If a landmark victory in a £600,000 Classic can have a bittersweet tang, then this one did for Joseph O’Brien. A year after his agonisingly narrow defeat in the St Leger on Camelot, a reverse that denied that colt Triple Crown immortality, the young Irishman won his first edition of the oldest Classic, on Leading Light. But his immediate celebration yesterday was slightly muted. Was there any compensation to be found 12 months on? “A little,” he said. “I suppose.”
The St Leger, first run in 1776, is not only the most venerable of the Classics, but also the toughest. An extended mile and three-quarters, with a straight run-in of half a mile, is a test of staying power and resolution that takes no prisoners. Leading Light, with his stamina already proven by a two-mile success at Royal Ascot, started a well-backed 7-2 favourite and was ridden with commensurate confidence by O’Brien.
Sensing a slow pace, he sent the white-blazed bay through the field early to take station behind the pacesetting Cap O’Rushes before allowing him to stride to the front a full two furlongs from home.
The only serious challenge came from Derby third Galileo Rock, another at the sharp end for most of the way, but once fully urged by O’Brien, Leading Light asserted and strode powerfully clear through the final furlong to take the Ladbrokes-sponsored prize by a length and a quarter. The filly Talent, heroine of the Oaks, stayed on from off the pace to pinch second from Galileo Rock in the closing strides, but she was no threat to the winner. The Derby runner-up Libertarian finished fourth.
“Mine jumped a bit slow,” O’Brien said, “and I could see a couple of horses going forward and I knew we weren’t going to go much of a gallop, so I gave him a bit of a kick just to get up there.
“He’s quite lazy in his races, which is why he wears the cheekpieces. I got him going plenty early enough in the straight, but he was travelling well and responded really well when I asked. I knew if I didn’t have to get after him until a furlong and a half down he’d win.”
The son of Montjeu gave his trainer, O’Brien’s father, Aidan, his fourth St Leger, after Milan (2001), Brian Boru (2003) and Scorpion eight years ago. It was only the eighth victory in 237 runnings for Ireland and, remarkably, seven of those emerged from Ballydoyle. The first three – Ballymoss, Ragusa and Boucher – were courtesy of O’Brien Snr’s predecessor at the Co Tipperary base, the unrelated Vincent O’Brien, with Ragusa, saddled by Paddy Prendergast, the odd man out.
The progressive Leading Light, good-looking and well-bred enough to have cost his Coolmore partnership owners nearly £550,000 as a yearling, has won five of his six races, beaten only on his debut. And having proven himself a Group One performer against proven Classic yardsticks, he may be dropped back to a mile and a half in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
“He’s a very solid horse,” O’Brien Snr said, “and there is plenty of class there. Yes, the two-mile race [the Queen’s Vase] was picked as his Royal Ascot target, but before that he’d been winning over a mile and a quarter. He’s very versatile, and we will certainly be thinking about the Arc.”
The colt is around a 20-1 shot for next month’s Paris showpiece, though he would have to be supplemented. The bookmakers fancy his chances better as a top-class staying prospect, though; they offer only 5-1 against his winning next year’s Ascot Gold Cup.