Racing: The ultimate test of history

Sue Montgomery says racing's oldest Classic has regained its pre- eminence
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The exploits of Classic Cliche and Shantou, the last two St Leger winners, have given our most venerable of Classic races a deserved boost. Some consider the one mile, six furlongs and 132 yards contest at Doncaster, to be run for the 211th time on Saturday, an anachronism, but to others it is one of the great tests of a thoroughbred, and it seems to be sexy again.

It was more than a century ago that the St Leger became recognisably the last race in a series which tested the three-year-old generation through the season. The colt or filly who could win over a straight mile in May, a switchback mile-and-a-half in June and an extended mile-and- three-quarters in mid-September was every owner's dream, but the so-called Triple Crown was never an easy number, and it was usually the St Leger that proved the problematic leg.

The American influence, which values speed over stamina, has meant that the breeding industry has come to recognise a mile-and-a-half as not the intermediate distance over which merit should be displayed, but the absolute limit. That has not helped the St Leger's cause, but that is not the race's fault and to their credit the sport's authorities have ignored the periodic demands for a change in format.

The old adage is that the fittest horse wins the Guineas, the luckiest the Derby and the best the St Leger. And even if it does not hold wholly true today, there is certainly no hiding place up the long straight on Town Moor; its demands will expose any weakness, as even horses of the calibre of Shergar and Alleged found out. The fact that the perceived best horses often skip the St Leger during their build-up to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is an acknowledgement of its toughness.

Shantou, Classic Cliche and even their predecessor Moonax - all owned by Sheikh Mohammed, who tends not to be bound by convention - were progressive, late-maturing types who have proved smart and entertaining in their subsequent careers. This term's Classic crop has been under fire for some time, but we are in the happy position to have several in the field who may only now be reaching the peak of their powers and who promise to make cracking athletes next year.

Like Classic Cliche, the ante-post favourite, Stowaway, carries the blue silks of the Sheikh's Godolphin team. Simon Crisford, racing manager to the Dubai-based operation, said: "Even if a horse reverts to 12 furlongs I can't see anything wrong with proving he also has the toughness, stamina and class to win a St Leger. It is a most valid test, and has been throughout its history."

Stowaway will be bidding to give Frankie Dettori his third St Leger in succession, a feat achieved previously only by Bill Scott (1838-41) and Lester Piggott (1970-72). The Sheikh is on an unprecedented owners' four- timer.

A son of Slip Anchor - sire of 1992 St Leger winner User Friendly - Stowaway produced an outstanding piece of homework on the Newmarket gallops on Wednesday. Yesterday morning he looked on splendid terms with himself as he strode out in the brilliant early morning sunshine, his handsome bay head distinguished by the gleaming sheepskin noseband fitted to counteract his slightly proud, peacocky head carriage.

It would be fine reward for Pat Eddery, John Dunlop and owner Peter Winfield if their long-striding grey Silver Patriarch, reportedly a shade unfit when Stowaway beat him half-a-length in the Great Voltigeur at York last month, could win the final Classic after his narrow defeat in the Derby. The St Leger, however, is not merely a Derby consolation, but a race that imposes a different test.

Both their breeding and running style suggest that Stowaway and Silver Patriarch will cope, but one who has already successfully conquered the territory beyond 12 furlongs is the unbeaten French challenger Vertical Speed. The Andre Fabre-trained chestnut, a son of Bering, was supplemented to the race yesterday after impressing in a gallop at Saint-Cloud on Wednesday.

The St Leger is the one Classic that has so far eluded Michael Stoute, who fields another of Mohammed's squad, the classy filly Crown Of Light, third in the Oaks and Yorkshire Oaks and, as a daughter of Mtoto, likely to be suited by the trip. She may prove each-way value as Stowaway outstays Silver Patriarch and outspeeds Vertical Speed.

The focus today is at Longchamp, where last year's Arc winner Helissio has an unusual big-race prep against the specialist milers, including champion-elect Spinning World and Bijou D'Inde and Rebecca Sharp from Britain, in the Prix du Moulin.