The St. Leger Stakes, run over 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 132 yards at Doncaster's Town Moor racecourse in the North of England, is Britain's oldest classic. First run in 1776 at another location in the town, it was cancelled in 1939 due to World War II, and has been run at Ayr, Manchester, Newmarket, Thirsk and York on occasions due to the exigencies of the times.
Fortunately, no such issue is anticipated this year and 11 three-year-olds – 10 colts and a solitary filly – will line up at the start for the £600,000 event, due to get under way at 3:50 p.m. on Saturday, September 14th. The going, good to soft at the time of writing, could well ease a bit if some of the promised showers in the region materialize over the track.
The race bears an open look, with a trio of colts almost equally fancied, namely Galileo Rock (by Galileo) and Excess Knowledge (by Monsun) both quoted at 7 to 2, and Leading Light (by Montjeu) not far behind this pair at 9 to 2.
Trained in Co. Tipperary, Ireland, by David Wachman, Galileo Rock is the "form horse", given that he followed his third-placed performance in the Investec-sponsored Epsom Derby in June with a runner-up effort in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby later the same month. As usual, Wayne Lordan will be on board the colt and connections will be hoping to take the prize over to Ireland for the first time since Scorpion won in 2005.
While the lack of a recent run is against his chances, his trainer is confident enough: "Galileo Rock seems well and we are happy with him. He has run well in two Derbys and is very much entitled to take his chance on Saturday. His three-parts brother, Saddler's Rock, stays well and hopefully he does too. Good ground will be fine though fast going would be better. Wayne Lordan, who is a top-class jockey, will ride Galileo Rock again. The horses are running well." Four winners in the last week or so bear out his assertion.
The notable feat of saddling three winners of this race in the past six years makes John Gosden, the master of Clarehaven, the man to watch. It would be fair to say his runners have a distinct edge in their preparation. He was scheduled to field a pair of runners, namely Gordon Stakes runner-up, Excess Knowledge and Feel Like Dancing (by Galileo), but the latter has not been declared. Beaten in a photo last time out over a mile and a half, Excess Knowledge ought to improve for the added distance. With his owner-breeder Juddmonte Farms having recently retained James Doyle, that rider will replace William Buick in the saddle.
Gosden offered the following comments: "The Ladbrokes St Leger is fantastic race, with a great track and a great crowd. It is probably the best galloping track in Europe. Excess Knowledge will be ridden by James Doyle. He was making a nice run down the outside in the Gordon Stakes and there was horse wandering around in front of him every time we made a move. He flew at the finish but was just beaten. That is racing. I like him and, bred the way he is, the distance of a mile, six and a half furlongs should be within his compass. Good ground will be fair for everybody, but [he] will be appreciate any rain that comes."
Say the word "classic" and you can be sure Aidan O'Brien has a runner or two targeted for the event. Milan (2001), Brian Boru (2003) and Scorpion (2005) all came over from Ballydoyle to land the spoils in this race and in 2013 the Irish champion trainer is double-handed. His principal hope is Leading Light, undefeated in 2013 from three starts, which include a pair of Group 3 events, the Airlie Stud Gallinule Stakes and the Queen's Vase (in memory of Sir Henry Cecil). The Montjeu colt is a proven stayer and should go close, although, like Galileo Rock, he has been away from the racing wars for three months. Joseph O'Brien, who will be aboard, has yet to lose a race on him.
The other O'Brien runner is the lightly-raced Foundry (also by Galileo), who occupied second spot in the usually informative trial, the Neptune Investment Management Great Voltigeur Stakes, at York. As he was making a belated seasonal reappearance on that occasion, he may be expected to show improvement here. He is a 6 to 1 chance, with Ryan Moore at the controls.
"We were delighted with Foundry's run last time in the Great Voltigeur at York. That was his first run of the season and he was still running for experience, so we were delighted with how forward he was. He has had three weeks since York and is in good form. You would hope that the extra trip at Doncaster will be within his compass. He is a big, long-striding, good-moving horse and came home very well at York."
"Leading Light had only gone as far as a mile and a quarter before the Queen's Vase but he got the (2 mile) trip well at Ascot. We thought of going to the Voltigeur with him but he was not 100 per cent and gave him a couple of weeks off. We have been very happy with him over the last three weeks though and we always thought that Doncaster would suit him. He has not disappointed us yet, travels well and always finds plenty off the bridle.
