Officially, the final Classic of the season and the lastl leg of the Triple Crown, the St Leger is a truly prestigious race with a long and illustrious history. Personally, though it is more than that; it is one of the first races I truly fell in love with as much for the stories that surround the race, as the race itself.
I love it because it’s the end of the Classic narrative and there is that very rare prospect of a possible Triple Crown winner. I also love that it’s a really tough test of a racehorse being over a mile and three quarters where the best horse tends to win because it’s run at Doncaster; a big, fair galloping track with a very long straight! It’s no wonder punters love it too; the last 70 runnings of the race has produced 29 winning favourites.
Though my first memory isn’t Nijinsky winning the Triple Crown, I’m not quite old enough for that, he is the first winner I was told about by members of my family and everyone else who knew anything about racing or indeed Lester Piggott. Nijinsky is to the St Leger what Red Rum is to the Grand National and what Arkle is to the Gold Cup, a Legend.
Even if you’re not old enough to remember Nijinsky’s win, we’ve all seen the footage of the tall, powerful, bay colt effortlessly striding to victory under an equally elegant Piggott. Their Triple Crown win 50 years ago truly encapsulates what’s magnificent about the St Leger.
Watch every race of the Pertemps St Leger Festival 2020 live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) from Wednesday 9th to Saturday 12th September.
SILVER PATRIARCH (1997)
My first actual memory of watching the St Leger live on TV was Silver Patriarch winning in 1997. I had been at home with my family for the summer but was about to head back up North to university for my final year and I was so glad to see this likeable grey have his day in the sun before I left.
Having gone agonisingly close to winning the Derby that year, Silver Patriarch was all the rage to land the final Classic of the season. At Epsom, John Dunlop’s thick set grey had produced an extraordinary performance under Pat Eddery, coming from last round Tattenham Corner, to almost winning and just being denied a short head by Benny the Dip, who made all.
So, in the Leger, on the home turn when Silver Patriarch lost his position and got shuffled back I was anxious Pat was going to attempt to pull off a similar ride to Epsom but I should have had more faith. In the straight Pat subtly niggled at Silver Patriarch and steadily started to wind him up, then with three furlongs to go he asked him forward but so did Olivier Peslier on the French raider Vertical Speed with The Fly giving chase.
There was definitely a moment’s doubt two out, in my mind anyhow, with the two challengers upsides but by the time they struck the final furlong marker it was game over. Silver Patriarch’s class and stamina kicked in and he glided to victory with ease, providing legendary jockey Pat Eddery with his 4,000th career success.
BOLLIN ERIC (2002)
Bollin Eric’s win in the St Leger is my first memory of the race working as a professional in the sport and it’s also my fondest. Throughout the majority of the 2002 flat season Bollin Eric had been the model of consistency being placed in each and every race he contested including the Dante, the King Edward VII Stakes and finally the Great Voltigeur, always finding one or two too good.
Those that had beaten him turned out to be subsequently very smart; a Dubai World Cup winner in Moon Ballad and a multiple Group 2 winner and fiendishly tough opponent in Bandari. So, he hadn’t had a bad season but come Leger day he was somewhat the underdog, as he faced two old rivals who had already put him in his place; Highest and Balakheri and the general consensus was that one of them would repeat the feat.
However, jockey Kevin Darley and trainer Tim Easterby had a plan. In his previous defeats, Bollin Eric had been ridden for speed, not this time. I distinctly remember Bollin Eric’s two front white stockings moving faster than any other horse’s legs, earlier than any other horse in the race. With just under four furlongs to go Kevin Darley asked Bollin Eric to go and win the St Leger. As we all know, Doncaster has one of the longest straights in the country, so this was a bold move but it produced one of the most breathtaking displays as Bollin Eric charged past Bandari and into the lead leaving all his rivals in his wake.
Yorkshiremen Darley and Easterby had pulled it off, Bollin Eric had outstayed his rivals and won the St Leger to the great satisfaction of the Doncaster crowd. It was a heartwarming win made more poignant by the sad loss of Bollin Eric’s owners passing shortly afterwards but at least they got to see their pride and joy win the world’s oldest Classic.
Ok, so Scorpion winning the St Leger wasn’t exactly one of my favourite memories of the race but I’ve included it because Frankie Dettori riding Scorpion to win the St Leger is definitely one of my most profound memories of the race. Frankie Dettori rode for the boys in blue, not dark blue but royal blue, ultimately Sheikh Mohammed. This relationship had to this point spanned a very fruitful decade, bringing with it many Classics and Group 1s globally.
