This Sporting Life – Chapter 6

St Leger

The Grandstand and racecourse at Doncaster. Home of the St. Leger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


So, my short series of articles on the nags ends where it began, at Doncaster Racecourse.  In the first Chapter, you may recall I set out how my passion for horse racing began on that very first trip to Donny Races back in the early 1970s. In the four subsequent articles we have followed the cycle of the British Horse racing Classic season, taking in the Guineas (1000 and 2000), The Oaks and The Derby. The final race in this series, the St Leger Stakes, is held on the Town Moor course every September, a venue where racing has taken place since the 16th century.

St Leger, Early Days

The St Leger Stakes was founded by Colonel Anthony St Leger back in 1776. And is now the world’s oldest classic horse race. Born in February 1731 at Grangemellon, County Kildare, Ireland, he was the fourth son of Sir John St Leger, who was a judge of the Court of Exchequer.  He was educated at Eton College and attended Peterhouse, before embarking on a career in the army. In 1761, St Leger married a Yorkshire woman, Margaret Wombwell.

A couple of  years later St Leger took on the Park Hill estate in Firbeck, where he later bred and raced horses. He sat as the MP for Grimsby from 1768 to 1774. Two years after leaving the Commons, he established a two-mile race for three-year-old horses, on the Cantley Common in Doncaster which was to become the St. Leger Stakes. St Leger died on 19 April 1786. He was buried in Saint Anne’s Church, Dublin.

It took until 1800 though for the race to come to national prominence, when a horse called Champion, trained in Yorkshire, registered the first Derby–St Leger double. Champion was ridden by Francis Buckle, known to the British Horse Racing public as “The Governor”. Buckle is credited with bringing respectability to race-riding. During his career he won 27 British Classic races, a record which would not be beaten for over 150 years.

Francis Buckle: The Governor
EDWARDS, WILLIAM CAMDEN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The length of the St Leger was shortened to 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 193 yards in 1813, and despite some minor alterations has remained much the same ever since.

St Leger – Nautilus Visits

Given that I’ve never lived further than 40 miles away from Doncaster, I’m a little  embarrassed to say that I’ve only actually seen seven St Legers. I put this down to the fact that I have always had a love-hate relationship with the racecourse, which may become apparent through the following brief account of my visits to see the final  race of the British Classics season.

1. Saturday 13 September 1986

A few days after my divorce was finalised, and with only a few coppers to rub together, I placed a 50p double on a couple of races shown on Channel 4 TV, just for an interest.  Both thankfully won and I collected the princely sum of £20.  My brother had kindly offered to drive us over to Doncaster to see the 210th running of the St Leger, although our budget would only stretch to an entry into the Silver Ring. I really fancied a horse called Moon Madness, due to be ridden by Pat Eddery.  Moon Madness had suffered the first defeat of his career in the Great Voltigeur, a renowned trial for the St Leger, so was priced up at a generous 9/2 for the big race.  I was confident he’d stay the longer trip so decided that he would be my only bet of the day. My £20 winnings from the previous days bet were duly invested on the nose.  Over the years I’ve watched the race many, many times (isn’t YouTube wonderful!) and still get goose pimples listening to Graham Goodes’ exhilarating  commentary “……and Moon Madness storms , two three, four, five lengths clear. Moon Madness is going to win this very handily indeed”.  I’m pretty certain that a long-held family tradition of sharing the spoils from a big race winner was established on that very day.

2. Saturday 15th September 1990

My brother and I clubbed together to take my father to see his first St Leger as a sixtieth birthday treat.  Dad as you might recall was a favourites man, so we plunged on Hellenic the 2/1 favourite. Our selection ran a brave second to Snurge so inevitably the money stayed in the bookies’ satchel on this occasion.

3. Saturday 12th September 1992

True to form, dad insisted we should all back the 6/4 favourite, User Friendly. Although, she was unbeaten in all her races to date, I knew even with her weight allowance it was still a big ask for a filly to win the St Leger and only seven had done so since the Second World War.  To keep the peace, we clubbed together and placed a £20 bet on the favourite. My brother, who always had a mind of his own, also put £5 each way on Sonus, priced at 15/2.  Inevitably (!) User Friendly romped home and Sonus, having led briefly before fading in the final two furlongs eventually ran on for a second place.  Another profitable St Leger for the Nautilus family. In her next race, User Friendly ran superbly to finish a brave second in the Arc De Triomphe. Her defeat though would have serious ramifications for future St Leger entries, with more and more horses swerving the final Classic Race and instead heading straight to the Arc.