"Good ground should suit every horse. We'd be happy with good ground."
With their propensity for buying or breeding runners well endowed with stamina it should come as no surprise that Godolphin have a fine record in the St. Leger, with six previous winners to their name, including last year's hero Encke, who defeated the red-hot Camelot. In normal circumstances, Epsom Derby runner-up Libertarian (by New Approach) would have been a warm choice. But as he has (a) flopped miserably in the Irish Derby, (b) changed yards from that of Elaine Burke to Charlie Appleby (Godolphin's replacement for the suspended Mahmood Al Zarooni), (c) not raced since June, and (d) shown no spark in his track work, he has eased to 8 to 1. William Buick, who knows him well, has been contracted for the ride.
Appleby also saddles Neptune Investment Management Gordon Stakes winner Cap O'Rushes (also by New Approach), who beat Excess Knowledge narrowly on that day. Retained rider Mickael Barzalona is slated to partner Cap O'Rushes, who has come in for some support, being at 16 to 1 (down from 20 to 1 earlier in the week).
Meanwhile the senior Godolphin trainer Saeed Bin Suroor will send out the 14 to 1 Secret Number (by Raven's Pass), who will be piloted by the energetic Brazilian, Silvestre De Sousa, well known in India for his riding feats. The colt has not scored since March but has been "thereabouts" in five subsequent efforts.
Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford volunteered the following about his team's members: "Encke was a great winner of the Ladbrokes St Leger in 2012 and he was our sixth success in 20 years so we have a great track record in the Classic. It is a race we love and a fantastic heritage race - being the oldest Classic and part of the fabric of British racing.
"Secret Number is bred to be a mile and a quarter horse and he looks to be one of these nearly horses - he does not seem to win on the big occasion. For me, I would be surprised if he was good enough to win on Saturday. He is in good form and, indeed, did his best piece of work ever leading up to this race. But I would be a bit surprised to see him in the winner's enclosure.
"Cap O'Rushes was disappointing last time in the Great Voltigeur but the ground on the Knavesmire was very quick….there is no doubt that Cap O'Rushes, given his ground, is the most interesting of our three contenders at the prices.
"Libertarian was bought with the Ladbrokes St Leger very much in mind. We thought he would be an ideal candidate for the Classic. But, having said that, I cannot help wondering if that will backfire. His run in the Irish Derby was too bad to be true, but the ground was very quick that day and he didn't like it. It has taken him a long time to get over that race, while he had a very hard campaign in the spring. Libertarian never shows anything in his work and has never showed us anything either - I think we are going there guessing. The jury is out and he still has a lot to prove.
It's been 21 years since a member of the distaff set annexed this classic and Talent (another by New Approach), the Investec Oaks victress from trainer Ralph Beckett's yard, is the only filly in the race. The Andover-based trainer had earlier sent out another of the same sex in Look Here to finish third in 2008. Other high class fillies – notably Snow Fairy – have failed in recent years, so the 10 to 1 Talent will have her work cut out to score. Jim Crowley returns as her saddle partner.
"Look Here ran a very good race for us in the St Leger when she was third. I wasn't sure she got home and it was probably a very good Leger, won by Conduit," said Beckett. "Talent is in good shape. She has not had the ideal preparation, as I was keen to run her in the Yorkshire Oaks but the ground was too quick. I think she would be better with a run under her belt. She galloped at Kempton over a mile last week and we were pleased with the way it went. She doesn't knock herself out in her work.
"We have always felt she is a strong stayer and that the St Leger is the right race for her under the right conditions. She needs a bit of juice in the ground, not like the ground when she ran in the Irish Oaks. I am not convinced that the ground was the only reason for her poor performance in Ireland but I wouldn't want to run her on fast ground again until I knew for sure."
Those not mentioned hitherto are Great Hall (by Halling) at 20 to 1, Havana Beat (by Teofilo) at 40 to 1 and Ralston Road (by Dylan Thomas) at 100 to 1.
Relying on the maxim that classic form is the strongest, the race ought to lie between Galileo Rock, Libertarian and Talent, with the improving Foundry capable of springing a mild surprise. Followers of rank outsiders could examine the credentials of Great Hall, who stays the trip and is coming off a couple of victories.