Geoff Lester: London – It seems fashionable to knock the St Leger these days, but the world’s oldest classic, first run in 1776, has brought together an exceptional bunch of stayers for the latest renewal at Doncaster on Saturday, including two Group 1 winners.
When trying to solve this puzzle, punters must look for a horse with both speed and stamina for the gruelling 2800m and with the ground riding testing on Town Moor after incessant rain through the week he or she will also need courage aplenty.
In DEFOE I think we have found the ideal candidate. Unbeaten in four races this season, he has climbed through the ranks, starting off a mark at 88 in a handicap at Doncaster and producing his best effort yet when landing the Group 3 Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury last month.
“Defoe has a great mind, he can quicken and you can’t fault his attitude,” declared trainer Roger Varian, while no jockey has a better Doncaster record than the in-form Andrea Atzeni, who, besides winning on both his rides in the race (Kingston Hill and Simple Verse), has also captured the last four runnings of the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy, the Yorkshire track’s most prestigious two-year-old race.
Irish Derby winner Capri looks the best of Aidan O’Brien’s three runners, though his absence since The Curragh in June is a worry, and the main threat to Defoe could come from Crystal Ocean, who won the King Edward at Royal Ascot and the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood.
However, Crystal Ocean is now going into unknown territory – he has never raced beyond 2400m – and even trainer Sir Michael Stoute, who racked up 31 consecutive losers in this race, which included the legendary Shergar, until Conduit broke the ice in 2008, seems to have stamina reservations.
If Crystal Ocean stays he has the class to run a mighty race, but stable confidence has sagged somewhat following the rain.
John Gosden, four times the Leger hero, is doubly-represented, courtesy of Stradivarius and Coronet.
Stamina is not a worry for either – Stradivarius won the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot and then took the scalp of the brilliant Big Orange in the Goodwood Cup.
But he would prefer a better surface, whereas the mud-loving Coronet, who won the Ribblesdale at the Royal meeting and beat all except her illustrious stable companion Enable in last month’s Yorkshire Oaks, will relish the conditions and is sure to be picking up the leaders up the straight.
It could be a war of attrition in the last 400m, but I take Defoe to outstay Crystal Ocean, with the filly Coronet taking third.
We can swell the kitty for Saturday by backing TAJAANUS in the Group 2 May Hill Stakes at Doncaster on Thursday.
Richard Hannon’s filly is 3-4 and was impressive in the Group 3 Sweet Solera at Newmarket last time. She goes in easy ground and can upset likely favourite Nyaleti, whose stamina could be stretched here.
The Group 2 Park Hill Stakes the same day is almost a repeat of the big fillies’ race at Goodwood last month, and I expect ENDLESS TIME, who came out on top on the Sussex Downs, to again emerge best.
Granted, Endless Time only thwarted Dubka and Melodic Motion close home, but the Godolphin filly had endured a nightmare run through and would have been an unlucky loser. She cannot have the ground too soft, which is a huge advantage.
The best bet on Friday is Gosden’s ETERNALLY in the Sceptre Stakes. She bumped into a very smart French filly in Al Jazi at Goodwood, but there is nothing in this opposition that worries me.
I also like HAVANA GREY is the Flying Childers Stakes. He won the Molecomb in the mud at Goodwood and was then runner-up in the Group 1 Prix Morny at Deauville, so coming back down in grade should enable him to resume winning ways.
Come Saturday night, the European classic season will be over for another year, but we are only 18 days away from the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and last Sunday’s trials at Chantilly left us with more questions than answers as to the 1 October showpiece.
Enable remains odds-on favourite, and, though there is a plea from racing professionals for the filly’s trainer, John Gosden, to also run Cracksman, who took another step up the ladder when winning the Prix Niel, owner Anthony Oppenheimer still favours waiting for next year.
Frankie Dettori will ride Enable, Europe’s horse of the year, whatever Gosden decides, observing “the filly is the more streetwise”.
Enable is also the more talented, but Cracksman, placed in both the English and Irish Derby and hugely impressive in the Great Voltigeur at York, is fast catching up. “Mentally things are starting to fall into place,” said Gosden after watching Cracksman from the Keeneland Yearling Sales. So, knowing what happened to Almanzor this year, why not bite the bullet.
Cracksman might not beat his stablemate, but is the second best horse in the race and could then be put away until Royal Ascot next year.
In any event, Enable has been on the go since suffering her one defeat at Newbury in April, and plenty of fillies in a similar position have found the Arc one race too many.
Rain did its best to ruin both Irish Champions weekend and the Group 1 Haydock Sprint Cup, but brilliant July Cup winner Harry Angel confirmed his status as Europe’s number one speedball by routing a strong field in the latter, while Aidan O’Brien mopped up three of the five Group 1s in Ireland, his 1-2-3 in the Moyglare being complemented by success for Hydrangea, who ended Winter’s Group 1 winning spree in the Matron, and another Irish St Leger for Arc-bound Order Of St George.
Winter lost nothing in defeat, having missed a week’s work because of a bruised foot, but dual Guineas hero Churchill was beaten for the third consecutive time in the Irish Champion Stakes and is clearly not as good as he looked in the spring.
However, take nothing away from Decorated Hero, who clocked up his third Group 1 for Roger Charlton – he is 3-3 in Ireland – and, being even more effective on fast ground, the colt will have his swansong in the sunshine of California in the Breeders Cup Mile at Del Mar on 4 November.