09/12/2012 3:43PM

Hovdey: Camelot takes rare shot at English Triple Crown

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Patrick McCann
Camelot is a son of the 1999 Arc de Triomphe and French Derby winner, Montjeu.

All eyes will be focused on the Town Moor at Doncaster Racecourse in Yorkshire County on Saturday when the heroically named Camelot attempts to dust off the history books and become the first winner of the English Triple Crown in 42 years.

To accomplish the rare feat Camelot will need to negotiate the mile and three-quarters and 132 yards of the St. Leger Stakes, nearly the full circuit of the Doncaster course, starting just around the corner from the finish post, up and over the iconic Rose Hill and around a broad, distant turn, then on to a finishing straightaway of about 4 1/2 furlongs.

The unbeaten Camelot is a darkish bay with a pair of distinctive white glyphs where most colts carry a blaze. He will be accompanied on his journey by 10 other 3-year-olds, but most importantly by Joseph O’Brien, the tall, lanky 18-year-old son of trainer Aidan O’Brien who has so far been unflappable in Camelot’s five victories.

O’Brien, the trainer, refers to Camelot as “too good to be true,” and describes his colt as graceful and lilting in stride as a “dressage horse.” O’Brien still worries that if his Camelot is to be beaten it will be the trip of more than 14 furlongs that does it.

“You just never know until they try,” said O’Brien, who has won three St. Legers from his Ballydoyle base of operations in Ireland.

Despite a rainy summer in Yorkshire, the course should be good to firm for Saturday’s test, which goes off at 3:40 p.m. local time. The St. Leger, sponsored by Ladbrokes, carries a purse of about $884,000, which is only slightly less than Camelot cost as a yearling. A son of 1999 Arc and French Derby winner Montjeu, he was bred in England by Highclere Stud and races for the Coolmore partnership of Derrick Smith, Susan Magnier, and Michael Tabor.

Camelot’s Triple Crown adventure began last May when he made his 3-year-old debut in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket and battled to a narrow win over 17 opponents at a mile. He came back a month later to set the table for the Triple Crown by coasting home in the mile-and-one-half Epsom Derby, then added the Irish Derby for good measure in July.

There have been 15 winners of what eventually became known as the English Triple Crown since West Australian swept the Epsom Derby, the 2000 Guineas, and the St. Leger in 1853. Since 1935, however, when Bahram became the 14th Triple Crown winner, the concept of a Triple Crown winner has become nearly obsolete.

Nijinsky was unbeaten when he added the St. Leger to his victories in the 2000 Guineas, the Derby, the Irish Derby, and the King George IV and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in September of 1970. But when Nashwan took the first two legs of the Crown in 1989 he was pointed instead for the Arc de Triomphe, while Sea The Stars did the same in 2009. Nashwan never made it to the Arc, but Sea The Stars capped his career with a memorable win in Paris under Mick Kinane.

“I’ve no doubt Sea The Stars could have won the St. Leger,” Kinane said. “He did some remarkable things, and always with something left. But that wasn’t the point. Winning at a mile and three-quarters would have done nothing for him as a stallion these days.”

Kinane, who won the 2001 St. Leger aboard Milan, also rode Camelot’s sire, Montjeu, to significant victories, including the 1999 Arc de Triomphe.

“There’s a lot of Montjeu in Camelot,” noted Kinane, who was at Doncaster this week to compete in the Leger Legends charity event. “And Montjeu would have had no trouble with the mile and three-quarters. He would have been too immature mentally, though, to have handled the Guineas like Camelot.”

Many of those grasping for an alternative to the heavily favored Camelot have turned to Main Sequence, a son of American sprint champ Aldebaran who was undefeated in four starts – including the Derby Trial Stakes over an all-weather course at Lingfield – when he took the field against Camelot in the Epsom Derby. Main Sequence ran the best race of his life that day, but it was only good enough for second, five lengths back of the winner.

Since then, Main Sequence has been a respectable fourth to Imperial Monarch in the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp and a close second to Thought Worthy in the Great Voltiguer Stakes at York. Ted Durcan, who won the 2009 St. Leger aboard the Godolphin-owned Mastery, rides Main Sequence once again for trainer David Lanigan.

Thought Worthy’s Great Voltiguer victory at a mile and a half was accomplished from the front all the way on what John Gosden, his trainer, concedes was clearly a false pace.

A son of Dynaformer, bred by his American owner, George Strawbridge, Thought Worthy has raced six times over six different courses and won three. He also tried Camelot at Epsom and found himself 11 lengths back at the end in fourth.

Gosden, in the midst of a banner season, has won the last two runnings of the St. Leger, three of the last four, and four in all, dating back to Shantou in 1996.

This time around Gosden has three in the field, including pacemaker Dartford and Michelangelo, a son of Galileo owned by Bjorn Nielson. Gosden and Nielson teamed last year for a mild surprise in the St. Leger with Masked Marvel, but if they’ve got a similar result in mind this time around, Michelangelo will need to improve mightily over his last race in the mile-and-one-half Gordon Stakes July 31 at Goodwood, when he was third, beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Frankel’s little brother, Noble Mission.

O’Brien also has three in the field, although it stretches the imagination to think that Camelot’s stablemate Imperial Monarch would spoil the day in spite of his sharp win in the Grand Prix de Paris. Earlier in the year Imperial Monach also handled Thought Worthy without much fuss in the Classic Trial at Sandown.

“It will be very hard to get Camelot out of his comfort zone,” Gosden said. “He’s the best horse, and it may sound strange given the mile and three-quarters, but at the end of the day Camelot may just have too much speed for the rest of them.”