Racing: Ramruma can uphold a fast-fading tradition

Sue Montgomery explains why an old showpiece retains its aura
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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be good to report that the final Classic of the century forms the undisputed centrepiece of next weekend's sport. It would also, sadly, be somewhat inaccurate. Interest in Saturday's 223rd running of the St Leger at Doncaster is likely to be overshadowed by the clash between Royal Anthem and Daylami at Leopardstown earlier in the afternoon and even the appearance of the first two in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe betting, Montjeu and El Condor Pasa, at Longchamp the following day.

Even the most ardent supporters (and count me among them) of the oldest, longest and toughest Classic have to admit that its function in the grand design of the thoroughbred is not what it was. But the fact that a test over an extended mile and three-quarters does not find favour with the modern breeder should not threaten the St Leger's place or status in the calendar. As a spectacle - and watching a long-distance race unfold, and qualities such as courage and stamina, as well as class, come into play, is a delight - it is a valuable part of the unique variation of racing in this country and one that should be cherished.

It is a contest that has constantly evolved. Two-hundred years ago, when racing for horses as young as three was in its infancy as a fashion, the St Leger was emerging as one of the highlights of the Yorkshire circuit. Half a century on, with improvements in roads and transport, it had become the seasonal decider in which the best three-year-olds from the south challenged the best in the north.

By the turn of the 19th century the term "Triple Crown" had been coined; the St Leger was the Derby winner's automatic target and the last event in a recognisable progression of three which tested the merits of a generation over different courses and different distances. The 1899 St Leger winner Flying Fox was the middle one of the 15 colts who have achieved the feat, the last being Nijinsky in 1970.

Fifty years ago the St Leger was still a must-have in the portfolio of any self-respecting sire but, since the American revolution of the Sixties and the increasing (and worrying) concept that merit over 12 furlongs - let alone an extended 14 - is not so much the optimum but the limit of stamina capacity a prospective stallion should display, targets have changed.

And any owners who duck the St Leger challenge are probably rather pleased that they have an excuse that may be perceived as legitimate. The examination that the historic race offers is a difficult one to pass - horses such as Alleged and Shergar, undeniably great over middle distances, failed when faced with the demands of the uncompromising Town Moor straight - and regular calls for a different (in other words, easier) final leg to a Triple Crown are as much an acknowledgement of its toughness as a desire for the commercially driven breeding tail to wag the racing dog.

It is a rare horse in these days of increasing specialisation who can win even two English Classics; the last colt was Nashwan, cravenly pulled out of the St Leger 10 years ago and thus denied the opportunity to take his place in the sport's pantheon as the 16th Triple Crown hero; the last filly was User Friendly, who added the Doncaster race to her Oaks victory in 1992.

User Friendly, who had also won the Irish and Yorkshire Oaks, was the last Classic winner to contest the St Leger and the last filly to win it, and on Saturday another in her mould, Ramruma, will start a worthy favourite. She seems to have the necessary credentials, not the least of them determination. She may not have been at her most flamboyant when she won at York - she is notoriously lazy and had to make her own pace - but the impression was that even if she'd gone round the Knavesmire again she would not have let Ela Athena past her.

Fahd Salman's chestnut daughter of Diesis is coming to the end of a long season but her trainer Henry Cecil is a past master at holding on to fillies from spring to autumn, having done so for this race with Oh So Sharp in 1985 and so nearly with Diminuendo three years later.

Sheikh Mohammed has won four of the past five Legers with either bearers of the maroon-and-white or Godolphin blue and has a formidable squad with which to exploit any chink in Ramruma's armour. The deployment of his troops will be left until later in the week, but unlucky Goodwood loser Iscan, who will be trying to give Michael Stoute his first St Leger, must be one of the prime contenders.

Although in some quarters a win in the St Leger may be regarded as the kiss of death, this year's renewal is one of the best of recent years in terms of class, with not only the Oaks winner but her runner-up, horses placed in the Irish and French Derbys and the fifth and sixth at Epsom among the likely starters. The beneficiaries will be those of us lucky enough to be at Doncaster on Saturday.