Ask your average racing fan to name the oldest English Classic and there’s a very good chance they will come up with the right answer, the St Leger; they might even tell you the year it was first run, 1776. Then ask them to name you three or four winners from the past 20 years and it’s a fair bet the only sound you will hear is that of a head being scratched.
This is not to suggest the Ladbrokes St Leger has become a second-rate Classic. One only has to glance down the list of recent winners to appreciate how highly the race is valued by such as Godolphin, Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden, all multiple winners.
And those powerful stables are again strongly represented today: Godolphin three-handed with Libertarian, Secret Number and Cap O’Rushes; O’Brien with Leading Light and Foundry; and Gosden with Excess Knowledge, who is likely to go off favourite to become the Newmarket trainer’s fourth St Leger winner in seven years.
But these horses are hardly household names. We have to go back to the mid-1980s to find winners who had already captured the public’s imagination, like Oh So Sharp and Reference Point, and further back still, to 1970, to find Nijinsky, the last winner of the Triple Crown (2000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger).
Last year O’Brien’s Camelot tried, and failed gallantly, to match Nijinsky’s mighty achievement; but Triple Crown bids are now few and far between and today we are back to a more typical line-up of horses who either just missed out in the mid-summer Classics (Galileo Rock and Libertarian) or those operating below the radar for most of their careers, just coming into their own now tackling longer distances. Plus, most refreshingly, the shock Oaks winner Talent, is flying the flag for the fillies.
Excess Knowledge is a very strong contender in the “under the radar” category and is now a big dot on the screen, not just because he is Gosden’s choice, but also because punters are always drawn to horses who were unlucky in running on their previous outing, as he appeared to be at Glorious Goodwood.
Gosden, confident this extended mile and three quarters will suit, feels Excess Knowledge is the ideal type for the race, but that Goodwood race was a muddling affair throughout and it might be unwise to assume what would have happened given the sort of end-to-end pace more likely to be produced this afternoon. Even Andrew Balding’s Havana Beat, last that day, may be a very different proposition this time.
There’s an old saying that Classic form is the most reliable, but there is dwindling confidence behind Galileo Rock, placed in both the English and Irish Derbies, with rain getting into the Town Moor turf, while Libertarian, who joined Godolphin after finishing runner-up at Epsom, has questions to answer after flopping subsequently at the Curragh. Racing manager Simon Crisford certainly did not give the impression earlier this week that a return to top form from Libertarian was anticipated when he nominated Cap O’Rushes as Godolphin’s “most interesting of our three contenders – at the price [around 20-1]” .
Talent has also run poorly since winning the Oaks, but connections believe she might have another surprise up her sleeve now back on easier ground, although she has not enjoyed an ideal preparation. If she can win, she will be the first filly to land the St Leger since User Friendly in 1992.
The Ladbrokes St Leger is part of the QIPCO British Champions Series. For more information go to britishchampionsseries.com