Donn's Articles » St Leger rays of light

St Leger rays of light

Fascinating how a season can turn in just one surge of power. Early on Wednesday afternoon, Sir Michael Stoute’s 2011 skies were looking pretty cloudy. Just 38 winners up there, none of them Classics, none of them Group 1s, struggling to make the first five in the trainers’ championship, and a stable jockey on the sidelines. Frankel this, Frankel that, the season was in danger of passing the be-knighted one by.

Then Richard Hughes gave Sea Moon a squeeze, and the sun started to shine.

It looked like Sea Moon was travelling well early in the home straight in the Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes, but just for a couple of strides, as he and Seamie Heffernan on the Aidan O’Brien-trained Seville squared up to each other a furlong and a half from home, you couldn’t have been certain which of them would move on and which of them would wilt. Then Hughes changed his hands, Sea Moon changed his legs, and the power that the pair of them conjured between them blew their rival’s challenge to smithereens.

The visual impression that this performance created was deep. The ease with which Sea Moon travelled, the manner in which he picked up, the strength with which he raced all the way to the line, putting eight horse-lengths between himself and his closest pursuer, drew congratulatory applause from the grandstand long before Richard Hughes had decided that enough was enough.

More than the visual impression, however, this performance also had substance. Third home Seville was second in the Dante, second in the Irish Derby and second in the Grand Prix de Paris. Fifth home Namibian won the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot and won the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. The other five horses who contested the race were all potentially high class three-year-olds, yet Sea Moon powered clear of his field as if he was competing in the wrong grade. And the time was good, by far the fastest comparative time on the round course on the day.

The Great Voltigeur is a significant prize in its own right, a Group 2 contest, one of the feature races of the opening day of York’s Ebor meeting. However, of greater significance in a season’s narrative is the fact that, as a pointer to the Ladbrokes St Leger, the Great Voltigeur is without equal.

Sir Michael Stoute had knocked on the Leger door many times, but he didn’t manage to win one until Conduit stayed on strongly to land the prize in 2008. In Sea Moon, he has a worthy Leger favourite now. A three-parts brother to 2003 St Leger winner Brian Boru, the Juddmonte colt was having just the fourth run of his life in the Great Voltigeur. He progressed significantly from his seasonal debut to win on Wednesday, and there is every reason to expect that he will progress again between now and 10th September. The bookmakers say that he is no better than 6/4 to provide his trainer with his second victory in the final Classic.

Unusually, a second St Leger marker was laid down at York on Thursday when the Godolphin filly Blue Bunting won the Yorkshire Oaks. The more the season progresses and the more often you get to see Blue Bunting race, the more remarkable it is that she managed to win the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket back on May Day over a mile. This is a filly who is bred for stamina and who races as if she has bundles of it. She got outpaced and stuck in a pocket in the Epsom Oaks before finishing best of all, and she looked booked for fourth spot at best in the Irish Oaks with 200 yards to run before Frankie Dettori pulled her to the outside and summoned a race-winning finish from her legs and lungs.

Again in the Darley Yorkshire Oaks on Thursday, Dettori was in the drive position from early on the daughter of Dynaformer. She had mastered Wonder Of Wonders by the time they had passed the furlong pole, but she still had to dig deep to repel the late lunge of the Henry Cecil-trained Vita Nova on the near side. Blue Bunting is a filly who only just does enough, however, and, fast and all as Vita Nova closed, the Cecil filly was not making inroads into Blue Bunting’s half-length lead inside the final 50 yards. If they had run past the winning line and back around to the 12-furlong start again, the Godolphin filly would probably still have been in front.

It isn’t often that a filly wins the Leger these days. The Tommy Stack-trained Unsung Heroine went close in 2008, but you have to go back to User Friendly in 1992 to find the previous winner. And before User Friendly? Oh So Sharp in 1985, who was completing the fillies’ Triple Crown, having won the 1000 Guineas and the Epsom Oaks earlier that season on her way to Doncaster.

If Blue Bunting does take her chance in the St Leger – and current indications suggest that Team Godolphin are leaning towards allowing her run – then she would be attempting to land a Triple Crown of sorts: 1000 Guineas, Irish Oaks, St Leger. Okay, so it isn’t the traditional fillies’ Triple Crown, such as it is, but victory in Classics over a mile, a mile and a half, and a mile and six furlongs would be huge.

Her participation would be significant. Lamentably, in this era in which speed and precociousness have replaced stamina and longevity, the St Leger has lost its lustre. Speed sells, stamina saps.

The St Leger is not fashionable among commercial breeders any more, and perception is reality. A St Leger-winning colt is generally perceived as being too slow to be a successful stallion. A National Hunt stallion, they say, not a flat stallions. It doesn’t make sense. It is difficult to believe that some of the top stallions of the current age – Galileo, Montjeu, High Chaparral – would not have had the stamina to win a St Leger had they contested one.

Bizarrely, victory in a St Leger would probably do more harm to a colt’s value as a potential stallion than defeat. It is why this year’s King George winner Nathaniel is not St Leger-bound, despite the fact that he has the profile of a St Leger winner. It is why Sea The Stars did not attempt to follow in Nijinsky’s footsteps by winning the final leg of the traditional Triple Crown after winning the first two in 2009.

Should Sea Moon and Blue Bunting meet in the Ladbrokes St Leger this year, however, it would provide a ray of light for the final Classic. Perhaps the sun would start to shine again.

© The Sunday Times, 21st August 2011