4. Saturday 10th September 1994

Another Nautilus family day out. On the drive down to Doncaster, Dad couldn’t help repeatedly telling us “Red Route can’t be beaten. He’s a racing cert”. Fine I thought, let’s then try and get the best on-course price. Shopping around the boards and virtually every bookmaker has made Red Route their 7/4 favourite. But what’s this, one brave fellow is offering 2/1. My brother rushes up and places a £100 bet. The price is quickly rubbed off the board. We head back towards the main stand through the huge crowd to get a good vantage point. On the way there I momentarily get separated from my dad and brother. I take one more look at the betting boards and just can’t believe that Pat Eddery’s mount, Moonax, is still available at 50/1. I know the horse has a bit of a reputation for biting other horses but so what, Pat’s on him and he’s done me plenty of favours in the past. Right, I’m having a £1 e/w bet. Much to my annoyance, the bookie refuses to take each way bets. And as we are now almost at start time, I reluctantly put £2 on the nose instead. I head up into the stands and manage to get close to where my dad and brother our standing. And they’re off. Broadway Flyer jumps out of the stalls and quickly establishes a three length lead and sets a searching gallop. My horse is the back marker but not totally detached. Red Route is settled in third. With four furlongs to go, Broadway Flyer really starts to pile on the coal.  Red Route gives chase but my doubts about his ability to stay seem to be well founded. Meanwhile, Moonax, the rank outsider continues to make steady progress against the rails, Two furlongs to go and Red Route will not be winning. But Moonax is keeping up the gallop. Well inside the final furlong, Moonax sweeps past Broadway Flyer under a strong drive from Eddery and pulls off a shock result. I looked over to my father and could see that he was already cursing his jockey as the tailenders passed by. I chuckled to myself in full knowledge that our ton loss on the favourite had been recouped in full by my shrewd punting.

Backing a 50/1 winner is a tale I’m always happy to recount whenever the St Leger gets mentioned in conversation.  Though had I been around back in 1882, when JWP was probably merely a bairn, I like to think I might have had a few shillings on Theodore. He went off at mouth-watering odds of 200/1 for the St Leger, as the owner claimed he gone lame on his last run. To this day, Theodore remains the longest priced winner in any of the British Classic races.

Theodore: A Classic Outsider
John Frederick Herring, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Saturday 13th September 1997

In the two renewals following Moonax’s victory the race had been dominated by Frankie Dettori, who completed back-to-back victories for owner Sheikh Mohammed on Classic Cliché and Shantou. This time Dettori was on one of the outsiders with our hero, Pat Eddery, aboard the race favourite, a stunning grey horse called Silver Patriarch. Despite a couple of disappointing races beforehand this time I was confident that my dad’s selection would do the business. Thankfully we took an early board price (6/4) before the Yorkshire crowd plunged on the horse like it too was a racing certainty. The first half of the race was run at a pedestrian pace. Dettori’s mount led for most of the first mile. Silver Patriarch was making hard work of it. As they came down to the two furlongs from home marker, Eddery pulled his mount to the outside and a dual began with the French raider, Vertical Speed. With less than a hundred yards to go Silver Patriarch had beaten off his rivals and carried Eddery across the winning line to give him his 4000th winner in Britain and his fourth and final St Leger victory.  At this point, dad was shouting so loud I was almost certain that CPR would soon need to be administered.  Little did I realise in that moment that this would be the last time we would attend the St Leger as a family; my dad, brother and me. Life moves on.

6. Saturday 14 September 2002

I started courting the future Mrs N in April 1998. We were married in 2000. Before I realised it, five years had elapsed since I’d last attended a St Leger meeting.  I was determined to address that especially as Bollin Eric, a horse trained in Yorkshire, had a pretty  good chance of winning the race; Peleid been the last county trained horse to win back in 1973. Somewhat to my annoyance the racecourse had decided to show the Leeds United vs Manchester United game in all the bars and on the on-course big screen, which had a lunchtime kick-off. Throughout the afternoon the atmosphere on the racecourse grew quite unpleasant with most of the rowdy crowd seemingly celebrating the “home” team’s eventual 1:0 victory over their fiercest rivals.  Despite paying a king’s ransom for our County Stand tickets, I insisted we left the course a short while before the horses began parading for the big race. I was still determined to watch the race live, so we grabbed a taxi and sped off to the Grand St Leger Hotel just a few minutes ride from the racecourse.  The hotel was quiet but steeped in history, with paintings and photographs of famous horses that had graced the Doncaster turf.  A quick call to my bookmaker and we’ve got a pony (£25) each way on our Eric. We settle down in front of a wide screen telly to watch the race, which gets off on time, 3.35pm. Bollin Eric is held up towards the rear, and starts to look beaten with three-furlongs to go. However, after one crack of the reminder from his jockey, Kevin Darley and he’s back into the lead with two furlongs to go. Driven out to the line the hope of Yorkshire  gallops to classic glory finishing just over a length clear of his nearest rival with the heavily sweating favourite trailing in a distant third (phew!!!). We are quid’s-in on the day, so there’s only one thing to do. You’ve guessed it, get another bottle of champagne and remember to book a taxi to the train station.

