Autumn is truly a wonderful time of year for racing fans in the North of England. There is little time to rest after the excitement of the Ebor Festival at York, because the last of the Classics, the St. Leger Stakes, is upon us! It is part of a four-day festival which takes place at Doncaster Racecourse from 12-15 September. In this article, I will briefly look at the lengthy history of this extraordinary race, and see if there are any helpful trends to guide us.
The History of the St. Leger Stakes
Not only is the St. Leger the last Classic of the season, but it is also the oldest and takes place over the longest distance. It also comprises the final leg of the Triple Crown, along with the 2,000 Guineas and the Oaks. It takes an incredible horse to complete the feat because it needs to have the raw speed to win over a mile at the 2,000 Guineas, and the stamina to complete 1m 4f in the Derby and over 1m 6f at the St. Leger.
Perhaps this is why so few trainers even make an attempt. Nijinsky was the last Triple Crown winner in 1970. There have been relatively few horses that came close since. The most notable example was Camelot who finished second to 25/1 shot Encke in the St. Leger in 2012 after winning both the 2,000 Guineas and the Oaks.
The race itself was founded by Colonel Anthony St. Leger, and it was first run in 1776. The winner was a horse named Allabaculia who was owned by the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham. It wasn’t formally known as the St. Leger Stakes until 1777, and it moved to its current location at Town Moor in 1778. The St. Leger first gained national attention in 1800 when the aptly named Champion became the first winner of the Derby & St. Leger double.
There have been a few notable renewals. In 1839, Charles the Twelfth and Euclid ran a dead-heat, but the former emerged victorious in a run-off. There was another dead heat in 1850 between Voltigeur and Russborough, but the former was the winner of the run-off.
West Australian’s victory in 1853 was significant because he was the first ever Triple Crown winner. The feat has been achieved multiple times since but only four horses have managed it since 1900 if you discount the three winners during World War I. Most historians do because the St. Leger was run at the Rowley Mile course at Newmarket from 1915 to 1918.
In 1902, the legendary filly Sceptre won the St. Leger and remains the only ever winner of four Classics in a season. It could have been all five had the horse not sustained an injury that kept her out of the Derby.
World War II forced the race to Manchester and Newmarket. In 1955, Meld completed the filly’s Triple Crown with a win at Doncaster and Nijinsky overcame a bout of ringworm in 1970. He is still the most recent Triple Crown winner. In the modern era, impressive winners of the race include Milan in 2001 and Conduit in 2008.
Camelot’s doomed Triple Crown bid in 2012 was mired in controversy. He was easily held by outsider Encke, but the big story was that the American-trained Encke had previously tested positive for drugs (but did not fail a test after the St. Leger). His trainer, Mahmood Al Zarooni, was found guilty of administering illegal doses of steroids to horses and was banned.
In 2015, Simple Verse won but was initially disqualified. After several days, and an appeal by the horse’s connections, he was restored as St. Leger champion. In 2016, Harbour Law was a shock 22/1 winner, defeating favourite Idaho. Aidan O’Brien recovered from this disappointment the following year as Capri took the spoils.
What Kind of Horse Will Win the St. Leger?
Stamina is all-important as every winner in the last two decades has a run of at least 1m 4f under their belts. Let’s look at some useful trends:
- 19/21 winners had 3-5 season runs.
- 21/21 winners last ran 16-90 days before the race.
- 21/21 winners finished in the top four in their previous race.
- 12/21 favourites have won the race.
- 15/16 winners had 2-3 career wins.
- 13/16 were having their first run at Doncaster.
Up until the last few years, the St. Leger was reliably won by horses at odds of 8/1 or less. However, shock wins are becoming more frequent with four winners at 12/1+ in the last nine races. In fact, 7 of the last 10 winners have had SP odds of 15/2+ so it is getting harder to discount relative outsiders.
One trend that has remained consistent is the need for good form. Every winner this century has finished in the top four in their last race, this includes 15/21 winners who were in the top two in their previous race.
It used to be the case where St. Leger winners had previous won a Group race but none of the four double digit winners in the last decade fitted the bill. For example, 2009 winner Mastery had one Class 5 win to his name! 2010 winner Arctic Cosmos had never won above Class 4 level before, 2012 winner Encke managed a Class 3 win before the St. Leger, while 2016 winner Harbour Law didn’t win anything above a Class 4 before or after the big race!
To be fair, all four did achieve a top three finish in at least a Listed race just before the St. Leger so make sure any contenders on your list have recently shown signs of being capable of a breakthrough.
There were 19 possible runners at the time of writing with Kew Gardens installed at the hot 5/4 favourite. The Aiden O’Brien trained horse was beaten into third at York by Old Persian and interestingly, the latter is 6/1 even though he beat Kew Gardens by almost two lengths and is only two pounds worse off in the St. Leger. Until the runners are finalised, it is difficult to pick a winner, but the trends above should help narrow the field significantly.