Two bookmakers even claimed yesterday that the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown, and not the St Leger at Doncaster, could be the main event of the weekend as far as punters are concerned. The field for the Irish race should certainly be impressive, with Swain, Xaar, One So Wonderful and Shahtoush, Group One winners all, among the expected runners.
"The St Leger hasn't been a great race for a decade and this year's is the worst I can remember," was the opinion of David Hood, William Hill's spokesman, and he twisted the knife by adding that "there is not a true Group One horse in the race".
Unfortunately, he is probably right, and the best Sanderson could offer in the Leger's defence was to call it "fascinating and competitive", a description which could apply to any good handicap. But does it really matter? The Yorkshire crowd will still pack out Town Moor on Saturday afternoon, and taken as a whole, the four-day meeting is still one of the best of the season, with a well-balanced mixture of quality and fierce competition.
This year, what is more, there is a new contest which in terms of its prize-money is as valuable as most Classics. The St Leger Yearling Stakes is one of those exclusive contests which is open solely to graduates of a particular bloodstock auction, in this case the yearling sale which takes place across the road from the course when racing stops. The owner of the first horse home will win pounds 178,500, which is a few thousand more than the connections of King Of Kings received when he won the 2,000 Guineas in May. It is a fair assumption that few if any of the 22 runners will be having an "easy" to earn a handy mark for nurseries.
Whether any more than a handful stand a serious chance of winning is another matter. The standard of the field is rather less awesome than the prize-money purse, and Flanders, Tim Easterby's prolific and talented filly, will probably start as the firm favourite. At York last time out, Flanders was third to Bint Allayl in the Lowther Stakes, form which gives her an outstanding chance today, but one slight worry is the amount of racing she has had this season. This will be her sixth start since early May, and her patience may not last forever.
A short price about her is to be avoided - there are traffic problems to consider, too - and a solid alternative is My Petal (3.10). Richard Hannon has a good record in races like this, and My Petal seems to have been brought along carefully with this contest in mind.
The Portland Handicap is the race in which almost every punter will feel obliged to have an interest, all the more so since it is the medium of today's Trifecta, the new Tote bet which is turning the Tricast into a laughing stock. It is, of course, a deeply difficult race to solve, and even the draw is of little assistance, but one runner who could go close at a big price is EPSOM CYCLONE (nap 2.35).
Barry Hills's unexposed three-year-old looked likely to figure in a big handicap when successful at the Lincoln meeting here in March. He has not run for four months, though, after a poor showing at Lingfield in May, but his absence coincided with a bleak time for his trainer. Now that the string is back to form, Epsom Cyclone is overpriced at 20-1.
Desaru (1.30) should win an interesting opener for Jeremy Noseda, although all five runners have a decent chance, while Tuning (3.40), the Ebor winner, is very hard to oppose in the Park Hill Stakes.
IRISH CHAMPION STAKES (Leopardstown, Saturday): Liam Cashman: 5-2 Swain, 4-1 One So Wonderful, Xaar, 8-1 Alborada, 12-1 Mutamam, Shahtoush, 16- 1 Make No Mistake, 20-1 Sasuru, 25-1 Tarascon, 33-1 Happy Valentine, 50- 1 Risk Material.
ST LEGER (Doncaster, Saturday): William Hill: 2-1 Nedawi, 7-2 The Glow Worm, 5-1 Sadian (from 13-2), 7-1 High And Low (from 6-1), 8-1 Star Begonia (from 13-2), Ta Lim, 9-1 Dark Moondancer (from 8-1), 9-1 Sunshine Street, 25-1 Eco Friendly, 150-1 Ardleigh Charmer (from 250-1).
Nap: Bomb Alaska