Yet, here was Dettori, brazen as ever riding for Aiden O’Brien, so ultimately Coolmore, Darley and Sheikh Mohammed’s arch rivals. It’s worth pointing out here that Godolphin didn’t have a runner in the 2005 Leger, however the sight of Dettori riding for Coolmore at a time when the bloodstock giants’ rivalry was at its peak, didn’t sit comfortably with many.
During the race, Scorpion went straight to the front, Dettori dictated the pace on very testing ground. Kong chased him, but quickly folded, then Dettori hit the revs in the straight. Tawqeet had a go but that didn’t last long and Scorpion put the race to bed 2 out. The only anxious moment was when the son of Montjeu spooked at an invisible monster, sorry the rail, but then he straightened up and the final classic of the season was in the bag.
A bloodless win, or was it? It might have been an easy call for Dettori to make but events that day will have left a mark and life afterwards will have been just that little bit harder. Although Scorpion was a very well-backed favourite and plenty of racegoers were clearly delighted with the result, the mood within the inner circles of racing definitely reflected the stormy skies above. A forecast of things to come in the future. Dettori has since admitted regret for riding for Coolmore that day, though of course he still had almost another decade of Godolphin glory to come.
Seven years on from Scorpion’s win in the St Leger and Dettori was on board Michelangelo for John Gosden and Bjorn Nielsen, a sign of things to come, and Mickael Barzalona was on the sole Godolphin representative Encke trained by Mahmood Alzarooni, and that was just the sub plot! The main story of course, was the Triple Crown bid of Camelot trained by Aiden O’Brien and owned by Derrick Smith, a major shareholder in Ladbrokes, the then sponsors of the St Leger.
Working for Ladbrokes, I was very aware of just how much effort Ladbrokes had put into promoting Camelot’s Triple Crown journey. The road from the Guineas, to the Derby, and onto the Leger had been paved with fan fares, whistles and red bows and so it should have been. Camelot on pedigree and form, had a very strong chance of becoming the first horse since Nijinsky to pull it off.
Having missed one Leger day since 2002, I feel qualified to say that there was an extraordinary buzz on Town Moor on September 15th 2012. There was obviously great anticipation of Camelot’s triumph and indeed expectation as his odds were 2/5. The racecourse was all lit up in red Ladbrokes banners and press from all over the world had flocked to Doncaster to see Camelot crowned the Triple Crown winner after a 42-year wait. The stage was set for the win.
Dartford, the supposed pacemaker, had set a sedate early pace up front, whilst Camelot was at the rear. Turning for home the leader injected some pace, reacting to this Barzalona asked Encke forwards, aware of this Joseph O’Brien went for the brave route up the rail, meanwhile Dartford retreated into Camelot and this was when the nightmare really begun. Everyone was on tender hooks as they watched Encke get first run on Camelot two furlongs from home and it was pretty much all over from there. 25/1 shot Encke wasn’t for catching that day and Camelot’s Triple Crown dream was shattered.
The racecourse was subdued to say the very least. No one could quite believe what they had just seen. Aidan O’Brien was quick to congratulate Mahmood Al Zarooni as were the rest of Ballydoyle, gracious in defeat and just as gracious a year later when not challenging Encke’s win that day. A victory tarnished because Encke was trained by Mahmood Al Zarooni who had later been found guilty of doping some of the Godolphin horses in his care. No legend then, but a story within a story within an even bigger story!
From a form perspective the best St Leger has to be the 2017 renewal. Retrospectively what a belter! We had Capri, winner of the Irish Derby, Royal Ascot heroes Stradavarius and Coronet in the line-up, Gordon Stakes winner Crystal Ocean, plus Rekindling and Defoe, so even on the day it looked a strong renewal!
Though, at the time none of us had an inkling Stradivarius would become the greatest stayer of modern times, Crystal Ocean would be 2nd in an Epic King George to the greatest filly of all-time and then land a Prince Of Wales's Stakes, Rekindling would win a Melbourne Cup, Defoe would claim a Coronation Cup and Coronet would bag two Group 1s in France.
On race day, Capri was favourite to provide Aiden O’Brien with a clean sweep in all the Classics, it had been a magnificent year for the trainer already. In the race, The Anvil led and some lead it was; 12 lengths at the half way stage, but he unsurprisingly folded turning for home then the Ballydoyle big guns took over. Douglas Macarthur, Venice Beach and Capri formed a line, along with Stradivarius.
But then the four quickly became two, as only Capri and Stradivarius could live with the effects of the early pace, them and Crystal Ocean who was closing fast. It had been high octane stuff from the very start. Capri had to give his all that day to win. He ran the race of his life and never won another since. In my opinion he was a great winner of a great St Leger, never mind the defeats that followed, they won’t have any bearing on his career as a jumps sire, for if his progeny are half as tough and talented as him, then I can’t see his covering fee staying at 5,000 euros for long.