There has been racing at York on and off since Roman times and on the Knavesmire, the expanse of common land just 20 minutes walk from the city centre, since 1731. Although nowadays the entertainment there is confined to the track, time was when an afternoon's jollification would be prefaced by a hanging. Most notably, Dick Turpin met his end at the York Tyburn in 1739.
Nowadays it is horses who must deliver, though (obviously) not while standing and more than one reputation is on the line this afternoon, the opening session of the three-day Ebor meeting. The day's Group One contest, the International Stakes, features 10 high-class runners from England, Ireland and France, including le crack, the unbeaten Bago. The Great Voltigeur Stakes is the definitive St Leger trial, with a field of 10 containing, if not a Derby winner, at least an Epsom runner-up. Add a couple of difficult handicaps, a marathon and a juvenile contest that sometimes throws up a seriously good animal, and you have a collection of gems to satisfy the most demanding of swag-collectors.
The last of the great domestic summer festivals is also the last full-scale dress (or in the case of some female patrons, almost-dressed) rehearsal for the course with the Ascot of the North soubriquet before its adoption next year of the Royal meeting. Regulars should note that new approaches are in force.
No French-trained colt has ever won an International, but then not many have tried. Since Triptych followed in the hoofprints of another talented distaffer, the dual winner Dahlia, 17 years ago, the only two to make the journey have been Fijar Tango, fourth in 1988, and Limpid, fifth 10 years later. Today Bago is joined by his compatriot and twice-victim Cacique.
A dark, rangy son of Nashwan, Bago looked a world-beater when he won the Criterium International last back end by six lengths. He was denied the chance to prove it in any Classic arena by a virus that delayed his reappearance until June, when he exploded clear in the Prix Jean Prat to beat Cacique three lengths. Next time that rival reduced the deficit to half a length in the Grand Prix de Paris, after a muddling sprint at the end of a slowly-run 10 furlongs.
Today will be unknown territory for the Niarchos family colourbearer, named after a Burmese city famous for a 2,500-year-old pagoda. It will be his first time out of France, and his first race against older horses. It is also his rider Thierry Gillet's first visit to York, and he will be trainer Jonathan Pease's first runner in Britain for nearly five years. But Pease is not averse to travelling if he thinks it might be worth it, having taken Breeders' Cup races with Tikkanen and Spinning World.
Bago will have underfoot conditions to suit. So, for the first time this year, will Sulamani. The five-year-old has posted three fine efforts this term on fast ground, the latest two of which - his narrow failure to concede 5lb to Bandari and his fast-finishing third to Godolphin stablemate Doyen in the "King George" - would put him top of the short-list even without the bonus of rain-softened turf.
Older horses have outstandingly the best recent record in the race. The only three-year-old to succeed in the past 10 years has been Giant's Causeway, and, unlike Bago and highly progressive Azamour, the other putative star among the younger generation, he came to York with his mettle already proven against his elders.
Three of four Group One wins for Sulamani (3.00) have come over 12 furlongs, but he will have the assistance of a pacemaker to make the long straight a true test and take the race to his rivals. Already a veteran of many an international battle, he can take another.
If past results are a guide, the St Leger winner will be on parade this afternoon, although not necessarily in the winner's circle after the Great Voltigeur Stakes. Eleven horses have completed the Knavesmire-Town Moor double, most recently Milan in 2001, and four other St Leger winners, Brian Boru, Bollin Eric, Mutafaweq and Silver Patriarch, have been placed here in the past seven years. Despite Derby second Rule Of Law's effort at Epsom and later at the Curragh (the third time he proved his superiority to Let The Lion Roar), the Godolphin contender's stamina may be questioned.
That of Milan's half-brother Go For Gold (2.35, nap) cannot be and he produced an eye-catching performance at Goodwood last month, staying on strongly after being hampered. That was the Ballydoyle inmate's first outing for 75 days and only the third of his life and improvement can be expected.
Godolphin field another St Leger hope in the Lonsdale Stakes in Duke Of Venice, patently unsuited by the Sussex undulations behind Go For Gold. The runaway Queen's Vase winner will be more at home on York's flat acres but faces a formidable older yardstick in one who did it at Doncaster four years ago, Millenary (1.50).
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