The world’s oldest Classic: No Classic anywhere across the globe can boast a history to rival that of the St Leger which has been staged since 1776. It is part of the British Champions Series.
The world’s oldest Classic is named after a local sportsman, Anthony St Leger, who lived at Park Hill near Doncaster and had the idea of a race for three-year-olds, colts carrying 8st and fillies 7st 12lb, over two miles.
A field of six runners lined up for the inaugural St Leger on 24th September, 1776, with an unnamed filly by Sampson (later called Allabaculia) owned by the Prime Minister, the Marquess of Rockingham, beating Colonel St Leger’s unnamed filly by Trusty.
The Classic did not have a title until 1778, when Rockingham proposed that it should carry St Leger’s name, and the same year the event moved to the present site on Doncaster’s Town Moor, with the first two runnings having been staged at nearby Cantley Common.
Trainer/jockey John Mangle, known as ‘Crying Jackie’ for his habit of bursting into tears when beaten, won five of the 18th century renewals, while Champion, owned by Yorkshireman Christopher Wilson, in 1800 became the first Derby winner to go on to St Leger glory, helping enhance the race’s stature. The Classic’s distance was shortened to one mile, six furlongs and 193 yards in 1813.
West Australian, trained in Malton by John Scott, became the first winner of the Triple Crown, encompassing the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger (the three Classics open to colts) in 1853, a feat that only 14 other horses have achieved since, most recently Nijinsky in 1970. Scott sent out a record 16 St Leger winners, starting with The Colonel in 1828 and ending with The Marquis in 1862.
The brilliant Ormonde, winner of the three Classics in 1886, was another Triple Crown scorer and, for many, the Duke of Westminster’s home bred, one of Fred Archer’s six St Leger winners, figures among the greatest ever thoroughbreds.
The opening years of the 20th century were a tremendous era in turf history with the remarkable filly Sceptre, who had won the 1,000 Guineas, 2,000 Guineas, Oaks and finished fourth in the Derby, going on to win the 1902 St Leger.
Two years later, another brilliant filly was cheered into the Doncaster winner’s enclosure. Pretty Polly had won the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks, Coronation Stakes and Nassau Stakes as well as the Park Hill Stakes at Doncaster, before landing the final Classic.
Hyperion was another great winner in 1933 and came to Doncaster unbeaten in three runs that season, having triumphed in the Chester Vase, Derby and Prince Of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot. He made all to beat a very strong field, which included the winners of the French and Irish Derbys, in good style.
The third Aga Khan’s Bahram was probably the best of the owner’s six St Leger winners, trained by Frank Butters to win all nine races he contested, including the 1935 Triple Crown.
The First World War saw the St Leger run at Newmarket from 1915–1918, while during the Second World War it took place at Thirsk in 1940, Manchester in 1941, Newmarket from 1942–1944 and at York in 1945. The only year the St Leger was not staged was 1939, while the 1989 renewal was held at Ayr, when the ground was considered unfit on Town Moor, and the 2006 Classic was run at York due to the redevelopment of Doncaster.
Post-war racegoers heading to Doncaster in 1946 witnessed another great winner when the grey Airborne followed up on his Derby success, something achieved by Tulyar (1952) and Never Say Die (1954), who set the record winning margin of 12 lengths, and St Paddy (1960).
Alcide was the wide margin victor in 1958, winning by eight lengths, and the great Irish horse Ragusa came home six lengths clear of his rivals five years later. Lester Piggott, St Paddy’s rider, was to take the Classic eight times but none of his winners was better than the Vincent O’Brien-trained Nijinsky, who drew a huge crowd to Doncaster when winning in 1970. Nijinsky became the 15th and latest holder of the Triple Crown.
There was no more appropriate or popular winner than the Queen’s filly Dunfermline in 1977, who followed up on her Oaks success in the year of her owner’s Silver Jubilee and defeated subsequent dual Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe victor Alleged in the process.
Touching Wood signalled the arrival of the Maktoum family as a major force in world racing when scoring in the late Sheikh Maktoum’s colours in 1982, while that emergence was emphasised when Sheikh Mohammed’s Oh So Sharp completed the fillies’ Triple Crown (1,000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger) in 1985.
Reference Point in 1987 was the most recent Derby winner to follow up in the St Leger, while the last French- trained winner was Toulon from the Andre Fabre stable in 1991. The star filly User Friendly, the 1992 Oaks heroine, provided her Yorkshire-born jockey George Duffield with a St Leger success.
Classic Cliche gave Godolphin, the Maktoum family’s racing operation, a first St Leger win in 1995, when scoring under Frankie Dettori. The famous royal blue colours have also been carried to victory aboard Nedawi (1998), Mutafaweq the following year, Rule Of Law (2004), Mastery (2009) and Encke (2013).
Ireland’s champion trainer Aidan O’Brien enjoyed the first of his four St Leger victories when sending out Milan in 2001. O’Brien has since taken the spoils with Brian Boru (2003), Scorpion (2005) and Leading Light (2013), ridden by his son Joseph, who went on to win the following year’s Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.
The 2002 St Leger produced a hugely popular result when Bollin Eric, trained near Malton by Tim Easterby, became the first Yorkshire-trained winner of Yorkshire’s Classic since Peleid in 1973.
The 2006 renewal at York was won by Sixties Icon, who saw off The Last Drop and Red Rocks (successful later that season in the Breeders’ Cup Turf) to provide trainer Jeremy Noseda with his first English Classic victory.
Despite saddling 25 runners in the contest, no less than five of whom finished runner-up, the Ladbrokes St Leger was the only Classic to have eluded the then nine-time champion trainer Sir Michael Stoute. However, that statistic finally changed in 2008 when Conduit prevailed. Having been deserted by stable jockey Ryan Moore, Conduit gave Frankie Dettori a fifth success in the Classic, making him the most successful current jockey. The Ballymacoll Stud-owned colt went on to prove himself one of the best recent winners of the Ladbrokes St Leger with two victories in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in the USA and the 2009 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.
Masked Marvel set a new course record of 3m 0.44s in 2011, handing trainer John Gosden a third victory in five years and a fourth in all. Gosden’s other successes came courtesy of Shantou (1996), Lucarno (2007) and Arctic Cosmos (2010).
Huge crowds flocked to Town Moor in 2012 to see Camelot’s bid to become the 16th Triple Crown winner. The son of Montjeu, trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by his son Joseph, had captured the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Irish Derby, but failed to reel in Godolphin’s Encke, who held on by three quarters of a length.
In 2014, there was a first Classic success for trainer Roger Varian and jockey Andrea Atzeni as Kingston Hill came home a length and a quarter in front of Romsdal.
Atzeni was also the centre of attention in 2015 after his mount Simple Verse, who was supplemented at a cost of £50,000, was controversially and dramatically demoted after a thrilling finish by the Doncaster stewards at a lengthy enquiry for causing interference to head runner-up Bondi Beach, trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Colm O’Donoghue.
Connections of Simple Verse – trainer Ralph Beckett and owner Qatar Racing Limited which is headed by Sheikh Fahad Al Thani – launched an appeal and the decision was reversed by the British Horseracing Authority 11 days later. Simple Verse became the first filly to win the Ladbrokes St Leger since User Friendly in 1992.