The world’s oldest Classic horse race takes place at Doncaster each September. The term ‘Heritage Race’ could almost have been invented for a race which was first run in 1776.
The St Leger forms the final part of the colts’ and fillies Triple Crown and is open exclusively to 3 year olds, taking place over 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 132 yards each September.
Because of its standing, some of the all-time greats of Turf history have competed in the St Leger despite its distance, which in modern breeding and parlance is almost considered extreme.
The St Leger was originally established by Anthony St Leger, an army officer and politician of the late 18th Century, who lived close to Doncaster. The race was initially referred to as “A Sweepstake of 25 Guineas”, and its original distance was two miles. The rules stipulated that colts and geldings were to carry 8 stone and fillies would receive an allowance of 2 pounds.
The very first renewal took place at Cantley Common on 24 September 1776 and the event was won by an unnamed filly owned by the event’s organiser, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. The filly was later named Allabaculia.
The race gained its permanent title the St Leger Stakes, during a dinner party held in 1777 to discuss the following year’s race. It was suggested that it should be called the Rockingham Stakes in honour of the host, the Marquess of Rockingham, but the Marquess proposed that it should be named instead after Anthony St Leger. The event was moved to its present location, Town Moor, in 1778.
The 1789 race was awarded to Pewett after the first-placed Zanga was disqualified for jostling.
The first really significant winner of the St Leger was Champion, who in 1800 won the younger Epsom Derby before completing the double at Doncaster. Champion was ridden by the legendary Frank Buckle who would win the race for a second time aboard Sancho in 1804.
In 1813 the distance of the St Leger was reduced to 1 mile , 6 furlongs and 193 yards and has remained roughly the same since then.
Jockey Bill Scott rode the first of his record 9 winners of the St Leger some 8 years later and was successful on: Jack Spigot (1821), Memnon (1825), The Colonel (1828), Rowton (1829), Don John (1838), Charles the Twelfth (1839), Launcelot (1840), Satirist (1841) and Sir Tatton Sykes (1846).
Charles the Twelfth’s victory was noteworthy as the horse had dead-heated with Euclid but subsequently beat that horse in a run-off.
Then in 1849, the St Leger was won by The Flying Dutchman, a colt who completed the Derby-St Leger double and then later in his career, took part in perhaps the most famous match race of all time. As a 4 year old The Flying Dutchman had been defeated in the Doncaster Cup by that year’s Derby winner Voltigeur but a year later in 1851, the pair memorably had a rematch and it was The Flying Dutchman who famously prevailed this time.
Voltigeur also won the St Leger of 1850 but only after dead-heating with Russborough and then beating that horse in a run-off.
In 1853, West Australian became the first horse to complete the Triple Crown with victory in the St Leger. It was a feat that the outstanding French colt Gladiateur would repeat in 1865, as he dominated the racing scene. Three years later Formosa became the first to land the Fillies’ Triple Crown which was sealed with a 3 length victory in the St Leger.
During this period, trainer John Scott enjoyed an astonishing run of success in the St Leger, setting a tally of winners surely unlikely to ever be broken.
The outstanding American-bred colt Iroquis added the 1881 St Leger to his earlier Derby success, having been denied the Triple Crown when finishing second in the 2,000 Guineas. Ormonde, Isinglass and Persimmon were other notable names to figure on the winner’s role for the St Leger as the 19th Century came to a close, with Fred Archer winning the race for a sixth time aboard Ormonde in 1886.
Ormonde in fact, sired the last winner of the St Leger in the 19th Century, as Flying Fox completed the Triple Crown in 1899.
The new Century got under way with a Royal winner as Diamond Jubilee won the 1900 St Leger for HRH Prince of Wales. The new decade saw some vintage winners of the St Leger, some of the truly great names in racing history in a golden period for the race.
In 1902 the quite brilliant filly Sceptre, became the only horse in the history of the sport to win 4 English Classics, with victory in the St Leger. This remarkable filly might well have completed the full nap hand but a bruised foot put her Derby participation in doubt and in the end she finished fourth.
Just a year later Rock Sand became the tenth winner of the English Triple Crown when he won the St Leger by an easy 4 lengths. Just a year later along came the great Pretty Polly, who duly became the fifth to win the Fillies’ Triple Crown in a glittering career.