Grand St Leger Hotel, Doncaster
Grand St Leger Hotel, Doncaster by JThomas, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

7. Saturday 11 September 2004

By the time it came round to booking tickets for this year’s race all of the County Enclosure badges had been sold, so we were stuck in the Tattersalls enclosure with the usual riff-raff that seemingly only turn up to the races once a year to get plastered. I doubt very much that they see a horse over the entire day. Burly security guards are usually placed at each of the entry points into the County Stand and will demand to see your badge before allowing you to enter.  I was still feeling a bit miffed from the Bollin Eric experience two years ago, so was even more determined to find a way to get us into my preferred enclosure. We stood for ages and watched on as well-dressed individuals and couples with badges moved almost seamlessly between the Tattersalls and County Enclosures. Then I noticed a big group of rowdy women heading towards the security guard. I sensed that this was our best chance, As they approached, I gripped Mrs N in a passionate embrace and behind the steward’s back we surreptitiously waltzed around the barrier. We were in. Mission accomplished.  I should add that this is not a thing I would normally do, but cajoled by Mrs N who like me was perturbed at our predicament it seemed the gentlemanly thing to do.

Our next task was to find a safe route to the seated area in order to get a prime view of the big race. Thankfully, we managed to avoid the stewards and once encamped, we basked in the glorious sunshine and waited for the parade, which always takes place prior to the horses cantering down to the one mile and six furlongs start. I then remembered that I hadn’t had a chance to place a bet on the St Leger. In all honesty, I didn’t think there was a stand-out horse in the field that year. I knew though if dad was here, he’d insist we back the favourite. On this occasion  there were in fact joint favourites, Rule of Law and Quiff.  So, merely for an interest in the race, I placed a tenner on each of them at odds of 3/1. Wouldn’t you know it, they finished first and second respectively giving us a slight overall profit.  In spite of that success, I could see from the look on Mrs N’s face that she really wasn’t enjoying her day out. Neither was I, if truth be told. So, we left the course briskly soon after the race presentations, which include the winning jockey receiving a unique trophy – an elaborate tailor-made cap.

That was sadly nineteen years ago and we haven’t been back to see the St Leger, since. As I said at the beginning, my love-hate relationship with Doncaster Racecourse endures.

Nautilus Returns To Doncaster

So almost two decades since our last visit, and having reflected on this and previous articles, I’ve decided that we should give Donny another go.  This means today, if all goes to plan, we should be there to witness the 247th running of the St Leger Stakes.  You can wave at us on the telly, if you wish.

As for the race itself, well at the time of writing, Frankie Dettori, in his final British Classic, has opted to ride Arrest and will take on eight rivals for the Betfred St Leger which is due to start at 3.35pm today. Arrest is the son of Frankel and has been backed into 3/1 favourite for the race as the recent wet weather has made the ground softish which he should relish. Dettori was due to ride the Gosden trained

stablemate Gregory in the Group 1, but that position will instead now be filled by Kieran Shoemark. This horse finished third of five in the Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes at York last month, a notable trial race for the St Leger, is now priced at around 4/1 and should be thereabouts.

The Gosden team are attempting to win the race for the first time since 2019 and they will also rely on two-time winner Middle Earth, who will be ridden by Classic-winning jockey Oisin Murphy. This horse was supplemented for the race for a fee of £50,000, so the owner at least must be confident of a big run.

Meanwhile, Desert Hero, the King’s horse, will attempt to become the first royal Classic winner since Dunfermline landed the St Leger back in 1977.  Trained by William Haggas, the three-year-old stormed to a surprising 18-1 success in the King George V Stakes at Royal Ascot in June before following up in the Group 3 Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. Desert Hero finished a neck clear of the Godolphin-owned and outsider, Chesspiece, who reopposes again for Simon and Ed Crisford.

The Ballydoyle maestro Aidan O’Brien holds a very strong hand as he aims to win the race for the first time since Kew Gardens was successful in 2018. The trainer will be represented by Continuous, Alexandroupolis, Denmark and Tower Of London. The former is due to be ridden by Ryan Moore and I fully expect him to provide the biggest threat to Dettori’s much anticipated final ride in the race.

Well, that’s all folks. I really do hope you’ve enjoyed this series of articles. I’m planning a short break now before embarking on a new series also with a sporting theme. Watch this space….

© Nautilus September 2023