The St Leger is the final of the five English Classics of the flat racing season and having been established in 1776, it’s also the oldest. It is a chance for some of the very best three-year-old stayers to show what they are capable of by landing a highly prestigious race.
The Group 1 St Leger is just one race from the four-day festival at Doncaster Racecourse that bears its name. Other races to feature include the Doncaster Cup, a long distance race for horses aged three and above, which actually predates the St Leger by 10 years. This is the final leg of the Stayers’ Triple Crown, following Royal Ascot’s Gold Cup and the Goodwood Cup.
For many years the meeting ran from Wednesday to Saturday, with the big race on the final day. Now the fixture begins on the Thursday and finishes on the Sunday though the St Leger still takes place on the Saturday.
Ladies Day Races (Thursday)
|1:25||Carrie Red Fillies’ Nursery Handicap||Class 2||6½f|
|2:00||Weatherbys £300,000 2-Y-O Stakes||Class 2||6½f|
|2:35||May Hill Stakes||Group 2||1m|
|3:10||Park Hill Fillies’ Stakes||Group 2||1m6½f|
|4:20||Conditions Stakes||Class 2||1m2f|
|4:55||Handicap (Div I)||Class 5||5½f|
|5:28||Handicap (Div II)||Class 5||5½f|
Doncaster Cup Day Races (Friday)
|1:25||Mallard Handicap||Class 2||1m6½f|
|2:00||Flying Scotsman Stakes||Listed||7f|
|2:35||Flying Childers Stakes||Group 2||5f|
|3:10||Doncaster Cup Stakes||Group 2||2m2f|
|4:20||Maiden Stakes||Class 2||7f|
|4:55||Nursery Handicap||Class 4||6f|
|5:30||Premier Fillies’ Handicap||Class 2||1m4f|
St Leger Day Races (Saturday)
|1:15||Maiden Stakes||Class 2||1m|
|2:20||Champagne Stakes||Group 2||7f|
|2:55||Park Stakes||Group 2||7f|
|3:30||St Leger Stakes||Group 1||1m6½f|
Leger Legends Day Races (Sunday)
|1:50||Apprentice Handicap||Class 4||6f|
|2:25||Nursery Handicap||Class 2||7f|
|3:00||Leger Legends Classified Stakes||Class 5||1m|
|3:35||Sceptre Fillies’ Stakes||Group 3||7f|
|4:45||Nursery Handicap||Class 4||1m|
|5:20||I Love Julie Parkes Handicap||Class 2||1m2f|
About the Meeting
Even the most causal of horse racing fans knows about the St Leger. Held in September it’s the final British Classic of the flat racing season and remains a hugely prestigious contest. Some, however, may not know that there is a four day festival built up around the St Leger.
There are many highlights in the St Leger Festival beyond the main event itself, as well as a host of activities for race goers to enjoy away from the track. First time visitors to the festival at Doncaster Racecourse feel like they’ve found something of a hidden gem given how much hype there is around other flat racing festivals compared to the St Leger Festival, whilst there are some great options for punters who prefer to take in the action from the comfort of their own home.
St Leger Stakes
The St Leger Stakes is the race after which the entire festival is named and the one that makes the headlines around the world. Run over a distance of one mile, six furlongs and 132 yards, it is the longest of the five British Classics and the only one that is open to both colts and fillies. The St Leger is also the oldest of the Classics having first been run in 1776.
Winning all three Classics used to be the hallmark of the very best horses on the flat but things have changed significantly recently. The very best horses on the turf tend to do most of their racing over shorter trips and it is rare for a horse to even try to win the Triple Crown, whilst the last horse to win all three was Ninjinsky in 1970. Camelot did come close in 2012 though when he narrowly failed to follow up wins in the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby.
Although some horses who failed to make an impact in the Derby have gone on to win the St Leger in the last few decades the main races to consider when looking for St Leger form at the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York and the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. Whatever route a horse takes to the St Leger it is pretty much vital that they have run over at least a mile and two furlongs.
There have been plenty of notable winners over the years ranging from the 200/1 shot Theodore way back in 1822 to Galtee More at the other end of the scale who was victorious at odds of just 1/10. The biggest winning margin was a whopping 12 lengths when Never Say Die stormed to victory in 1954, while Masked Marvel has come closest to breaking the three minute barrier when taking the win in 2011 in a time of three minutes and 44 hundredths of a second!
Other Key Races
Potential St Leger winners of the future are given the chance to compete in a high class contest at Doncaster courtesy of the Champagne Stakes. This Group 2 race for two year olds is run over a distance of seven furlongs and six yards and plays the role of a warm up for the St Leger as it also take place on the final day of the festival.
There are any number of potential routes for the Champagne Stakes winner to take but most of the leading contenders will go on to compete in the Dewhurst Stakes which takes place the following month at Newmarket.
The Doncaster Cup was first held in 1766 so is one of the few races still going strong that is actually older than the St Leger. In those early days it was actually run over a gigantic distance of four miles but has since been cut significantly and now takes place over two miles, one and a half furlongs. The Group 2 race is open to horses aged three and older and forms the final leg of the Stayers’ Triple Crown along with the Ascot Gold Cup and the Goodwood Cup.
May Hill Stakes
The May Hill Stakes is another very historic race that forms part of the St Leger Festival. This Group 2 race for two year old fillies is run over 1 mile and takes place on the second day of the festival. There’s a decent price (£70,000 in 2018) up for grabs but this is more about setting the platform for future success than anything else.
