggott landed 30 British Classics. This victory aboard Commanche Run was his 28th and was to be his eighth and final St Leger wins. The following year he would win the 2000 Guineas aboard Shadeed and then his final Classic, in 1992 riding Rodrigo De Triano in the Guineas again.
I’ve picked this out because I thought it was one of Lester’s best-ever Classic rides. Just as Frankie Dettori has enjoyed one of his finest summers of his career this year aged 48, Lester had also reached that age. There was some controversy ahead of Doncaster as Commanche Run's owner Ivan Allen had insisted on stable jockey Darrell McHargue being replaced - Piggott was renowned for getting his way in an age where 'jocking off' was commonplace.
Commanche Run himself had been a bit of a slow burner making a reasonably inauspicious start to his career but following victories at Goodwood in both the Gordon and the March Stakes, headed into the autumn all guns blazing. Against him, Baynoun, unbeaten that year with a youthful Steve Cauthen aboard and both At Talaq and Alphabatim who represented the Derby form.
The betting was tight, with an initial on course drift on Commanche Run as his demeanour in the paddock was unusually flustered. In the race itself, only one of the pacemakers could lead Commanche Run and it soon became clear that Piggott would find himself in front a long way from home.
I wonder what in running players of today would have made of it all? Sure enough, for much of the home straight both horse and rider were under stress. Every time Piggott asked, Commanche Run countered. This was the day when courage and defiance was served to a Classic audience; a compelling, exhausting watch.
User Friendly (1992)
"One of the great gambles any classic has ever witnessed," roared the late John McCririck as User Friendly was heavily backed from 11/4 to 5/4 after being given the all clear to run on the morning of the race. The concern had been the fast ground at Doncaster. Eight millimetres of watering had been applied over night; not enough for Prince Khaled Abdullah who withdrew hot fancy Allegan but not only was User Friendly's owner Bill Gredley happy to let her run, he was fiercely bullish, again telling Channel 4 Racing that she was a certainty.
That she was a wonderful horse is not in doubt and she had the engaging Clive Britain guiding her career so beautifully. In full flight she was a curious horse to watch, often looking ungainly. In victory here at Doncaster she again carried her head at a jaunty angle but my goodness, she could gallop. "It’s just her way" said jockey George Duffield dismissively.
You could argue that the field against her was far from terrifying. Bonny Scot looked a danger having won the March Stakes and the Great Voltigeur at York. Beaten horses at the Knavesmire, Solnus and Assessor were back for more. John Dunlop’s progressive Rain Rider was also a threat in theory. But in reality, this was one-way traffic, as ruthless and clear cut a victory as her ebullient team could have ever wished for. Sometimes you only need one horse to make a memorable occasion and User Friendly was that horse.
The follow up decision to run in the Arc looked an easy choice, the only tinge of regret about her great career was that inexplicably, she couldn't rally past Subotica in Paris that year, with the soft ground now right back in her favour. But at Doncaster she was terrific and certainly one of the best fillies I've ever witnessed. "They don’t come any braver" opined her rider Duffield. Not many came better than her either.
Big races are always about the horse but every now and then, the human participants take centre stage and more often than not we all enjoy abundant goodwill towards those involved. I'm sure so much of the delight behind Paisley Park's success at this year’s Cheltenham Festival was down to the fact that his owner, the blind-from-birth-sports-mad enthusiast Andrew Gemill, was the horse’s owner and became a popular figure amongst both racing professionals and the public.
Eleven years ago, Sir Michael Stoute, wreathed in smiles, stood in the St Leger winners enclosure for the first time. Twenty five previous attempts had come and gone but courtesy of a tough little horse, Conduit, who himself had suffered some pretty serious reversals in his early life, Stoute could finally lift the closing Classic of the season. When foaled, Conduit was on the backfoot straight away as sadly, his mother, Well Head, died when complications set in meaning bottlefeeding and a search for a foster mother were Conduits first hurdles. Its reported too that some of the older yearlings (including Tartan Bearer) had given Conduit a hard time physically so, moved to quieter waters, Conduit started looking up.
He first came to prominence as a genuinely talented racehorse when winning on Derby day at Epsom. Later that day Tartan Bearer finished second in the Derby and, if there was to be a St Leger horse in the field, it looked to be him. Conduit continued to rise through the ranks. Unlucky at Royal Ascot, he then only scraped home in the Gordon Stakes, form that look short of the standard required for Doncaster. Ryan Moore certainly thought so. Come the St Leger, Ryan got off Conduit for the only time, preferring the chances of Dr Freemantle. And so enter Frankie Dettori.
Dettori sat well off the pace on Conduit, breezing past Irish Derby winner Frozen Fire and Oaks winner Look Here before storming clear with great relish up the middle of the track. A truly authoratitive display. What followed in terms of celebrations was fantastic with Dettori kissing and hugging Stoute at the same time as flopping the sponsors cap on his bonce. Stoute reminded me of Scrooge on Christmas morning; I’m sure he threw in a couple of jigs amongst his somewhat bewildered celebrations.
Once again though, Stoute had a serious horse on his hands and for him the St Leger was just the start. Conduit went on to enjoy two successive Breeders' Cup victories and also gave Stoute one of his great moments when leading home stablemates Tartan Bearer and Ask in the King George of 2009.
SIMPLE VERSE (2015)
Quite simply the most controversial climax to the St Leger in living memory, we can all easily recall where we were when Simple Verse and Bondi Beach had their epic set too up the famous Doncaster home straight. The race was memorable enough but the drama that unfolded at the subsequent Stewards Enquiry was equally enthralling. I’ve watched the race back several times recently and I believe now, as I did back at the time, that first-past- the- post Simple Verse should never have been demoted.
Watch for Bondi Beach under Colm O'Donoghue leaning in Simple Verse well outside the two-furlong marker. The Irish horse was just ahead of Ralph Beckett’s filly at the time, but Simple Verse was heavily impeded, and I feel that so bad was that interference that what happened afterwards was of little relevance, as long as Simple Verse held on to win. The two of them had a rare old battle, each bumping the other but in a breathless finish Andrea Atzeni and Simple Verse maintained the narrow advantage all the way to the line.
Atzeni left the weighing room with his head in his hands after the result was reversed and I for one was delighted when Simple Verse was reinstated eleven days later. For me Bondi Beach had the whole straight to go by Simple Verse, but he wasn’t good enough, nor perhaps brave enough? I’m right aren't I? It’s great to watch it again for pure undiluted drama. Let’s hope the Stewards are not required to have a say this year! Enjoy the final Classic of the season on Saturday 14th September, live on Sky Sports Racing.