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Revival of the Oldest and Longest Classic
On Saturday at Doncaster Racecourse in Yorkshire, they will run the St. Leger Stakes for the 234th time. The first running of the world's oldest and, at 1 3/4 miles, 132 yards, longest classic was held on Sept. 24, 1776, just a couple of months after Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock & Company had signed the Declaration of Independence, freeing Americans from oppressive British rule. Racing people back in England seemed to take the political changes in stride as Colonel Anthony St. Leger and friends instituted what would be a ground-breaking sporting innovation of their own, viz., a race designed to test the best of each 3-year-old Thoroughbred generation.
Shortly after the first running of the Epsom Derby in 1780, the Derby-St. Leger double became racing's ultimate double, and one that could be realistically achieved by almost any Derby winner as the St. Leger is run three months afterwards. It has been pulled off 35 times, among those the nine winners of the British Triple Crown, of which the Derby and the St. Leger are the second and third legs after the 2000 Guineas.
The development of the contemporary Thoroughbred racehorse may have reached some kind of peak in 1970 with the St. Leger triumph of Nijinsky, the most recent winner of the British Triple Crown. Few if any horses have a racing and breeding record matched by the great son of Northern Dancer, but the breeding establishment's emphasis on speed was already taking its toll on staying races in the seventies. In 1973 a handicapper named Peleid won the St. Leger, prompting calls to reduce the distance of the race or open it to older horses.
The French St. Leger, officially known as the Prix Royal-Oak, was opened to older horses in 1979, and the Irish St. Leger followed suit in 1983, but the Doncaster classic held its ground despite suffering through some lean years. Epsom Derby winner Reference Point gave it a boost by winning it in 1987, and while the race may never reach the heights it attained between 1850 and 1950, winners like Scorpion and Conduit in recent years have rewarded European breeders who still believe in stamina.
Godolphin's Rewilding, a Tiger Hill half brother to the recently retired Dar Re Mi, herself the winner of two Group 1 races at a mile and a half, is Ladbroke's 13-8 favorite for Saturday's renewal. He will be challenged by, among others, English and Irish Oaks winner Snow Fairy. The St. Leger has always been the most filly friendly of classics as 40 distaffers have won it, among them the first ever winner, Allabaculia, and eight of its first 14 winners. In all, fillies have won this race a rather astonishing 17.1 percent of the time.
A subjective list of the 25 most influential St. Leger winners follows.
1795 Hambletonian No relation to the standardbred foundation sire, this grandson of Eclipse would win the 2 1/4-mile Doncaster Cup against older horses the very next day.
1800 Champion The aptly named son of early foundation sire Potoooooooo (or Pot-8-o's) became the first Derby winner to double up, putting the St. Leger on the racing map.
1834 Touchstone Followed his St. Leger victory with two wins in the Doncaster Cup and two in the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup. A half brother to 1840 St. Leger winner Launcelot, he would sire three Derby winners and four St. Leger winners.
1849 The Flying Dutchman The Derby winning Bay Middleton colt was undefeated until his 4-year-old season when he was beaten by Voltigeur in the the Doncaster Cup. In 1851 he took his revenge, beating Voltigeur in the most famous match race in history, a 2-mile event at York which he won by a length, giving his rival 8 1/2 lbs. He would sire Derby winner Ellington and French foundation sire Dollar.
1850 Voltigeur A Derby winner himself, the key St. Leger prep, York's Great Voltigeur Stakes, is named for him.
1853 West Australian From the female family of Touchstone, his historic St. Leger triumph made him the first Triple Crown winner. He was trained by John Scott, who won 16 St. Legers and 41 English classics in all.
1865 Gladiateur The "Avenger of Waterloo" was the first French-bred, French-owned horse to win the Derby, his St. Leger victory giving him the Triple Crown. He would also win the Grand Prix de Paris and the Ascot Gold Cup. His statue stands inside the main gate at Longchamp.
1881 Iroquois The first American-bred, American-owned winner of the Derby, he had won the Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot on the way to his St. Leger victory. After retirement he stood at Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee where he was the leading Ameican sire in 1892.
1886 Ormonde By 1880 Derby winner Bend Or, this Triple Crown winner ended his career with a perfect 16-for-16 record and is generally regarded as the greatest racehorse of the 19th Century. He ended his stud career in California, where he died in 1904.
