Andrea Atzeni believes Defoe has the attributes to provide him with a third triumph in the William Hill St Leger at Doncaster on Saturday.
Atzeni knows better than most what is required to win the oldest Classic in the calendar, which forms part of the QIPCO British Champions Series, having won the 2014 renewal on Kingston Hill and again a year later aboard Simple Verse.
The 26-year-old was without a ride 12 months ago and is relishing belatedly trying to complete a hat trick of wins in the £700,000 showpiece with the help of Defoe, an improving Roger Varian-trained colt who is unbeaten in four starts this season.
Defoe began the campaign by winning off a mark of 88 in handicap company at Newbury in May but will go to post at Town Moor rated 113, with his latest success being achieved in fluent style in the Group 3 Betfred Geoffrey Freer Stakes back at the Berkshire venue last month.
“My little horse is genuine and has done nothing wrong all season,” Atzeni said.
“He’s improved all year and has done so again since his last win at Newbury.
“He’s never been flashy in his work, or in his races, but I rode him in his last piece of work and he was really good. He’s ready to go again.
“He needs to improve because he’s going to a different level but I’m very happy and think he’s going there with a big chance.
“The rain that’s arrived has helped his chances because, while he’s won on good ground, he’s better on softer. He has a great mind on him and is straightforward to train and ride.
“He’s got a different kind of profile to Kingston Hill (also trained by Varian) but, mentally, I’d say they are very similar. It’s hard to tell how good he is, or when we are going to get to the bottom of him.”
Atzeni is well placed to judge the merit of two of Defoe’s biggest rivals because he guided Stradivarius to victory in the Group 1 Qatar Goodwood Cup last time and partnered Crystal Ocean at Royal Ascot before that colt went on to scoop the Group 3 Qatar Gordon Stakes.
He respects both, but can find chinks. He said: “Stradivarius is obviously a good horse, a Group 1 winner, but he’s coming back in trip, is quite small and a light mover. I’m not certain the ground will suit him. Crystal Ocean has definitely got the class but he’s going up to a mile and six for the first time on soft. I’m not sure about that.”
The final field includes four sons of Galileo trained by Aidan O’Brien, who is aiming to win the race for a fifth time.
The champion trainer, seeking a tenth success in this year’s QIPCO British Champions Series, will be hoping for better fortune than in the past two years.
In 2015, his Bondi Beach was awarded the race in the stewards’ room only to subsequently lose it when connections of Simple Verse appealed, and then last year Idaho, the odds-on favourite, stumbled and unseated his rider with three furlongs to run when moving strongly.
O’Brien’s principal contender this time appears to be Capri, sixth in the Investec Derby before landing the Irish equivalent at the Curragh the following month, when he had stablemates Douglas Macarthur (fifth) and The Anvil (ninth) behind. Venice Beach, who chased home Cracksman in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York last time, also represents the master of Ballydoyle.
Aidan’s son, Joseph, who won the 2013 St Leger as a jockey for his father on Leading Light, is represented by Rekindling, a Group 2 winner over 1m 6f this summer who chased home Order Of St George over the same trip at the Curragh last time.
Raheen House will have his supporters after his victory in the Group 3 Bahrain Trophy at Newmarket, while Count Octave enters calculations to judge by his neck second to Stradivarius in the Group 2 Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot.
Oisin Murphy, who will ride the latter, a son of Frankel trained by Andrew Balding, said: “I’m delighted to get the chance to ride in this year’s race. My horse is bred for the job, being a half-brother to an Irish Derby winner in Treasure Beach. I know he’s still improving and I’m hopeful he will run a career best in a mouth-watering renewal.”
Last, but not least, there is the filly, Coronet, a stablemate of Stradivarius who stuck on gamely when chasing home Enable in the Group 1 Darley Yorkshire Oaks at York last month. Like Defoe and Capri, she is a grey.