Dunlop wants to put the Leger straight

Sue Montgomery feels the oldest Classic deserves a helping hand

So little impact did the first running of the St Leger make in 1766 that the winner was not given a name until some 65 years later. By then the Doncaster showpiece had risen to championship status and a contemporary Turf historian, affronted that there should be a gap in the records of so prestigious a race, took it upon himself to dub the Marquis of Rockingham's hitherto anonymous little brown filly Allabaculia. But as the venerable contest, the oldest, longest and toughest of the Classics, enters a fourth century, there are those who would condemn it again to inconsequentiality.

So little impact did the first running of the St Leger make in 1766 that the winner was not given a name until some 65 years later. By then the Doncaster showpiece had risen to championship status and a contemporary Turf historian, affronted that there should be a gap in the records of so prestigious a race, took it upon himself to dub the Marquis of Rockingham's hitherto anonymous little brown filly Allabaculia. But as the venerable contest, the oldest, longest and toughest of the Classics, enters a fourth century, there are those who would condemn it again to inconsequentiality.

The race, run over an extended mile and three-quarters on one of the fairest, but most demanding, courses in the country, has become a victim of fashion as the breeding tail ever more wags the racing dog. Fifty years ago a must-have in the portfolio of any self-respecting stallion, it is now a liability, the most conspicuous casualty of the American bloodstock revolution of the Sixties that brought about the modern concept that merit over 12 furlongs - let alone 14-plus - should be not so much the optimum but the limit of stamina capacity a prospective sire should display.

And such views provide something of a paradox. The shifting of targets - to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, for one - means that as racehorses as well as stallions, St Leger winners are not what they were. But they are no mugs either.

It falls to few owners to possess superstars like Dubai Millennium or Montjeu and precious few would baulk at having some recent Town Moor heroes run in their colours. Mutafaweq, for instance, who triumphed a year ago, has proved an aboveaverage 12-furlong performer and further tests his credentials this afternoon against the likes of Holding Court, Daliapour and the German champion Samum in the Grosser Preis von Baden. Silver Patriarch, successful three years ago after losing the Derby by a whisker, went on to score twice more at Group One level at a mile and a half.

"People want to own and race horses like these," the latter's trainer, John Dunlop, said, "but they don't want to breed them. They've almost talked themselves into the situation too; the fashion is that good mares must be sent to a top miler. But the races everyone wants to win are the Derby, the King George, the Arc. You don't hear many people talking in the spring about the Jacques le Marois or the St James's Palace Stakes."

The last St Leger winner to achieve any credibility as a sire was 1974 winner, Bustino; before him it was Nijinsky, who earned immortality in 1970 as the last Triple Crown winner before his world-class career as a stallion. The St Leger is still there as the last in a recognisable progression of three to test the merits of a generation over different courses and different distances. But today's horse seems too much of a specialist to rise to the challenge, and since Nijinsky only two Derby winners have run at Doncaster; Shergar, defeated, and Reference Point, who won.

"It would be great if horses were versatile enough or people adventurous enough," Dunlop said, "but realistically I think another attempt on the Triple Crown is improbable. And it is sad, too, that we aren't even getting Derby winners running in the St Leger any more. But I think that stamina is very, very important in the thoroughbred. We must not lose sight of it and there must be, and remain, a proper serious staying championship for the three-year-old generation."

As a spectacle the race, where the best young stayers come together over an uncompromising course, is a delight and a valuable part of the unique variation of the sport in this country.

Saturday's 224th running will feature a progressive, apparently competitively matched collection. On paper they do not yet have the quality of the class of 1999, but that is not to say they will not achieve it. If the St Leger no longer regularly confirms Classic form it can still reveal a high-class late developer.

Dunlop has won two St Legers; Moon Madness, in 1986, preceded Silver Patriarch. His Castle Stables at Arundel will field one of the market leaders on Saturday when Millenary carries the colours of his breeder, the Welsh-born, Washington state-based canning magnate Neil Jones.

The bay, the mount of Richard Quinn, comes to Doncaster with solid credentials. On his last outing the colt stayed on strongly to catch and beat Air Marshall, subsequently winner of the Great Voltigeur Stakes, at Goodwood. Fourth-placed Give The Slip (Ebor) and sixth Talaash (in France) have also franked the form. "The form is rock hard and he finished so well I would hope the trip will not be a problem," Dunlop said. "Millenary is a light-framed horse, but he's had a break and he's a good mover and a good ride."

The only slight niggle in Dunlop's mind is that Pat Eddery, who rode both Moon Madness and Silver Patriarch and was on Millenary when he won twice earlier in the season, has opted instead for the Voltigeur third Dalampour, previously impressive at Royal Ascot.

But Millenary would be a suitable winner on two counts. He is a son of Rainbow Quest, one of the very few staminaendowed true 12-furlong performers who is given credibility at stud. And after the shabby treatment of poor Allabaculia, he could redress the nomenclature balance entirely appropriately in the year 2000.

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