CHAMPION trainer John Gosden has launched a passionate defence of the Ladbrokes St Leger – and says it is vital that horse racing recognises the importance of longer-distance races.
He will seek to win the world’s oldest Classic for a fifth time today when he saddles Royal Ascot third Muntahaa who is regarded as the main threat to Aidan O’Brien’s odds-on favourite Idaho.
Twenty years after Gosden won his first St Leger courtesy of the Frankie Dettori-ridden Shantou, the Doncaster showpiece – first run in 1776 – faces another crossroads in its long and illustrious history.
The headline sponsorship of Ladbrokes ends today after 12 years which restored the reputation of the Group One contest – and which saw Camelot come agonisingly close to landing the fabled Triple Crown four years ago. The bookmaker’s payments to the betting levy do not comply with the British Horseracing Authority’s new protocols.
Yet the stayers’ prize, over one and three quarter miles, also now clashes with the newly-formed Irish Champions Weekend – the main race at Leopardstown tonight, the Irish Champion Stakes, sees dual Derby winner Harzand up against O’Brien’s multiple Group One-winning filly (and horse of the year) Minding as well as horses of the calibre of The Grey Gatsby from the North Yorkshire yard of Kevin Ryan.
“The St Leger is so important in our calendar,” said Gosden whose five-furlong speedster Ardad took yesterday’s Group Two Flying Childers Stakes at Doncaster under the aforementioned Dettori.
“The staying races are so important – with a four or five-year-old stayer, you dream of Ascot Gold Cups, the race on Champions Day, the Doncaster Cup, the Goodwood Cup and starting off in the Sagaro at Ascot.
“You tell me – what would you think if you went to Royal Ascot and all you had was sprint and a few races on the Old Mile? It is the staying races that capture people’s imagination whether it’s the Ascot Stakes, the Gold Cup itself or the Queen Alexandra.”
Gosden says it is important to encourage the breeding of true stayers, rather than pure milers who are all speed, because of the consequences for National Hunt racing where all contests are at least two miles long. “What a lot of people don’t realise is how hard and expensive it is to breed the staying horses,” he added.
“Most of them are so slow and not quick enough for the Jumps boys. If this breed dies out, we are in big trouble because we would lose a third of our programme and we would be left with the American way – homogenous, boring, one-turn racing. In America these days, a mile and a half is regarded as a marathon.”
Yet, while Muntahaa has solid claims for former champion jockey Paul Hanagan, the race does appear to revolve around Idaho who will be ridden by Seamie Heffernan because Ryan Moore – the O’Brien stable’s main rider – is required for the earlier contests at Leopardstown.
Though Idaho won York’s Great Voltigeur Stakes, the early pace on the Knavesmire was decidely moderate and the additional two furlongs at Doncaster will be a much more exacting stamina test if the ground is rain-softened as forecast.
“You never can be confident but we have always thought he would get the trip in the St Leger. He seems to relax and is a full-brother to Highland Reel who stays a mile and a half well,” said O’Brien, who also runs Housesofparliament and Sword Fighter. “I think Idaho is the same category as my four previous winners. He has a very high level of form over 10 and 12 furlongs and is an uncomplicated horse who relaxes well.”
North Yorkshire jockeys Graham Lee and Phil Makin partner the respective outsiders Harrison and The Tartan Spartain while history will be made if Harbour Law is first past the post – Epsom’s Laura Mongan would become the first female trace to win the St Leger.
Her husband Ian, a former jockey, will drive the horse box to the races and said: “For Laura and I to have a runner in a Classic and rub shoulders with the likes of Aidan O’Brien is great. I am just hoping Harbour Law puts on a good show. Fingers crossed, maybe he might win. We want to win although I think the prize money for second is pretty good too!”
Harbour Law will be ridden by George Baker who came agonisingly close to winning the 250th Doncaster Cup yesterday on Quest For More.
He attempted to make every yard of the two and a quarter mile trip on Roger Charlton’s ultra-consistent horse, but was caught in the final stride by Martin Harley on Sheikhzayedroad.
It was a deserved win for the David Simcock-trained victor who finished third in the Ascot Gold Cup and Goodwood Cup. “I didn’t want to hit the front three (furlongs) down as he is a little bit quirky, but he’s tough and he put his head down in the right place at the right time,” said Harley.
Racing: Pages 10-11