Doncaster's crown jewel shines brightly, but the diamonds need a polish
For as long as I can remember, Doncaster's St Leger meeting every September has been a highlight of the racing calendar.
But I fear last week’s renewal was a seminal one in which the four-day festival began to look rather frayed around the edges.
Its crown jewel, the William Hill St Leger itself, shone radiantly, courtesy of a pulsating race of the highest quality. More on that later.
However, Donny’s diamonds, the supporting card, struggled to set the pulses racing and looked in need of a vigorous polish. Too many races failed to attract sufficient runners or failed to reach the long-established standard, and far too many races lacked the size of purse expected of a major meeting.
Let’s assess field sizes first of all. Of 29 races, only seven tempted fields of more than ten. And of those seven, four -- the Leger Legends race, the Weatherbys sales race, the new handicap for lady amateur riders and the Portland Handicap dash -- were always guaranteed to do so.
The week’s handicaps suffered most. There were 14 of them in total, yet nine mustered mere single-figure fields. One had only four runners. Six had only six or seven, below the accepted threshold for standard each/way betting. The shortage was exacerbated by fields of only four for a couple of Conditions events and only six for the Listed Scarbrough Stakes.
I don’t claim to know the reasons why. It was certainly nothing to do with the shape or make-up of the four days’ cards, which were well balanced, offering rich variety. Maybe it was the weather. It has barely stopped raining since Royal Ascot and Soft appeared in the going description yet again, which must have been seriously off-putting for connections of horses expecting to encounter consistent good to fast ground through the summer and early autumn.
Or maybe it was simply the competition. The Leger meeting began only 19 days after the completion of York’s Ebor Festival, and just a handful of days after a weekend that featured the Irish Champions double-header and crack cards at Haydock and Ascot. Within days of it finishing, the bandwagon rolled on to important fare at Ayr and Newbury this weekend before Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire meeting takes centre stage next week. Was the Donny dearth a case of there not being enough horses of the requisite quality to go round?
If the latter is true, then Doncaster possibly needs to either make more of an effort to reel them in, or adapt the meeting to fall into line with declining demand. A good start would be boosting aforementioned prize money. Consider this comparison with that Ebor Festival, just up the road. Not one of York’s 25 races was worth less than £70,000. At Doncaster, only eight of 29 were, while 14 were worth £25,000 or less. Most disturbing were the purses for two of the week’s showpiece handicaps, the Mallard and the Portland. The former, worth just £40,000, is just a shadow of its former self, and the latter, worth only £60,000, is heading in the same direction fast. It’s little wonder that both attracted, in my opinion, sub-standard fields.
In the past, I have been quick to praise Doncaster for winning the support of a wide range of sponsors. It might be time to ask those sponsors to stump up a bit more, or for the track to spread its Leger wares less thinly and to cut the meeting to three days, allowing it to concentrate on the most appealing races and to bolster prize money accordingly.
Like the Leger, some of the week’s Pattern races held up nicely. The 2yo contests were ordinary and yielded few future stars, with the exception of the Flying Childers Stakes, although even that was just a two-horse duel. But races like the Sceptre Stakes and Park Stakes, both incidentally run over a 7f trip that was crazily crucified by a Racing Post columnist recently, were terrific renewals. The same could be said for the Park Hill Stakes for staying fillies. The retention of most of the stakes events, allied to the pick of the handicaps, would create a three-day, 21-to-24-race festival that could easily re-invigorate what remains an enjoyable week.
At least, thankfully, there was no need this year to criticise or question the standing of the meeting’s centrepiece. Beforehand, the Leger looked a cracker and boy, did it deliver, not only in terms of excitement but also in terms of cream rising to the top.
As CAPRI got the better of STRADIVARIUS before fending off the challenge of CRYSTAL OCEAN, it was clear we were witnessing a battle of three top-class colts. I would even go so far as to say all of the first five, and maybe even the first six, will also prove themselves Group One material in time. Like Stradivarius, the fourth, REKINDLING, is a doughty stayer capable of mixing it at Ascot Gold Cup level next term, while the fifth, CORONET, looked the likely winner 3-2f from home until just outgunned by stronger colts and the sixth, Andrew Balding’s lightly-raced COUNT OCTAVE, is another who should come into his own as a leading stayer next term.
As for the winner, who not only provided Ryan Moore with his first Leger triumph but also took supersire Galileo’s tally of Group One prizes to an astonishing 68, he was yet another advert for the skills of trainer Aidan O’Brien. I feared Capri would be sufficiently razor-sharp for such a good Leger, having missed his prep race at York and not run since landing the Irish Derby on July 1, especially as he lacks a turn of foot. But O’Brien ensured that he was not only comfortably fit enough to run well but also to do full justice to his relentless, remorseless style of galloping. He doesn’t have the toe to win an Arc round a turning track like Chantilly, but he’s as game and gritty as they come. In that final furlong, Capri’s willpower burst the stamina reserves of Crystal Ocean by, and it was no surprise afterwards to hear Sir Michael Stoute, trainer of the runner-up, say his charge would never be risked over further than 12f again. The son of Sea The Stars enhanced its reputation in defeat, however, and looks a ready-made type for a familiar Stoute assault next season on races like the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot and then the King George.
HORSES TO FOLLOW FROM THE LEGER MEETING
BATTERED (William Haggas 3yo, 1m handicaps and Pattern races)
COUNT OCTAVE (Andrew Balding 3yo, middle-distance and staying Group races)
CRYSTAL OCEAN (Sir Michael Stoute 3yo, middle-distance Group races)
DESERT SKYLINE (David Elsworth 3yo, staying Group races)
GAME STARTER (Saeed Bin Suroor 3yo, middle-distance and staying Pattern races)
HEARTACHE (Clive Cox 2yo, sprint Group races)
KRYPTOS (John Berry 3yo, 1m handicaps and Pattern races)
LAHORE (Roger Varian 3yo, 7f and 1m Group races)
NOBLEMAN’S NEST (Simon Crisford 2yo, 7f and 1m handicap and Pattern races)
PIVOINE (Sir Michael Stoute 3yo, 10f and 12f handicaps and Pattern races)
REKINDLING (Joseph O’Brien 3yo, staying Group races)
SHABAABY (Owen Burrows 2yo, 6f-1m Group races)
STRADIVARIUS (John Gosden 3yo, staying Group races)
ZAP (Richard Fahey 2yo, 7f and 1m handicaps)