The following decade was of course dominated by the First World War and a substitute race for the St Leger, called The September Stakes, was established on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, over a distance of 1 mile and 6 furlongs. This took place from 1915-1918 and in the first of those years Pommern landed a war-time version of the Triple Crown. In 1917, Gay Crusader repeated the Newmarket treble and both horses were ridden by the great Steve Donoghue. One year later remarkable, Gainsborough also completed the same hat-trick of victories, having won Ascot’s Gold Cup after his Derby success.
The race eventually returned to Doncaster and Solario was a notable winner in 1925. In 1933 the diminutive Hyperion, a son of Gainsborough, added the St Leger to earlier victory in the Epsom Derby. Windsor Lad repeated that marvellous double just a year later and then in 1935 Bahram completed the Triple Crown in a glorious unbeaten career.
The Second World War broke out in 1939 and the St Leger was cancelled that year before embarking on a tour of racecourses during the following years.
In 1940 The Yorkshire St Leger Stakes took place at Thirsk over 1 mile and 7 furlongs and was won by Turkhan. A year later The New St Leger Stakes took place at Manchester over a furlong shorter and went to Sun Castle.
From 1942 to 1944 The New St Leger Stakes took place over 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 150 yards on Newmarket’s July Course. The race (and that year’s Triple Crown) went to the brilliant Sun Chariot, a daughter of Hyperion. Another smart filly Herringbone, won the 1,000 Guineas and St Leger at Newmarket the following season. Tehran then won the race in 1944, a fifth St Leger win for Sir Gordon Richards.
Then in 1945 the race returned to Yorkshire as York staged The St Leger Stakes over 1 mile and 6 furlongs and was won by Chamossaire.
Finally the race returned to Doncaster in 1946 and the Derby winner Airborne completed his Classic double. Tulyar would follow suit in 1952 and also won the Eclipse Stakes and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in a glittering career.
A couple of years later, the Derby winner Never Say Die bolted up in the St Leger, winning the race by 12 lengths, a record margin of victory. The following year, 1955, the top class filly Meld completed the Fillies’ Triple Crown with a narrow victory in the St Leger, having survived an objection. IN 1957 Ballymoss became the first Irish trained winner of the St Leger and went on to become an outstanding colt at 4, winning the King George and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
The 1960s opened with the new superstar jockey Lester Piggott, winning the first of 8 St Legers aboard the Derby winner St Paddy. In 1962 Hethersett had been favourite for the Epsom Derby but had fallen during a horrific pile-up. Later that season he deservedly gained Classic glory in the St Leger to make up for that unfortunate incident at Epsom.
Provoke was an easy 10 length winner of the race in 1965 and would not be the first shock winner of the St Leger ridden by Joe Mercer. Then in 1967 and 1968, Lester Piggott rode Ribocco and Ribero to victory for Fulke Johnson Houghton, in the colours of Charles Engelhard, which would very shortly become hugely famous.
After Intermezzo had landed the 1969 St Leger came the glorious summer of 1970, dominated by one horse in those green and yellow Charles Engelhard colours. That horse was Nijinsky, who fantastically galloped his way through the 2,000 Guineas, Derby, Irish Derby and King George before a bout of ring worm put his St Leger bid in doubt. Thankfully he recovered in time and Dr Vincent O’Brien saddled the superstar for a workmanlike rather than spectacular victory, to become the first horse for 35 years to achieve the colt’s Triple Crown – and at the time of writing, he remains the last to do so.
Despite finishing only fourth in the Derby, Bustino was the top British middle distance 3 year old of 1974 and put that Epsom run behind him to win the Great Voltigeur Stakes and then the St Leger. Like his sire Busted, Bustino improved with age and was the second half of that unforgettable two-horse war for the 1975 King George, narrowly going down to Grundy.
After Crow had won the 1976 St Leger, there was a Royal winner in Jubilee Year. Her Majesty The Queen’s Dunfermline had landed the Oaks earlier in the year but faced a formidable rival in the shape of the hitherto unbeaten Dr Vincent O’Brien colt Alleged, who had stormed to victory in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York. As the pacemaker dropped away, Alleged went into the lead with 2 furlongs to race but was joined by Willie Carson on Dunfermline and the pair pulled clear of their rivals, battling all the way to the line, where Dunfermline’s stamina won the day by 1 ½ lengths. Alleged was a great horse and this proved the only defeat of his 10 race career, which included two victories in the Arc.
