09/13/2012 3:41PM

Hovdey: Camelot revives interest in English Triple Crown

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Patrick McCann
Camelot will attempt to become the first English Triple Crown winner in 42 years in Saturday's St. Leger Stakes.

First off, let’s get one thing straight. The English Triple Crown and the American Triple Crown have about as much in common as cricket does with NASCAR.

Yes, there are three races involved. Two in the English version even run counterclockwise, known the world over as American style. They’ve each got a Derby and a leg named for some guy, and betting on them is both legal and encouraged.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that horses just don’t win Triple Crowns anymore, Yank or Brit. But at that point the similarities come to a screeching halt.

In the United States, folks have tried desperately and failed miserably to win a Triple Crown for the past 34 years. Since Affirmed swept the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, 11 have attempted to no avail.

In England, it’s like, “Sod the Triple Crown. We’ve got Andy Murray and those cyclists.”

As dual-English classic winner Camelot goes to the post Saturday for the St. Leger Stakes, it has been 42 years since Nijinsky won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, the Epsom Derby on Epsom Downs, and the St. Leger in Doncaster to become what turned out to be the last Triple Crown winner of the 20th century. To that point, there had been eight in the 1800s and seven in the 1900s, but three of those were totally bogus since most of the major British racecourses were shut down during World War I and a wartime “triple” was cobbled together in races run only at Newmarket.

Bahram, though, was a stone runner who won all nine of his starts and put the icing on the cake in the 1935 St. Leger. This worked out well, since over in the colonies Omaha won the American Triple Crown the same year. The following year Omaha raced impressivley in England, while Bahram began his stallion career in Maryland, Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected president, and Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland.

Americans, always in a hurry, cram their Triple Crown into a five-week gauntlet that wrings out both man and beast. The British also begin at a good pace, with the one-mile Guineas and the 1 1/2-mile Derby in May and June, done inside a month, but then wait more than three months before the St. Leger, at just over a 1 3/4 miles, as if anyone’s attention span lasts that long anymore.

In some ways it’s as if no one expected the idea of a British Triple Crown to hang on, like warmish beer and rail travel. Prior to Bahram, there had been four horses try to win the legitimate Triple Crown and fail (give yourself a point if you came up with Cameronian, Manna, Minoru, and St. Amant). Since Nijinsky, there have been none – until Camelot.

“The fact that someone’s trying at all is amazing, that it’s lasted as a possible target all this time,” said veteran British racing writer Howard Wright.

Wright, who has had a long career with the Racing Post, is a native of Doncaster, the Northern England town smack on the old Roman highway where the St. Leger Stakes, named for Anthony St. Leger, was first run in 1776. Wright has seen every St. Leger since 1948, when he was a toddler perched on his grandfather’s shoulders, which means he was there the day Nijinsky and Lester Piggott made history in 1970. But even then, the St. Leger, as well as the idea of an English Triple Crown, was wearing thin. Nijinsky was not just the first Triple Crown winner in 35 years. His was the first attempt.

“It was a bit of a surprise he even ran,” Wright said. “But then, his owner, the American Charles Englehard, was known as a very sporting owner. And in that regard I see similarities in Camelot’s try for Coolmore. Something in it slightly less than commercial.”

Even the very commercial Coolmore bows now and then to history. Camelot could just as easily have been pointed to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris next month instead of the St. Leger, just as Nashwan and Sea The Stars were in dodging the chance to win the Triple Crown.

But Camelot, like Nijinsky before him, is trained at Ireland’s Ballydoyle Stables by a man named O’Brien. Aidan O’Brien, Ballydoyle’s current master, is not related to the legendary Vincent O’Brien except in spirit and accomplishment. He acknowledged a debt to history in confirming the excitement around Camelot’s race on Saturday.

“We try to live in the present,” O’Brien said. “But this is an important thing, to give the St. Leger a try. We know how we feel about him, how special he is, and how much the Triple Crown could mean. He’s coming to his race right as he can be.”

A walk around the Doncaster course was revealing as to what Camelot will face, a blend of the magnificent and mundane. The course was completely removed and reseeded in 2006, at nearly two miles around, 30 or so paces across, running at times parallel to the main 638 roadway on one side and a golf course on the other, flanked by fields of alfalfa hay and comfortable homes. There is also a hill, but it comes early in the St. Leger’s run.

“It’s a flat course by our standards,” said trainer John Gosden, who has won the St. Leger four times. “There are rarely excuses in a St. Leger.”

Unfortunately, there are many excuses not to run at all. Timeform’s Jamie Lynch wrote recently that “commercial considerations far outweigh the original concept of a champion racehorse,” not to mention the fact that international competition from races like the Arc and the Breeders’ Cup have diverted attention away from the St. Leger’s more than 14 furlongs.

“There have been suggestions through the years to change the terms of the St. Leger to make a Triple Crown more enticing,” Wright said. “Thankfully, they have been beaten back.”

So the two Triple Crowns remain, unwinnable in the United States, virtually uncontested in the United Kingdom. In the 1930s, Daily Racing Form ’s Charles Hatton supposedly was inspired to borrow the term from the British when referring to America’s spring classics, and the legend stuck. And while a horse on the brink of winning the English Triple Crown does not quite inspire the media pandemonium it does in the States, there is still something in the air that smells like history in the making.

Wright, covering for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph at the time, recalls the sight of Charles Englehard, with some difficulty, making his way unrecognized through a crowd in the old stands to join Nijinsky and Piggott in the winner’s circle following their St. Leger.

“I’ll be there Saturday,” he said. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

Gosden, who will run three horses against Camelot on Saturday, watched the 1970 St. Leger at school in Cambridge. A month later, he rode his bicycle to Newmarket to watch Nijinsky run his final race in the Champion Stakes.

“By then, he’d already lost the Arc, and he was beaten that day at Newmarket,” Gosden said. “But I wanted to have said I’d seen the Triple Crown winner in the flesh.”

As for Aidan O’Brien, the man behind Camelot’s attempt to join Nijinsky in the history books, his recollections of the last Triple Crown winner are not nearly as vivid.

“Nijinsky? No,” O’Brien said. “I would have been about one, just trying to learn how to walk.”