As the crowds gather for the opening day of Royal Ascot, one sometimes wonders how much the audience appreciates the quality of equine flesh on show.
The Tuesday of the Royal Meeting lays strong claim to be one of the highest quality race cards of the year anywhere in the world, with its centre piece the St James’s Palace Stakes.
The St. James’s Palace Stakes is a Group 1 race open to three-year-old colts and raced over the round mile at Ascot, formerly known as the Old Mile before the course was reconfigured in 2005.
The event is named after St. James’s Palace, a royal residence during the Tudor period. The race was established in 1834, and the inaugural race was a walkover.
The present system of race grading was introduced in 1971, and for a period the St. James’s Palace Stakes was classed at Group 2 level but attained the Group 1 status its rich history of winners demanded in 1988.
The race often attracts the very highest standard of 3 year old mile colts and in essence often determines the champion miler in this division. In exceptional years the 2,000 Guineas winner might target the Epsom Derby but if the Guineas winner is considered a miler, then the St James’s Palace Stakes is often the next big target.
The same applies to the winners of the French and Irish 2,000 Guineas and the placed horses who might have been unlucky previously – not to mention other horses that maybe missed the Classics due to their taking place so early in the year.
So it can be considered that the St James’s Palace Stakes brings together all of the leading components of the 3 year old colt mile division in one great contest. Ultimately the colt that lands this prestigious race is almost certainly assured a place at stud and a good book of mares.
That first running in 1834 was won by the Derby winner Plenipotentiary, who was scheduled to race against the Epsom third Glencoe. However Lord Jersey withdrew his horse leaving Plenipotentiary to walk over and collect the substantial prize of £850. Even so, the first running had underlined the class of the race as it had attracted the Derby winner.
The 19th Century saw trainer Mathew Dawson excel in the race, saddling the winner on six occasions thanks to: The Reiver (1853), Gladstone (1863), Queen’s Messenger (1872), Great Tom (1876), Galliard (1883) and Galore (who dead-heated with Ossory in 1888).
The 1880 winner was Bend Or, a colt who once again had won the Epsom Derby a few weeks earlier and the horse legendary multiple Champion Jockey Fred Archer described as probably the best horse he ever rode.
A year later the American colt Iroquois followed-up his Epsom Derby triumph with victory in the St James’s Palace Stakes. Ormonde was another brilliant winner in 1886.
The 20th Century began with some outstanding racehorses on the track and the 1902 renewal of the St James’s Palace Stakes went to the brilliant filly Sceptre who won four Classics that year. A year on the Derby winner Rock Sand landed the prize before taking on the filly in a memorable Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park. Both horses had also won the 2,000 Guineas before winning at Royal Ascot.
Slieve Gallion (1907) and Minoru (1909) also completed the Guineas-St James’s Palace Stakes double but war was looming and the race did not take place between 1915 and 1918.
When the race returned in 1919 the standard of winner remained as high as ever and Derby winner Grand Parade took the prize. Another Derby winner Captain Cuttle also won the St James’s Palace Stakes in 1922.
In 1935 there was an outstanding winner in the shape of Bahram, who had already won the 2,000 Guineas and Derby and would in time land the St Leger as well.
In 1941 Orthodox won a War-time renewal at Newmarket but that was the only running of the St James’s Palace Stakes between 1939 and 1945.
The 1947 renewal went to a special colt in Tudor Minstrel, who had annihilated his rivals in the 2,000 Guineas and was one of the all-time great milers. Palestine was another Guineas winner to win the race in 1950.
The race continued to attract the very best and in 1967 heralded the launch pad for the year’s Champion Miler Reform, who had missed the Classics but proved an outstanding colt, eventually defeating the dual Classic winner Royal Palace.
A year later the race went to Petingo, who was a smart two year old and gained compensation for defeat by Sir Ivor in the 2,000 Guineas. Having landed the St James’s Palace Stakes, Petingo won the Sussex Stakes before retiring to stud, where he sired Troy.
The changes in British racing did not impact on the St James’s Palace Stakes and perhaps one of its greatest ever winners was Brigadier Gerard in 1971.
Sun Prince, Thatch and Guineas winner Bolkonski heralded a golden era for the race throughout the 1970s and the decade ended with that great miler Kris gaining compensation for his narrow Guineas defeat with a superb success for Sir Henry Cecil. Kris would go on to win 14 of his 16 races in a glittering career.
A year later Posse was another to find redemption at Royal Ascot. John Dunlop’s colt had been badly hampered by Nureyev in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket and had placed in the Irish equivalent but at Ascot, proved an improved horse. His St James’s Palace Stakes win defined him as an outstanding miler and he confirmed that later in the year with Sussex Stakes victory.
In 1981 there was controversy and fierce rivalry in abundance in a fiery England versus Ireland clash. Guy Harwood’s To-Agori-Mou had won the English 2,000 Guineas but at the Curragh in the Irish equivalent, there was huge controversy as the Vincent O’Brien colt King’s Lake finished first past the post, was disqualified for bumping his rival – and then reinstated by the Irish stewards. A feeling of bitter rivalry built-up over the following weeks and the rematch took place in the St James’s Palace Stakes with the two colts battling stride for stride. As had happened at the Curragh, the pair were virtually inseparable throughout the final furlong but it was the English colt To-Agori-Mou who had his head in front and controversially his jockey Greville Starkey appeared to give fellow jockey Pat Eddery the ‘V’ sign as they pulled up.