The great Sir Henry Cecil won the first of his 4 St Legers – all achieved in the same decade, in 1980, thanks to Light Cavalry, a colt owned by Jim Joel. Light Cavalry’s main rival was the Major Dick Hern colt Watermill who was unable to match Joe Mercer’s colt.
A year later Mercer and Hern teamed up for an unlikely looking challenge in the 1981 St Leger, after stable jockey Willie Carson had been badly injured in a horrific fall at York in August. Mercer was aboard Cut Above, a colt with useful but unspectacular form, who had been well and truly beaten by the imperious St Leger favourite, the dual Derby winner Shergar, in the Irish Derby. In one of the race’s great shocks, Shergar failed to get on terms with the leading trio of Bustomi, Cut Above and Glint Of Gold – and on all known form Shergar easily had the beating of all three. However as the odds-on favourite back pedalled, Cut Above and Joe Mercer came to the front to deny Epsom runner-up Glint of Gold in a memorable race.
Another Derby runner-up, Touching Wood, won the 1982 St Leger, before following up in the Irish equivalent soon afterwards. Touching Wood’s victory was significant as it represented the first English Classic success for the Al Maktoum family.
In 1983 the St Leger went to that gutsy Oaks winner Sun Princess, who revelled in the soft ground and later came very close to winning the Arc de Triomphe, being just denied by All Along.
A year later Doncaster was the setting as Commanche Run provided an emotional record 28th Classic victory for jockey Lester Piggott, breaking Frank Buckle’s long-standing record. However, 1984 saw Piggott part company with trainer Sir Henry Cecil and that meant he would lose the 1985 ride on a filly of great potential: Oh So Sharp.
Sure enough, under new stable jockey Steve Cauthen, Oh So Sharp got up to land the 1,000 Guineas with a dramatic late burst of speed in a tight three-way photograph finish. At Epsom she was brilliant in landing the Oaks but then lost her unbeaten record narrowly when Petoski won the King George at Ascot. At York, in the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup, Oh So Sharp was then denied, ironically by Piggott riding Commanche Run. Oh So Sharp then headed to Doncaster for the St Leger, with the only real doubts surrounding her ability to stay the trip. Piggott was back on a Cecil horse, riding the white faced Lanfranco, but the sheer guts and class of Oh So Sharp toughed it out as she famously landed the Fillies’ Triple Crown. She remains to this day the last colt or filly to accomplish the Triple Crown in England.
The 1986 St Leger was won by John Dunlop’s progressive colt Moon Madness but a year later, the race enjoyed renewed impetus as Sir Henry Cecil ran his Epsom Derby and King George winner Reference Point. The front-running son of Mill Reef had impressed at Doncaster in the Futurity Stakes the previous year and had plenty in hand as he added a second Classic to his impressive haul of big race wins.
Cecil sent another Classic winner to Doncaster the following year as his tiny Oaks winning filly Diminuendo, looked to follow-up her impressive Epsom and Yorkshire Oaks successes with St Leger glory. However, Major Dick Hern and Willie Carson were back in top form (although Major Hern underwent heart surgery and at the time of the St Leger the horse was officially trained by assistant trainer Neil Graham). Carson’s home-bred colt Minster Son out-battled the filly through the last quarter of a mile, staying on stoutly to win, making Carson the first jockey to breed and ride an English Classic winner.
In 1989, disaster struck Doncaster after a series of falls, most notably in the Portland Handicap, resulted in the meeting being abandoned due to drainage problems. The St Leger was moved to Ayr and took place a week later, with Sir Henry Cecil’s Michelozzo running away with the race to give the master trainer his fourth winner of the decade.
Thankfully by 1990 Doncaster’s course was safe again and the St Leger went to the classy Paul Cole colt Snurge. The following year saw a rare French winner as Toulon – a colt with a brilliant turn of foot, beat the smart Saddler’s Hall.
The fine record of Oaks winners was further enhanced in 1992 when Clive Brittain’s User Friendly, at this stage still unbeaten, added the St Leger to her impressive haul of victories that included Epsom and Irish Oaks and a Yorkshire Oaks, all under fine rides from George Duffield. She then finished a narrow second to Subotica in the Arc.
