Donn's Articles » Camelot


Even before Camelot set foot on a racecourse this season, the Triple Crown notion was locked away in many minds, even if it wasn’t tripping forward from too many lips. A Racing Post Trophy winner who was bred for middle distances and who was being trained at Ballydoyle for the 2000 Guineas, Camelot’s profile was that of a horse who could potentially bridge the 42-year gap back to the peerless Nijinsky.

There had been false dawns. Both Nashwan and Sea The Stars won the fist two legs of the Triple Crown, the Guineas and the Derby, but the third leg, the St Leger, was never really on either dance card. St Nicholas Abbey’s pre-Guineas profile was similar to Camelot’s – Racing Post Trophy winner, bred for middle distances, being trained by Aidan O’Brien for the Guineas. Sent off the even money favourite for the Newmarket Classic, he could finish only sixth, the Triple Crown bubble in ribbons on the ground before it had even been inflated.

In the winner’s enclosure after Camelot won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket two months ago, co-owner Derrick Smith mentioned the Triple Crown as a possibility. It wasn’t so much a genie-out-of-the-bottle (first wish granted) as it was the start of the snowball’s roll. After the Derby (second wish granted) John Magnier didn’t discount the Triple Crown notion. “We’re all getting older,” the Coolmore supremo mused, “and somehow these things start to mean a little more. Thirty years ago, I’d have turned the other way.”

It is understandable that the creation of racing history is paramount for Team Coolmore/Ballydoyle these days. We saw it with Yeats six years ago. If you are in the commercial stallion business, the Ascot Gold Cup is rarely at the top of your wish list. Yet the Ballydoyle team were anxious to take in the two-and-a-half-mile race with Yeats, a Group 1 winner over a mile and a half. Victory for the son of Sadler’s Wells in the race for the first time in 2006 was special. Victory in the race in 2009 for the fourth time was off the scale.

Yet the creation of racing history and the establishment of a commercially attractive entity are not mutually exclusive endeavours. The pursuit of one does not, out of necessity, preclude pursuit of the other. On the contrary, one should beget the other.

The St Leger is not generally viewed as a race for a top stallion prospect any more. The stamina to stay an extended one mile and six furlongs at Doncaster in September is not generally an attribute that commercial breeders seek in a world in which speed and precocity dominate. A St Leger winner is generally viewed more as a sire of National Hunt horses than a sire of flat horses. It is not a coincidence that the leading first-season sire at the premier National Hunt sales at Doncaster, Fairyhouse and Goffs this year was the 2005 St Leger winner Scorpion.

That is why, when Sea The Stars side-stepped the 2009 St Leger to run in the Irish Champion Stakes and the Arc de Triomphe, many said that the Triple Crown was dead. There would never be another Triple Crown winner, they said, simply because a horse who could win the Guineas and the Derby would never again run in the St Leger. They spoke about re-inventing the Triple Crown, of making a new-age Triple Crown, the Guineas, the Derby and the Eclipse, or the Derby, the King George and the International. But how do you re-invent tradition?

Camelot would be no ordinary St Leger winner. The Aidan O’Brien-trained colt would be a St Leger winner who had also won the Guineas and the Derby. He would be a St Leger winner who had the speed to win the Guineas and the class to win the Derby, combined with the requisite mental and physical soundness, as well as the stamina to win a St Leger. In short, he would have displayed all the attributes that you look for in a top class stallion prospect.

As well as that, he would be a Triple Crown winner, and that would set him apart perceptually. It is difficult to accurately evaluate the importance of perception in the bloodstock world, but you can be sure that, as in most walks of life, it is crucial. It is reality. The first Triple Crown winner in 42 years, and the consequent association with Nijinsky, would allay any reluctance that commercial breeders would have about patronising a St Leger winner.

The St Leger will not be a foregone conclusion, mind you. He may be a 2/5 shot already for the final Classic, but the son of Montjeu still has to prove that he can stay the one mile and six and a half furlongs of what can often be a gruelling contest. Potential opponents are not running scared: Michelangelo, Thomas Chippendale, highly talented horses for whom the St Leger is a long-term target, not an after-thought, and who shape as if they will improve for stepping up in trip. Perhaps Hartani if the ground comes up soft.

Shergar was beaten in the St Leger, Reference Point scrambled home, even Nijinsky himself wasn’t impressive. In that regard, it is in Camelot’s favour that he probably won’t race between now and St Leger day. Reference Point ran in the Eclipse, the King George and the Great Voltigeur between the Derby and the St Leger. Shergar and Nijinsky both won the Irish Derby and the King George. Camelot has won the Irish Derby, but the plan is apparently for Aidan O’Brien to give him a break now, and bring him back to the boil for the Leger. That makes a lot of sense.

There have been suggestions that Camelot will not prove anything more than he has already proved even if he does win the St Leger. In the St Leger, he would still be competing against his own generation, and the evidence that we have to date suggests that, Camelot aside, this is not a vintage crop of three-year-olds. That said, you can only ever beat what they put in front of you, and Camelot has not yet failed in that regard.

Those who say that the Ballydoyle colt would achieve much more if he were to step down in trip to 10 furlongs and beat Frankel in the Juddmonte International at York in August may be onto something, but that is to miss the point. It is rare in sport that you get the chance to accomplish a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in over 40 years. Camelot has manoeuvred himself into a position from which he can do that now, and it would be a shame if he were denied the chance to go and achieve it.

It may be that Camelot will run in the Arc de Triomphe after the St Leger, or in the Champion Stakes, or in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, or it may be that he will stay in training next year. That is not as outlandish a suggestion as it might seem, with another son of Montjeu, multiple Group 1 winner St Nicholas Abbey, also eyeing up a position on the Coolmore roster. But that is conjecture for another day.

For now, the St Leger is the third wish. Frankel can wait.

© The Sunday Times, 8th July 2012