Dara Monarch’s 1982 win was a little more subdued as he followed up his Irish Guineas victory. It also signalled the arrival of one of the great jockeys of the modern era, as Michael Kinane won the first of his record six triumphs in the race, also winning with Brief Truce (1992), Grand Lodge (1994), Giant’s Causeway (2000), Rock Of Gibraltar (2002) and Azamour (2004).
In 1983 the Matt McCormack-trained Horage was a brave all-the-way winner under Steve Cauthen, beating Guineas runner-up Tolomeo. A year later Chief Singer blitzed his field by 8 lengths to underline his fine Guineas performance when second to El Gran Senor was no flash in the pan. This outstanding colt would later beat the sprinters in the July Cup and also land the Sussex Stakes to become Champion Miler.
In 1985 another Guineas runner-up gained compensation in the St James’s Palace Stakes when Bairn and Lester Piggott were successful. Sure Blade, racing in the same Sheikh Mohammed colours as Bairn, won the race in 1986, defeating the magnificent sprinter and champion sire Green Desert. Sure Blade later won the Queen Elizabeth IInd Stakes.
In 1987 there was a fascinating clash as Don’t Forget Me, winner of the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas, clashed with the French Guineas winner Soviet Star. However, the unexposed and lightly-raced colt Half A Year gave Luca Cumani a second win in three renewals, having previously trained Bairn.
With the race granted Group 1 status finally, Persian Heights gained his biggest career success in 1988 although he was later first past the post in the Juddmonte International at York, before being disqualified. A year later Shaadi landed the race having earlier won the Irish Guineas.
In 1990 the Lord Howard de Walden silks that Kris had carried with such distinction, were back in the winners’ enclosure courtesy of Shavian.
By this stage, the trend for running in the St James’s Palace Stakes after the Derby was pretty much at an end. However, in 1991 Marju evoked memories of a bygone era, defeating the lightly-raced future Sussex Stakes winner Second Set. Marju had won the Craven Stakes, been injured in the Guineas and then chased home Generous, to finish 5 lengths second in the Derby. He made a quick reappearance and was a brilliant winner of the St James’s Palace Stakes but subsequent injury meant he was never the same horse again.
The 1992 renewal of the St James’s Palace Stakes had worldwide interest as the mouth watering prospect of a clash of titans became a reality. Rodrigo de Triano had been unbeaten at two, culminating in victories in the Champagne Stakes and Middle Park Stakes. Having lost on his seasonal return in the Greenham, he brilliantly landed the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas before flopping in the Derby. But here he was dropping back to his preferred mile trip. UP against him was Arazi, the champion two year old in Europe in 1991, who had demolished his rivals in France’s top juvenile contests before his astonishing victory at the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs. That performance was out of this world and remains to this day one of the most iconic images. However knee surgery during the winter was the prelude to a disappointing 1992 campaign in which he had run down the field in the Kentucky Derby. Now in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed, Arazi came to Royal Ascot with his heir of invincibility shattered but still an awesome prospect.
However, neither colt figured in the finish, both challenging wide as the front-running Zaahi made a bold bid to hang on next to the rails. In the final furlong he was joined by the Irish colt Brief Truce and the pair flashed past the post locked in battle. But it was the Michael Kinane-ridden, Dermot-Weld trained Brief Truce who had got up. Ezzoud finished third and remarkably the two titans were out of the three.
In 1993 fast ground resulted in a tiny field but did not compromise on quality, as the classy French colt Kingmambo, winner of the French Guineas, won the race.
A year later the race went the way of Grand Lodge in those famous Lord Howard de Walden apricot silks. The colt had finished a close second in the 2,000 Guineas and beat the exciting Henry Cecil colt Distant View, who would later land the Sussex Stakes. The runaway Irish Guineas winner Turtle Island came third on the faster surface.
In 1995, Bahri laid the foundations for a great season with victory in the St James’s Palace Stakes. The colt had come off third best in the 2,000 Guineas, behind the outstanding pair Pennekamp and Celtic Swing. After winning at Royal Ascot Bahri would later lower the colours of the brilliant filly Ridgewood Pearl in the Queen Elizabeth IInd Stakes, in a race made famous for Willie Carson’s tactics, steering the colt wide under the Ascot tress in search of better ground.
The 1996 renewal brought about an exciting clash as English 2,000 Guineas winner Mark Of Esteem, Irish Guineas winner Spinning World and French Guineas winner Ashkalani all clashed. But it was Bijou D’Inde, a close third in the Newmarket Classic, who repelled Ashkalani in a memorable race.
Starborough, fourth in the 2,000 Guineas, had won the Prix Jean Prat before lining-up in the 1997 St James’s Palace Stakes. Up against him were two smart colts in the shape of Daylami the French Guineas winner and Irish Guineas winner Desert King. However Sheikh Mohammed’s colt was at the peak of his powers and Starborough landed the race from Air Express who would later win the QEII. Desert King would later win the Irish Derby and Daylami would excel over longer distances.