Undoubtedly the most significant trial for the St Leger is usually the Great Voltigeur Stakes, run at York’s Ebor Festival each August. In 1993, the Great Voltigeur Stakes was won in impressive fashion by Bob’s Return, who became all the rage for the St Leger. Mark Tompkin’s popular, almost black colt had plenty of stamina at Doncaster, easily disposing of his main rival Armiger.
In 1994 there was another shock winner as the chestnut colt Moonax divided family loyalties. In winning, the Barry Hills trained colt defeated Broadway Flyer, trained by his son John and ridden by another son Michael. The colt often had a bad temper but was good enough to add the Prix Royal Oak later the same year, becoming Champion European Stayer, the only 3 year old ever to accomplish this feat.
Moonax was owned by Sheikh Mohamed who by 1995 had very much established his Godolphin string as a force to be reckoned with. In the St Leger that September, Classic Cliche demonstrated further evidence of the growing force in British and international racing, as he provided jockey Frankie Dettori with his 1,000th career success.
A year later, Shantou, racing in Sheikh Mohamed’s normal maroon silks and white sleeves, added another victory for the owner and jockey – and a first English Classic victory for trainer John Gosden.
The 1997 St Leger took place in a sombre atmosphere in the aftermath of the tragic death of Diana, Princess Of Wales. The race was won in impressive fashion by Silver Patriach, a popular grey colt who had been narrowly beaten in the Derby and would race on for a couple more years. Silver Patriach’s success provided jockey Pat Eddery with his 4,000th domestic career win.
Nedawi gave Godolphin and trainer Saeed bin Suroor a second St Leger in 1998 and a year later the same combination won again, as Mutafaweq bravely defeated the impressive Oaks winner Ramruna.
The new century duly arrived and the St Leger for the Millennium was won by Millenary, a colt by Rainbow Quest who raced on until he was 8 years old and maintained plenty of talent, notably in Cup races.
By the turn of the century Aidan O’Brien was already making a name for himself but 2001 proved a quite extraordinary year for the young master of Ballydoyle. That season Coolmore enjoyed no fewer than 23 Group 1 victories, including the English Derby, Oaks and St Leger. Whilst Galileo proved an outstanding racehorse who won the English and Irish Derbies and King George, Milan was no back number as he proved with a brilliant performance to win the St Leger.
In 2002 the Doncaster crowd were able to celebrate a local winner for the first time since Peleid had won the race in 1973. Bollin Eric had proved a most consistent colt in St Leger trials races and on the day brought his A-game to give Yorkshire trainer Tim Easterby and unforgettable Classic victory.
A year on saw Aidan O’Brien win his second St Leger thanks to Brian Boru, who had proved slow to come to hand in 2003, after a promising juvenile season.
Godolphin were back on top in 2004 when Derby runner-up Rule Of Law narrowly defeated the Yorkshire Oaks winner Quiff, to give Australian jockey Kerrin McEvoy and English Classic win. Then once again the impetus switched to Aidan O’Brien and Ballydoyle, as Scorpion ran out an impressive winner in 2005.
With redevelopment work taking place at Doncaster, the 2006 St Leger was run at York and went to the improving Jeremy Noseda trained colt Sixties Icon, who beat a subsequent Breeders’ Cup hero Red Rocks.
Another late improving colt landed the 2007 race for John Gosden, who was developing into a key player in the St Leger. Lucarno did not race at two and finished fourth in the Derby, less than 6 weeks after making his racecourse debut. Racing in the George Strawbridge silks, the colt progressed during the summer and landed the Great Voltigeur Stakes before beating Mahler by a length in the St Leger.
Sir Michael Stoute had come close to winning the St Leger on many occasions, stretching back to Shergar’s 1981 defeat. Teaming up with Frankie Dettori, the popular trainer finally broke his St Leger hoodoo in 2008, with the hugely progressive Conduit, a colt who had been racing in handicaps earlier in the season. Conduit ultimately proved top class, winning a King George and two Breeders’ Cup Turf races.
By 2009 Godolphin’s grip on British racing had been very much loosened but the royal blue silks were carried to a one-two finish in the St Leger as the unfancied Mastery defeated Kite Wood.
