Sir Michael Stoute's first attempt to win the St Leger provided one of the shocks of the post-war era when the mighty Shergar, at odds of 4-9, could finish only fourth in a field of seven. Twenty years and 48 domestic Group One winners later, the longest, oldest and toughest of the Classics still eludes him. Since 1981, the Newmarket-based six-times champion trainer has sent 14 runners to Doncaster for the mile-and-three-quarter mara-thon and come back with eight placings, including runner-up spots from Hellenic, Saddler's Hall and, last year, Air Marshall.
But Stoute, always a pragmatist where his business is concerned, dismisses any notion of a jinx. Shergar's is the only defeat he allows any human error and that, relatively early in his career, his own. "I should have pulled him out on the morning of the race," he reflected. "The going had deteriorated but at that stage I didn't have the courage to say to the Aga Khan that we mustn't run in these conditions. The horse was a hot favourite and people had come to see him. But it was a mistake on my part. Among the others, though, there has been nothing I have run that I felt should have won. We simply met better ones."
The St Leger was first run in 1776, a year after the clash between British forces and the locals at Lexington, Massachusetts, that sparked the war that lost a colony. And the venerable race has now become a conspicuous casualty of another American revolution based round a different Lexington – in Kentucky.
The sweeping success of US-bred horses in Europe from the late Sixties has made the once-prized quality of stamina a dirty word in the modern bloodstock industry, and autumn targets for the perceived classiest horses have changed. Since Nijinsky's Triple Crown of 1970, only two Derby winners have picked up the St Leger gauntlet, Shergar and, successfully in 1987, Reference Point.
It has become fashionable in some quarters to mock the race as an anachronism and call for changes in its conditions but not, tellingly, among the ranks of the professionals. Stoute, wearing not only his trainer's hat but also that of a director of Cheveley Park Stud, is a fan. "I know the Irish and French have opened their St Legers to older horses but we must continue to cater for young stayers," he said. "It's difficult to criticise those breeders who go down the other road because they have to react to market forces. But there are getting to be fewer and fewer horses who truly stay a mile and a half and the clever fellows with an eye to the future will not be neglecting the stamina end of the gene pool.
"Shorter distances are currently fashionable but we don't know what might happen in the future and the pendulum may swing back and the facility of a staying championship for three-year-olds needs to be there. And the St Leger is also a wonderful spectacle." And, of course, this last is perhaps the most valid point of all.
The majority of those who go racing are unaware of the machinations of the breeding industry and what is put before them in the shop-window is what matters. And in recent years the St Leger, run over one of the fairest but most demanding courses, has come up with some inspirational goods: User Friendly's dogged defeat of the colts; Hills père et fils with Moonax and Broadway Flyer; the superlative tactics deployed by Frankie Dettori on Shantou; the late Peter Winfield's sheer delight in Silver Patriarch; Mutafaweq's courage in defeating Ramruma.
Stoute's candidate for the 225th renewal is Alexius, owned by another St Leger supporter, Sheikh Mohammed. The colt, unbeaten in just two runs, produced a remarkable performance at Goodwood in July when he powered home under Kieren Fallon after forfeiting a dozen lengths out of the stalls.
"He had a cyst cut out of his back, which is what kept him off the track," explained Stoute, "and although he's not tender on the place any more he's aware of it and is sometimes a bit cold-backed. Kieren tries to sit forward on him but he must have just caught him that day."
The underfoot conditions will dictate the final line-up but most of Britain and Ireland's major stables are set to tackle Saturday's £350,000 Group One prize. The lightly raced, progressive Alexius will be taking on some who have already acquitted themselves most creditably in top 12-furlong company, like Mr Combustible, Milan and Pugin, and some whose stamina is already proven, like And Beyond and Vinnie Roe.
Their presumed betters may fear to tread the four-and-a-half furlong Doncaster straight but for those up for it the St Leger remains, in its fourth century, a formidable, gruelling challenge.Reuse content