JAMES DOYLE has no doubt about the enduring importance of the Ladbrokes St Leger as he attempts to cap an extraordinary year in the saddle by partnering Snow Sky to victory in the world’s oldest race.
“It is a Classic and they are the priority at the end of the day,” said Doyle, who would barely have time to doff the St Leger cap that is traditionally presented to the winning jockey before flying off to Ireland to partner old favourite Al Kazeem in the Irish Champion Stakes three hours later.
“It is hectic, but as long as everything goes smoothly, and there is no reason why it should not, these are the races you want to be riding in. Group Ones; they’re the benchmarks.”
The eloquence of the 26-year-old will reassure the Doncaster executive about the future prestige of the St Leger, a race first run in 1776, following the advent of the newly-formed Irish Champions Weekend.
To their relief, the racecourse – and longstanding sponsors Ladbrokes, who have contributed so much to the revival of the one mile six furlong championship for three-year-old stayers – have been rewarded with an ultra-competitive field of 14 runners, the joint-largest since 1982.
The line-up will almost certainly include ante-post favourite Kingston Hill after trainer Roger Varian accepted jockey Andrea Atzeni’s reassurances that ground conditions were not unsuitably fast on Town Moor for the Epsom Derby runner-up, who came to prominence by winning the prestigious Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster last October.
Watch our video above as we ‘ride’ the St Leger course with former jockey John Reid
Back in eighth was Snow Sky on that day – and Doyle is the first to admit that Kingston Hill is still the horse to beat despite concerns about the ground.
Yet Snow Sky’s supporters will draw heart from the colt’s eyecatching second to Luca Cumani’s potentially brilliant Postponed in last month’s Neptune Investment Great Voltigeur Stakes at York; the enduring shrewdness of trainer Sir Michael Stoute, who masterminded Estimate’s win the Doncaster Cup yesterday for the Queen, and Doyle’s confidence since becoming Prince Khalid Abdullah’s retained rider just over 12 months ago.
Though his first St Leger ride ended in a disappointment last year when Excess Knowledge was a distant 10th to Leading Light, Doyle has accumulated a succession of big races with horse of the year Kingman and also Lady Cecil’s Noble Mission, who was awarded the Group One Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud yesterday following the disqualification of first past the post Spiritjim.
“I’ve been really looking forward to the St Leger since the York race,” Doyle told The Yorkshire Post.
“The first two were eight lengths off the rest, and I know that Luca Cumani thinks Postponed could be a Group One horse in the making. I couldn’t fault him, to be honest with you.
“When we cruised up to Postponed, the winner just quickened again and we didn’t have the toe – we were just outkicked, but the extra two furlongs at Doncaster will be a definite advantage.”
This will be the horse’s 10th career start and the form is solid – Snow Sky beat Hartnell, one of three St Leger runners for Middleham trainer Mark Johnston, in the Lingfield Derby trial and outbattled Richard Hannon’s Windshear, another of today’s opponents, in the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood.
“He has progressed with each run,” observed Doyle.
“He has matured very well mentally and sharpened up physically. There’s nothing to it, just natural progression. I’ve ridden him at home plenty of times.
“Sir Michael is the master trainer. He has a real eye for a horse and he spots things in other horses that others don’t. He’s also prepared to be patient; he was prepared not to run the horse in the Derby because he knew there were races like the St Leger later in the year.”
This insight is also helping Doyle grow into his role as Prince Khalid’s retained rider – and the jockey lucky enough to wear the green, white and pink silks which will be forever associated with great equine champions like Dancing Brave, Frankel and now Kingman.
The only people who appeared surprised by the appointment were those who had not been following the jockey’s rise to prominence at former Derby-winning trainer Roger Charlton’s yard aboard horses of the calibre of Prince Khalid’s 2012 Dubai Duty Free winner Cityscape and last season’s triple Group One winner Al Kazeem, who is back in training after an unsuccessful breeding career at the Royal stud.
It was not just Doyle’s horsemanship that caught the eye of Prince Khalid and his racing manager Teddy Grimthorpe, the chairman of York Raceocurse.
It was also the jockey’s temperament, not least the fact that the ride on Kingman came at the expense of his best friend William Buick who is John Gosden’s stable jockey and who will be seeking a third St Leger win today in the past five renewals when he partners Epsom Derby third Romsdal.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the way the season has gone,” reflected Doyle who is closing in on a century of winners for 2014.
“To have a horse of the calibre of Kingman is a massive help. When Kingman races, there is an element of pressure, but you have to enjoy it. You can’t be a bundle of nerves when you ride him.
“He’s perfect in every way. He has a high cruising speed and a great turn of speed. He has that ability to turn on the gas when he has to.
“I was never worried in the Sussex Stakes when Toronado hit the front – experience and instinct tell you where the winning post is, when to pick up. It was electric, like driving a Ferrari. He’s due to race at Champions Day at Ascot next month and Rab Havlin, who rides him every day, says he hasn’t been in better nick.”
The one setback for Doyle came in the 2000 Guineas when Night Of Thunder prevailed in a messily run race after the field split into two groups on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile.
It means the jockey is still seeking his first win in the English Classic, though he did partner Kingman to success in the Irish 2000 Guineas when the champion was able to kick clear on the unsuitably soft ground.
“It’s a prestigious race and these are the ones that count,” added Doyle. “You have to respect Kingston Hill as the form he brings into the race is very strong. But Snow Sky has a massive chance. I believe the extra two furlongs and drying ground will suit. I can’t wait.”