Rain-softened ground greeted the runners in 1998 and Henry Cecil’s Dr Fong excelled in such conditions, getting the better of a great tussle with Irish Guineas winner Desert Prince.
A year later the outstanding French colt Sendawar came to England with strong credentials, having defeated Dansili in the French Guineas. Racing in the Aga Khan’s colours, he was trying to put to right the defeats in recent years of Ashkalani and Daylami. In a brilliant demonstration he easily beat Aljabr, a smart Godolphin colt who would win the Sussex Stakes later in the year.
The new Millennium heralded the arrival of trainer Aidan O’Brien, who in subsequent years has emulated the achievement of Mathew Dawson, by to date training six winners of the St James’s Palace Stakes. The first of those was ‘The Iron Horse’ better known as Giant’s Causeway. Second in the English and Irish Guineas, this tough chestnut got back to winning ways at Royal Ascot before landing a host of Group 1 prizes in an outstanding career.
O’Brien’s magic continued for the next two years as Black Minnaloushe and then the top class dual Guineas winner Rock Of Gibraltar brought up the Ballydoyle hat-trick in the race.
In 2003 Zafeen became the latest Guineas runner-up to go a place better in the St James’s Palace Stakes, giving trainer Mick Channon a big race success.
A year later, as Ascot prepared for major renovation and a new grand stand, Azamour served notice on his flourishing talent with an exciting success, beating among others the English and Irish Guineas winners Haafh’d and Bachelor Duke.
In 2005 Royal Ascot transferred to York and the race went the way of the outstanding colt Shamardal, who had won the Dewhurst Stakes at two and had won both the French Guineas and French Derby before dropping back to the mile at the Knavesmire. Sadly injury curtailed his career but York sealed a great racing career.
Araafa proved a classy horse in the early months of the 2006 season, shocking the odds-on favourite and Newmarket Guineas hero George Washington in the Irish equivalent. That victory had been on heavy ground but Araafa proved equally adept on a faster surface in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
In 2007 Aidan O’Brien saddled the 1-2-3 as Excellent Art defeated his smart stable mate Duke Of Marmalde, with French Guineas winner Astronomer Royal in third.
A year later the same owner-trainer combination were back in the winners’ circle as dual Guineas hero Henrythenavigator helped to spearhead a remarkable Royal Meeting for Ballydoyle. Having twice beaten the Derby winner New Approach in the English and Irish Guineas, Henrythenavigator beat the top class pair Raven’s Pass and Twice Over at Ascot and later landed the Sussex Stakes for good measure.
Mastercraftsman continued the O’Brien domination in 2009 and a year later the St James’s Palace Stakes provided comprehensive proof that Canford Cliffs truly stayed a mile, as he provided a brilliant performance.
However, Canford Cliffs would later test himself against the 2011 winner and come up short. No wonder, that horse was the great Frankel. In truth, the 2011 St James’s Palace Stakes goes down as one of Frankel’s least impressive performances, as he charged past his pacemaker early on and seemed to run out of petrol in the home straight, due to his earlier exertions. He almost got caught by Zoffany but held on to his lead and of course retired unbeaten 16 months later after 14 memorable races.
Frankel was always going to be a hard act to follow but Most Improved beat an unusually large field of 15 rivals in 2012.
The 2013 renewal saw a terrific clash between the English Guineas winner Dawn Approach, fresh from a disappointing effort where he had failed to settle in the Derby, taking on the highly-touted Toronado. The latter had disappointed in the Guineas when only fourth but the Hannons had put that defeat down to a throat infection. At Ascot Toronado was back to form and the pair settled down to fight out a finish reminiscent of the To-Agori-Mou-King’s Lake clashes of 1981. It was Jim Bolger’s Dawn Approach who got the verdict in the St James’s Palace Stakes but Toronado would gain his revenge in a similarly close encounter in the Sussex Stakes later in the summer.
In 2014 the St James’s Palace Stakes confirmed beyond any doubt that Kingman was a superstar. The John Gosden trained winner of the Irish 2,000 Guineas avenged his Newmarket Guineas defeat at the hands of Night Of Thunder, when producing a devastating turn of foot and by season’s end was confirmed beyond all doubt as the Champion Miler.
A year later the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas hero Gleneagles put up a championship performance to give trainer Aidan O’Brien his seventh winner of the race.
In 2016 another 2,000 Guineas winner landed the prize as Galileo Gold, under a fine front-running ride from Frankie Dettori, beat the French Guineas winner The Gurkha, with the Irish Guineas winner Awtaad in third place in a high class renewal, befitting of a race that produces stallions.
Hot weather basked the Royal Meeting in sunshine and fast ground in 2017 – and was partially blamed for the eclipse of dual Guineas winner Churchill, in the St James’s Palace Stakes, as old rival Barney Roy, gained his revenge.
In 2018, the big race went to the improving John Gosden colt Without Parole.
St James’s Palace Stakes winners since 1970