The St Leger meeting opens at Doncaster today with the cruel news that Hawk Flyer, one of the market leaders for the 227th running of the eponymous Classic on Saturday, died yesterday on the Newmarket gallops.
The three-year-old shattered a pastern so badly during a routine piece of exercise that vets had no option but to speed the friendly bullet. His connections, trainer Sir Michael Stoute and owner Saeed Suhail, have already enjoyed one top colt, the Derby hero Kris Kin, this season but that will be only partial consolation for the loss of a fine young prospect.
Stoute, by some distance the season's leading trainer, will now be unrepresented in the sole home Classic not on his CV but then the race has never been his luckiest contest; his 18 runners to date have produced no better than four runner-up spots and even Shergar was beaten. Ladbrokes reacted to yesterday's sad events by hardening favourite Brian Boru to 2-1.
This week's events on Town Moor mark a definite shift of seasonal emphasis. While the advent of global warming may have to bring a revision of the old adage that winter comes in with the tail of the last horse in the Leger, the slide to autumn has begun, even if it is so far a dry, golden one. The ground at Doncaster is mostly good to firm and artificial watering is being considered.
And while the four-day meeting does not have the glamour of Ascot or York, it certainly offers variety. This afternoon, for example, racegoers can puzzle over one of the most competitive sprint handicaps of the year, the richest juvenile race of the European season and an action preplay over the St Leger course and distance.
Rather like Marmite or Fisherman's Friends, cavalry charges like the Portland Handicap can be an acquired taste. They are almost a numbers game, something of a lottery (as the fact that they are oft-sponsored and promoted by bookmakers testifies), contested by more or less the same gang from week to week with differing results. The trick, relished by some, pooh-poohed by others, is to determine whose turn it is on a given day. But as far as the Portland is concerned punters have been getting it right recently, with three winning favourites - Halmahera, Compton Banker and Astonished - in the past four years.
Consecutive winners are not common - Hello Mister (1994-95) was only the third after Shalfleet (1935-36) and Tag End (1928-29) - but Halmahera returns for another go after inching home 12 months ago. And although he has not won since he is much respected, on the basis of both his trainer Kevin Ryan's record with handicappers at the fixture and his good effort at Ripon last time out.
The likely market leader Fantasy Believer and Corridor Creeper must also go on the short-list but top of it is Baltic King (2.55, nap). This relatively lightly-raced three-year-old is still open to progress and the underfoot conditions and distance, the unusual intermediary of five and a half furlongs, should suit him well.
Michael Owen may have a pressing engagement against Liechtenstein at Old Trafford this evening but his heart, at least, will be at Doncaster where his filly Treble Heights contests the Park Hill Stakes. The race is often called the 'fillies' St Leger', rather a misnomer given that the real thing is open to females. Today's event is not even restricted to three-year-olds any more; Treble Heights was second last year.
In a field of well-bred staying distaffers all trying to boost their paddock worth with the valuable Group race (3 in this case) black type so beloved in sales catalogues she may have to settle for lesser honours again. Brian Boru's Ballydoyle stablemate L'Ancresse (3.30) will appreciate her sights being lowered after contesting five Group 1s on the bounce and although the front-running daughter of Darshaan's style will not make it easy for her up the long, daunting straight, she may just have sufficient class in hand.
The racing is not the only feature at Doncaster this week; the stabling complex adjacent to the track hosts the first domestic yearling auction of the season. The massive purse for today's £200,000 St Leger Yearling Stakes comes from its association with the sale; the race is restricted to its graduates (more than 500 unraced youngsters are catalogued this time) and the carrot of its inflated prize money has proved a fine boost to trade.
For all its artificiality, though, it is producing decent fields. Last year's edition featured subsequent top-level performers Somnus, who won, and Airwave, fourth. Several of today's contenders hold fancy engagements - Cape Fear, for instance, is in the Middle Park and Dewhurst - but today may be the day for Axis (2.20, nb), second in a hot nursery at York last time.
Two trainers traditionally worth following this week are Barry Hills, who can take the opening nursery with Asia Winds (1.45) and John Gosden, whose Cape Vincent (4.30) can put his experience to use against Dubai Destination's brother Destination Dubai in the mile maiden.
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