This has been a thoroughly ignominious year for the British crop of three-year-olds, who between them have mustered just one major Classic, and it is tempting to perceive a corresponding desperation in the team assembling for the final such prize offered on home soil.
Half the 18 horses left in the Ladbrokes St Leger at Doncaster on Saturday are trained in Ireland, no fewer than eight of those being stabled at Ballydoyle. Meanwhile Centennial's connections yesterday decided against paying the £45,000 supplementary fee and Look Here, author of that solitary Classic success at Epsom in June, has not been seen since.
Her recovery from a subsequent setback has been so precarious that her young trainer, Ralph Beckett, restored her to contention only after a make-or-break gallop at the weekend.
The only other British horse among the first five in the betting, Conduit, is trained by a man whose serial frustrations in the Leger seem to be prompting a certain, pre-emptive despondency. Sir Michael Stoute, who has saddled the runner-up five times, had the summer favourite for the race in Patkai but took him out yesterday after being dismayed by his work on Saturday. And though he still has three other candidates, he admits that Conduit's recent rehearsal at Goodwood was no better than "workmanlike"; that Doctor Fremantle has been "behind schedule" after bruising a foot; and that Warringah has yet to convince him that he is quite up to the required standard.
All in all, it is proving a devil of a job even to light the home fires, never mind to keep them burning. Certainly it would be a remarkable achievement for Beckett to win such a gruelling race with a filly whose preparations have been necessarily improvised. For some reason he declines to specify her problem, but said yesterday: "She got over it fairly quickly, and has had a clear run over the last fortnight. We're on track, and at least we haven't had a hard year, have we? I think we'll show up in good shape and she'll run her race."
Beckett concedes that Look Here is not the easiest to read at home, not being the most extravagant of workers, and perhaps that is why he was "slightly stunned" that she was able to win the Oaks so decisively. He had told her owners that they should be delighted to make the first six, but the form has worked out well and she looks the type to enjoy the extra distance. In the absence of Seb Sanders, who is nursing a broken leg, Beckett has booked Eddie Ahern – a substitute who may differ in style, but by no means in quality.
Ballydoyle has already produced three Leger winners since the turn of the decade, and Aidan O'Brien will sieve his team according to their work and conditions. The ground was like gossamer at Town Moor after the completion of last year's renovations and the going yesterday remained good to soft, soft in places. After much prevarication, it seems likely that the Irish Derby winner, Frozen Fire, will take his place, with Alessandro Volta and Washington Irving the most feasible alternatives.
The stable's priority on the day may yet prove to be earlier in the afternoon, when Rip Van Winkle is a possible runner in the Keepmoat Champagne Stakes. He already looks a Guineas colt, though his possible opponents include perhaps the most impressive maiden winner of the British summer in Zacinto. A Dansili colt trained by Stoute for Khaled Abdulla, he won by eight lengths at Sandown in July.
As for Frozen Fire, he was given a break after his success at the Curragh but has already demonstrated that he goes well fresh, having run Tartan Bearer to a photo on his reappearance at York in May. The other Irish horse, incidentally, is the only unbeaten one in the field. Unsung Heroine is trained by Tommy Stack, whose son and assistant, Fozzie, remarked: "She has been a bit unlucky in life, tried to kill herself twice. Getting her to Fairyhouse was a bit of a rush, and then it was only two weeks to Cork. It's the first time she has had the time to improve, though she probably needs to. But it's better than going to Ballinrobe, anyway."
You can see what he means, though not many neutrals would make the same choice between even the rebuilt Doncaster and pastoral Co Mayo. The way things are going, moreover, you would not bet on many British horses winning there, either.
ST LEGER (Doncaster, Saturday) Ladbrokes: 9-4 Frozen Fire, 4-1 Look Here, 5-1 Conduit, 6-1 Alessandro Volta, 8-1 Unsung Heroine, 12-1 Doctor Fremantle, Top Lock, 20-1 Washington Irving, 33-1 others.