We won’t get the William Hill St Leger we were treated to last year. But Doncaster is bracing itself for a fascinating duel in Saturday’s final Classic of the campaign.
The 2017 Leger has gone into the substantial Town Moor annals as a vintage renewal. Not only because of how it unfolded so thrillingly, but also because it was laced with strength in depth.
The winner, Capri, had already won a crack Irish Derby, beating Cracksman. The runner-up, Crystal Ocean, has gone on to Royal Ascot success this term and was beaten a whisker in the King George.
The third, Stradivarius, has matured into the best stayer in Europe, winner of the Ascot Gold Cup and the inaugural £1 million stayers’ bonus. And the fourth, Rekindling, won the internationally prestigious Melbourne Cup, no less, next time out.
Even the fifth, Coronet, has proved herself to be one of the most consistent top-notch fillies around, Even the sixth, Count Octave, is developing into a Cup horse to be reckoned with. And even the tenth, Defoe, has won lofty Group prizes this season.
Legers don’t come much better than that and make a mockery of the arguments, still being pushed in some quarters this week, that the famous, historic Classic has lost its lustre.
Saturday’s affair cannot match it, even though a field of 12 offers lots of interest. But the head-to-head on the menu between KEW GARDENS and LAH TI DAR promises to be every bit as entertaining.
Two who can barely be separated at the top of the market. The colt against the filly. Experienced toughness and guaranteed stamina against the classy potential of a rising star. Aidan O’Brien against John Gosden. Ryan Moore against Frankie Dettori. Who will you plump for?
Until Tuesday, I had Kew Gardens down as the bet of the season. A horse already proven over the 14f trip, sure to relish Donny’s long, flat galloping straight and targeted at the Leger since his superb victory in the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot in June.
After following up that success by taking an albeit sub-standard Group One Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp, O’Brien earmarked him for a tilt at the King George -- a clear indication of the improvement he had shown since being unnecessarily sacrificed as a pacemaker/pacesetter in the Derby.
A minor setback forced him to miss that challenge, and it’s fair to assume he was affected by the virus that has ravaged the Ballydoyle operation this term. So, considering that, his performance in the Great Voltigeur at York last month can be regarded as the perfect Leger prep, even though he was beaten into third.
It is unheard of for horses carrying a 5lb Group One penalty to win the Voltigeur, and his chances were hardly helped by a conservative ride that left him anchored towards the rear. But the ride was all about this future aim, and the manner in which made relentless progress in the home straight fo finish never nearer suggested he would be cherry-ripe for Doncaster three weeks later.
With credible opposition melting away, any price of odds against looked generous to me. And then along came Lah Ti Dar.
Gosden had strongly hinted that the daughter of Dubawi would go down the Arc route and take in this weekend’s trial at Longchamp, the Prix Vermeille for fillies, rather than the Leger route.
The prospect of unsuitably fast ground in France has, however, tempted connections into a change of mind and they are re-routing to Town Moor, convinced no doubt by the suggestion of jockey Frankie Dettori, after her easy Listed win at York, that the Leger would suit.
Unraced as a two-year-old but unbeaten in three starts this season, Lah Ti Dar has looked undeniably impressive and her supporters will not hear of defeat on Saturday.
The negatives do stack up. She has beaten very little. Few fillies are good enough to land the Leger (two since 1992). And it is rare for the race to be won by horses yet to win a Group prize. But she was favourite for one of the biggest Group prizes of all, the Oaks, until withdrawing a week before the race with an abnormal blood count, and probably would have won it, on the assumption that subsequent Irish Oaks and Yorkshire Oaks heroine Sea Of Class would not have been at Epsom. Her pedigree screams Group One quality, while I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks she’ll be found wanting for stamina.
It all adds up to a classic conundrum. For supporters of Kew Gardens, does the unexpected presence of such a regal rival persuade us to desert him, or to rub our hands with glee because we are likely to get a better, bigger price?
My instincts tell me to take the latter course. I am even reminded of former racing journalist Richard Baerlein’s famous quote of ‘Now is the time to bet like men’ six months before Shergar’s Derby.
Some of you might also be reminding me that there are ten other horses in Saturday’s Leger. Frankly, I will be amazed if any are capable of lowering the colours of both of the big guns. Half of them aren’t good enough, and have not shown form to suggest they might be.
Derby runner-up DEE EX BEE has long been touted as a Leger type, but he’s lost the plot since Epsom and has twice been hammered by Kew Gardens, both as a juvenile and at Longchamp.
I am a huge admirer of Voltigeur winner OLD PERSIAN, but I will be surprised if he franks York form with O’Brien’s charge, particularly on 2lb worse terms. His trainer, Charlie Appleby, also fields LOXLEY, who has been quietly progressive. But he has a lot to find on a line through Voltigeur fourth, the subsequently injured WELLS FARHH GO, who beat him in the Bahrain Trophy at Newmarket when he definitely looked more of a 12f animal than a Leger sort.
O’Brien saddles four others, of which I have a healthy respect for NELSON, who convincingly eclipsed Kew Gardens last autumn when he also gave the mighty Roaring Lion a fright in the Royal Lodge Stakes. But too often, his talents have been wasted as a pacemaker this season, and I fear the same will happen again on Saturday.
The time has come to make a choice. So, with a nod to the old racing adage, ‘never change your mind’, here is my idea of the Leger 1-2-3-4:
1 KEW GARDENS
2 LAH TI DAR
4 OLD PERSIAN