Racing: Sacrament can end Stoute's quest: Sue Montgomery sees the preparations of a horse with classic hopes in the St Leger

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NEWMARKET Heath, yesterday morning. There was still some warmth in the early sun, but there was dew underfoot and the air had a fresher feel to it than of late. The year is beginning to turn; the St Leger, the final classic, is just a week away and the three market leaders are going through their paces on the centuries-old turf of the Limekilns.

First along is Midnight Legend, a robust, round-barrelled colt, plain bay in colour. With Frankie Dettori on board, he covers seven furlongs at an easy pace, given a lead by Duke of Warsaw and Tatami. He is not asked to go past his stablemates, but looks in excellent shape.

The big-race favourite, Red Route, another bay horse you would not pick out in a crowd, completes 10 furlongs on the Round Gallop in company with Florid and Edbaysaan. Willie Ryan asks him to pick up and he does so, taking a stride or two to find a higher gear. He's not an impressive mover in his slower paces, but in full flight has a formidable stride.

Sacrament, with senior work jockey Greville Starkey on board, covers the same stretch of ground with Sadler's Image. The two horses turn and come out of the morning haze towards the work-watchers, the bright white star on Sacrament's forehead is suddenly sharply in focus. The dark bay horse is by no means small, but he is dwarfed by Sadler's Image, hardly a mug, but somehow made to look big, common and slow by Sacrament's fluid, effortless superiority. This looks a class act.

His trainer Michael Stoute likes what he sees. 'He's never impressive at home,' he said, 'but that was most satisfactory.'

Henry Cecil, trainer of Red Route, already has four St Legers to his credit, courtesy of Light Cavalry (1980), the filly Oh So Sharp (1985), Derby winner Reference Point (1987) and Michelozzo (1989). Luca Cumani, who has charge of Midnight Legend, scored with Commanche Run in 1984.

But the St Leger is the one classic that Stoute has not won. He has won the colts' and fillies' Guineas with Shadeed, Doyoun and Musical Bliss, he has taken the Derby with Shergar and Shahrastani, the Oaks with Fair Salinia and Unite, but his name is missing from the Doncaster roll of honour.

Even the mighty Shergar failed, but talk of a jinx is silly. Stoute had some narrow misses in the 1,000 Guineas, but when he had a filly good enough she won.

The St Leger, to many, is one of the greatest tests of a thoroughbred. The old adage is that the fittest horse wins the Guineas, the luckiest the Derby and ther best the St Leger. The latter may not hold wholly true in the modern era, but there is certainly no hiding place up the long straight on Town Moor; its demands will expose any weakness, as even Shergar found out.

There are periodic demands for the format of the mile-and-three-quarter race, first run in 1776, to be changed, either reducing its distance or opening it to older horses. But Stoute will have none of that. He said: 'I'm a traditionalist, and I'm all for keeping it as it is. And I think the race has answered its critics in recent years, with horses like Snurge, User Friendly and Bob's Return winning, and then going on to excel as middle-distance horses.

'As far as stallion prospects go, I think they have to be able to come back, either in the Arc, or preferably as four-year-olds, and do well over 10 or 12 furlongs. But I can't see anything wrong with also proving they have to toughness and stamina to win a St Leger. It is a most valid test for the classic generation.'

If Sacrament can win the 218th running of the historic race, the world's oldest classic, Stoute will join Cecil and Dick Hern, and Walter Swinburn will join Lester Piggott and Willie Carson as the only of today's trainers and jockeys to have won all five classics.

The progressive Sacrament, a bonny colt owned and bred by Cheveley Park Stud, was unraced last year but has won all four of his races since his fourth-placed debut in April. Unlike his two main rivals, he is untried over the distance, but his win in the Great Voltigeur Stakes last month, when he quickened decisively in the long York straight and then held his rivals, led by Ionio and Broadway Flyer, at bay showed he is not the sort to throw in the towel.

Sacrament beat Red Route back in May over 10 furlongs but yesterday Stoute was making no predictions. He said: 'Both have improved a lot since then. Saturday will show us which one has improved more.'