John Gosden then unleashed another improving ex-handicapper on the Doncaster Classic. Arctic Cosmos had run well in defeat in the King Edward VII Stakes and Gordon Stakes but before Doncaster, the colt’s only two victories had come on the Wolverhampton and Kempton Park all-weather surfaces. At Doncaster however, the colt really came into his own, defeating a classy field that contained Midas Touch (second), Oaks and multiple Group 1 winning filly Snow Fairy, Rewilding, Dandino and Joshua Tree.
Gosden was successful again the following year, as Masked Marvel built on his July victory in the Bahrain Trophy, to beat another good field containing Brown Panther, Sea Moon and the 1,000 Guineas heroine Blue Bunting.
It had been 7 years since Aidan O’Brien had trained a St Leger winner but the general consensus was that he would be back in the Winners’ Enclosure in 2012. There was added interest on a national scale, as the horse expected to deliver was none other than Camelot, who was bidding to become the first Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky. Camelot had landed the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, before winning a soft ground Irish Derby in late June. Camelot started odds-on favourite and the remaining 8 runners were all racing at double figure odds, such was the certainty that Camelot would prevail. However, not for the first time, the St Leger provided a shock outcome up that long home straight.
As the field reached the half mile pole it was Thought Worthy – another Gosden runner, who hit the front, as the hot favourite and Joseph O’Brien bided their time in behind horses. At the quarter mile pole Encke and Mickael Barzalona swept into the lead as Camelot got closer. However Encke had momentum and opened up a gap, with Camelot unable to immediately hit top gear and whilst the favourite closed in the final furlong, it was not eye catching progress and the horse with first run comfortably held the Triple Crown seeker. The aftermath was one of disappointment; however that was nothing compared to what ensued the following spring.
Encke raced in the Godolphin silks for trained Mahmood Al Zarooni, who was found guilty of administering illegal steroids to horses. Among those who had tested positive was Encke, although the horse did not fail a dope test after his St Leger victory and kept the race. The horse was however banned from racing whilst Al Zarooni was banned from racing in disgrace.
After such controversy and anti-climax, the 2013 St Leger needed a good feel story. That ray of brilliance came to Doncaster in the form of Leading Light, who shined brightest of all. The Aidan O’Brien colt made up for the stable’s disappointment a year earlier with a terrific performance to beat the gutsy Oaks winner Talent and the Derby second and third Libertarian and Galileo Rock.
In 2014, class very much came to the surface in the final Classic, as the Derby runner-up Kingston Hill landed the spoils, before running a big race in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Controversy courted the 2015 Ladbrokes St Leger and the outcome of the race was not known for several day.
The progressive Ralph Beckett filly Simple Verse was short of room in the home straight, as Storm The Stars and Bondi Beach made their bids for victory. Andrea Atzeni had to work hard to find daylight, in the process becoming involved in a bumping match with Bondi Beach.
Storm The Stars held the lead at the furlong pole, but the duelling pair soon caught and passed him and it was Simple Verse who narrowly gained the verdict from Bondi Beach in a tight finish.
However, the claxon soon sounded and after a protracted Stewards’ Enquiry, Simple Verse was disqualified, with Bondi Beach declared the winner.
Connections of Simple Verse appealed the decision and several days later the result was dramatically reversed.
2017 saw more drama and a Davis versus Goliath outcome.
Idaho, placed in two Derbies and winner of the Great Voltigeur Stakes, looked a prime candidate for St Leger glory. The Aidan O’Brien colt travelled well into the straight, but then dramatically stumbled and lost his rider, galloping loose.
It was Harbour Law, trained in Epsom by Laura Mongan and ridden by George Baker, who capitalised to win maiden Classics for his connections.
A year on and Coolmore gained its revenge as Irish Derby winner Capri, won a classy renewal, beating future Gold Cup winner Stradivarius and the smart Crystal Ocean.
Just about everything that can happen has happened in the St Leger; class acts, shocks and records have all regularly fallen in the St Leger and the future is sure to unfold with plenty more drama on Town Moor.
Winners of the St Leger Stakes
|1815||Filho da Puta|
|1835||Queen of Trumps|
|1839||Charles the Twelfth|
|1846||Sir Tatton Sykes|
|1849||The Flying Dutchman|
|1854||Knight of St George|
|1880||Robert the Devil|
|1954||Never Say Die|
|1979||Son of Love|
|1985||Oh So Sharp|
|2004||Rule of Law|