ON form, there is no reason why the tough-as-teak Storm The Stars should not provide proud Yorkshireman William Haggas with a first victory in the Ladbrokes St Leger – Britain’s oldest Classic.
This, after all, is a horse with the best credentials going into Doncaster’s showpiece race. Good enough to be placed in both the Epsom and Irish Derbies, the colt’s sire, Sea The Stars, was Flat racing’s great champion of 2009.
However, Skipton-born Haggas, a “glass half empty” trainer ahead of big races when his stable has a fancied runner, is refusing to take anything for granted. That is despite his horse digging deep to edge out Bondi Beach, who re-opposes today, in York’s Great Voltigeur Stakes at the Ebor meeting – traditionally the most informative of trials for the St Leger which was first run in 1776 and sees thoroughbreds step up in trip to a stamina-searching mile and three-quarters.
It has proved too much for many, not least 2012 Epsom Derby hero Camelot, whose Triple Crown quest ended in a disappointing defeat, and Haggas is also conscious that this will be his horse’s ninth race this year and his colt has had a more arduous campaign than many of his seven rivals.
“He seems absolutely fine,” the 55-year-old trainer told The Yorkshire Post as he continues to bask in the glory of an unforgettable Ebor meeting in which he saddled five winners.
“I think you need a horse to stay. That is the most important ingredient. I hope he will stay. He races like he will stay and it is definitely worth a shout.
“We won’t know for sure until it happens. Yes, he’s had a hard season but he has only raced once since mid-July. We probably should have gone to the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp after the Irish Derby – we were being a little greedy and he was third – but we have been keen to only race against three-year-olds.”
Storm The Stars is very much emblematic of the uncanny ability of Haggas and wife Maureen, the daughter of the one and only Lester Piggott, to nurture young horses and be patient if necessary.
It is why this is only their third St Leger runner – their 1996 Epsom Derby winner Shaamit was not even entered for the blue riband race until Piggott convinced them otherwise.
Bought privately by Sheikh Juma when the horse did not make his reserve price at the Keeneland Sales, Haggas did not have to think twice when offered the chance to train Storm The Stars. “I only had to take one glance at the pedigree to say ‘thank you very much’,” said the trainer. “He’s no beauty, which is why he didn’t sell. He has become more beautiful as he has started to do well.”
There was slight disappointment when the prospect was narrowly beaten in a Nottingham maiden last October. However, hindsight suggests this form was very good – the winner, Golden Horn, would go on and win this year’s Derby from stablemate Jack Hobbs with Storm The Stars a far from disgraced third.
Already rock solid, this form was more than franked when Jack Hobbs and Storm The Stars filled the first two places in the Irish Derby when it became self-evident that the Haggas horse has struck up a good rapport with jockey Pat Cosgrave, who will be seeking his first Classic win today.
An unfussy rider who appears to handle pressure despite being one of the weighing room’s slightly more unfashionable names, the ride came about almost by chance. “He rang me up in February and asked if I needed anyone to ride out,” said Haggas, flag-beaerer for the White Rose county in this year’s St Leger. “I said ‘I’ll come back to you’. Three weeks later, I sent him an email saying he could come in, but that I could not make any promises. That’s how it is – a lot of my owners have their own retained riders – but I like Pat as a jockey and he works hard. He has fitted into the team well.”
The word ‘team’ – misused on many occasions – is instructive in this instance. After all, Somerville Lodge in Newmarket is home to 150 horses and 71 staff as the yard goes from “strength to strength” and Haggas is keen to share the credit for any success with his wife and their loyal staff.
“We try very hard to manage it – Maureen does a lot of the yard stuff,” explained Haggas. “It’s physically impossible for one person to do everything. She likes riding still and is very involved in the riding and I do the rest of it. Fortunately, we are still talking to each other so it means it is going relatively smoothly.”
Asked how they met, the trainer is slightly less forthcoming: “I don’t know...can’t remember. A bloody long time ago! The one great thing about our success, if you can call it that, is how much pleasure it gives my father (Brian) and Maureen’s parents (Lester and Susan).”
On the input of his father-in-law, whose eight St Leger wins from St Paddy (1960) to Commanche Run (1984) also included Nijinsky’s Triple Crown success of 1970, Haggas ventures diplomatically: “I think he thinks we have a rough idea about what we are doing. He makes suggestions very occasionally and he is worth listening to . He’s like us, he has no idea whether Storm The Stars will stay, but he thinks he will get the trip. The only time we will find out is in the race.”
If Storm The Stars does prevail today over Aidan O’Brien’s Bondi Beach and Fields Of Athenry, as well as a proven stayer in Simple Verse, who is bidding to become the first filly to land the St Leger since User Friendly prevailed in 1992 under resilient Yorkshire jockey George Duffield, Haggas will look skywards and remember his late mother, Christine Feather who passed away last year.
He could easily have pursued a career in cricket with Yorkshire, much to the chagrin of Geoffrey Boycott amongst others and still checks the side’s score in between finalising entries for his horses, but it was racing that provided the family with a lifeline after his parents separated.
While the trainer’s father concentrated on the Flat, his mother followed National Hunt racing and her Silver Buck – the 1982 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner – was one of the flag-bearers for Michael Dickinson when the then Harewood trainer was rewriting jump racing’s record books. “Silver Buck was special, both to my mother and me. He was so good that everyone got to know her. Having felt rejected, she felt loved again.”
Yet, if William Haggas does win the St Leger today, there will be another horse to rival Silver Buck for his affections – Storm The Stars.
Comment: Page 16, Section 1