1893 Isinglass Another Triple Crown winner, he won 11-of-12 lifetime starts and was the paternal grandsire of 1919 American Triple Crown winner Sir Barton.
1896 Persimmon Owned by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, he won the Triple Crown and was a half brother to Edward's 1900 Triple Crown winner Diamond Jubilee. Persimmon was the leading British sire four times and is the sire of the great racemare Sceptre.
1902 Sceptre By Persimmon (who was by St Simon) out of a mare by Bend Or, she won four classics, the 1000 Guineas, the 2000 Guineas, the Oaks and the St. Leger.
1903 Rock Sand Triple Crown winner who was purchased upon retirement by August Belmont, Jr. and sent to Kentucky, where he sired his owner's 1912 St. Leger winner Tracery as well as Mahubah, the dam of Man o' War.
1904 Pretty Polly Like her great rival Sceptre, she won the Fillies Triple Crown (1000 Guineas, Oaks and St. Leger), winning 22 times from 24 starts. She is the fifth dam of the great British champion of the 1970's, Brigadier Gerard.
1910 Swynford Also the winner of the Eclipse Stakes at four, he sired the winners of six English classics, among them Blandford, the sire of 1935 Triple Crown winner Bahram.
1918 Gainsborough Triple Crown winner who also won the Ascot Gold Cup as a 3-year-old. By Bayardo, the sire of 1917 Triple Crown winner Gay Crusader, his dam was 1910 Oaks winner Rosedrop. He sired three St. Leger winners, the best of them the foundation stallion Hyperion.
1933 Hyperion A Triple Crown winner by the Triple Crown winner Gainsborough, he has had a pronounced influence on the modern Thoroughbred, leading the British and Irish lists six times and getting such as Aureole, Fillies Triple Crown winner Sun Chariot and 1944 Kentucky Derby winner Pensive. Most importantly, he is the damsire of Nearctic, the sire of Northern Dancer, the sire of Nijinsky.
1935 Bahram Triple Crown winner also won the one-mile St. James's Palace Stakes between his Derby and St. Leger triumphs. The third of five St. Leger winners owned by the Aga Khan III, he was sold for 40,000 pounds to a quartet of Americans that included Alfred G. Vanderbilt II to stand in Maryland where he sired the winners of 660 races.
1957 Ballymoss The first of the great flat horses trained by the incomparable Vincent O'Brien, he was owned by New Jersey businessman John McShain, for whom he also won the Irish Derby, the Eclipse Stakes and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. One of the first modern day international travelers, he finished third in the 1958 Washington, D.C. International, returning to Europe that same season to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
1970 Nijinsky By Northern Dancer, he is arguably the greatest racehorse/stallion combination in modern Thoroughbred history. The last of the British Triple Crown winners was 11-for-11 coming into the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in which he could not quite pin back Sassafras. He sired Caerleon, Golden Fleece, Green Dancer, Lammtarra, Royal Academy, Seattle Dancer, and Sky Classic among others, and in 1986 became the only stallion to sire the winners of both the Epsom Derby and the Kentucky Derby in the same year with Shahrastani and Ferdinand.
1983 Sun Princess Began a modern day purple patch for filly St. Leger winners following her victory in the Oaks.
1985 Oh So Sharp The most recent winner of the Fillies Triple Crown, she was the first clasic winner owned by Sheikh Mohammed, and beat the great Triptych by 6 lengths in the Oaks. Her best foal was Prix Saint-Alary winner Rosefinch.
1992 User Friendly Won both the English Oaks and the Irish Oaks en route to her St. Leger victory. Second that year in the Arc, she won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud at four and one of two starts in America at five.
2005 Scorpion The third of three St. Leger winners trained by Aidan O'Brien (after Milan and Brian Boru), this Montjeu colt had previously set a Longchamp track record at the Arc distance of 1 1/2 miles in winning the Grand Prix de Paris, and would win the Coronation Cup two years later.
2008 Conduit Earned Group 1 laurels for the first time in the St. Leger, after which he won two Breeders' Cup Turfs and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Loved this blog. The history of racing and breeding is what makes racing a sport, as opposed to just a gambling game.
Great stuff! Mr. Shuback's depth and breadth of knowledge in the international aspects of racing/breeding is always evident in his columns and I look forward to reading his reports from abroad. His commentary on and analysis of Breeders Cup entrants is also a much-anticipated annual treat.