2017 winner, Laurens, showed that the May Hill Stakes has the ability to give birth to stars of the future as she kicked on to win the Fillies’ Mile the following month before claiming multiple Group 1 wins later on.
Park Hill Stakes
The Park Hill Stakes is another well regarded Group 2 race taking part at Doncaster in September. It’s run over around 100 yards longer than a mile and six furlongs and is open to fillies and mares aged three and older.
Fittingly for a race that takes place on the festival’s Ladies Day, the Park Hill Stakes is colloquially known as the Fillies’ St Leger. That gives a hint as to the prestige of this race which has been won by some quality staying fillies and mares over the years.
The St Leger Festival has a lot going for it. One of the biggest selling points that the organisers use to market the event is the incredible amount of history that horse racing has in Doncaster. There are few more historic places in horse racing than Doncaster Racecourse which has been hosting regular racing meetings since the 16th century. Horse racing was far from universally popular in those early days as locals were very upset with the “ruffians” who were attracted by the races but things have changed immeasurably since.
In more recent years the racecourse has undergone a massive redevelopment costing around £34 million. From there fans are treated to all the mod-cons as they enjoy racing on the same spot as those pioneers of the sport many hundreds of years ago.
A Complete History of the St Leger Festival
There aren’t too many flat meetings that come with greater status than the St Leger Festival. The four day event gets more exciting with each day that passes and the progressive card reaches a climatic ending with the St Leger Stakes itself featuring during the grand finale.
These days around 25,000 people show up every St Leger Saturday to catch a glimpse of the festival’s showpiece event. It stands proudly as the oldest Classic on the British racing scene as well as the only one held in Yorkshire. You could write an entire book on the St Leger alone but here we’ll focus on some of its main highlights as well as the history of some members of its supporting cast.
1766 – Doncaster Cup Debuts
The St Leger may be the oldest of the Classics but it’s not the oldest race of the Festival. The Doncaster Cup, or rather as it was back then, the Doncaster Gold Cup, predates the flagship event by 10 years and is the venue’s oldest surviving event. Initially it took place over a gruelling distance of four miles but a large reduction to two miles and five furlongs followed in 1825.
1776 – St Leger is Born
The race that makes this entire meeting possible, the St Leger Stakes, first appears on the scene at Cantley Common, Doncaster, on 24th September 1776. The mastermind behind the race was Anthony St Leger, an army officer and Member of Parliament for Grimsby. To begin with people referred to the race simply as ‘A Sweepstake of 25 Guineas’ but it’s rather nameless status only lasted two years.
An unnamed filly won the inaugural race, owned by the two-time Prime Minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquees of Rockingham, who jointly organised the race with Anthony St Leger. Fillies at that time received a two pound allowance over colts and geldings who set off weighing eight stone. At a much later date the winning horse acquired the name Allabaculia, most likely a derivative of Ali Bey Kuli, the 18th century adventurer.
1778 – St Leger Named and Moved to Town Moor
As mentioned above, nobody called the St Leger by its present name when the race was first introduced. This all changed following a dinner party in the Red Lion Inn, situated in Doncaster’s Market Place. The initial suggestion was the name the race after party host and joint race organiser, the 2nd Marquees of Rockingham but he himself proposed that Anthony St Leger should be the one honoured. The very same year the race moved from Cantley Common to its present location at Town Moor.
1800 – Champion Wins Epsom Derby and St Leger Double
The St Leger didn’t begin as a particularly well-known event across the country but at the turn of the new century it found itself rising to prominence. For this, the race has a horse named Champion to thank as he registered the first Derby-St Leger double. Owner Christopher Wilson had so much faith in his horse pulling off the double that he ran out of paper making so many bets on the three year old colt. For the next 47 years, Champion stood as the only horse to have won both races.
1813 – Distance Changed to 1m 6f
Having started off as a two mile contest, the St Leger remained this way for few decades before being trimmed by a little over a furlong. Its new distance was one mile, six furlongs and 193 yards and it has remained around this mark ever since, only tweaked by the odd minor alteration.
1822 – Theodore Wins at 200/1
Despite winning his previous four races coming into the St Leger, Theodore remained a very much unfancied 200/1 option from the 23 St Leger entrants. He did initially begin trading at around 20/1 but rumours spread during the race build-up that he was lame. Fully believing the rumours, even owner Edward Petre allegedly sold off his bets placed on the horse. How he was left to rue that mistake as his horse made all the running at Doncaster, becoming the longest-odds champion the race has ever seen.
1823 – Champagne Stakes Gets Underway
The Champagne Stakes first made its way to Doncaster in 1823 as a one mile contest open to all genders. It has since had its distance altered to six furlongs, then seven furlongs while fillies were excluded from competing in 1988. Under its original format the Scott brothers enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, collecting 19 wins between them as trainer (John) and jockey (Bill).
1839 – Park Hill Stakes Added
Not only does Anthony St Leger have a race named after his but the estate he formerly owned, Park Hill, also becomes an additional to Doncaster’s September schedule. Run over the same distance as the Doncaster’s main event, it has long been referred to as the Fillies’ St Leger.
1842 – Beeswing Wins 4th Doncaster Cup Aged 9
Once heralded as the greatest mare in Britain, Beeswing did plenty to justify her high standing. A true crowd favourite, she won an incredible 51 of 63 starts, four of which came in the Doncaster Cup. Her first taste of victory arrived in 1837 while a hat-trick followed between 1840 and 1842. Winning as a nine year old on her last ever appearance, the mare stood for over 150 years as the oldest Cup champion before Persian Punch’s triumph in 2003.
1853 – Western Australian Wins First Ever Triple Crown
The idea of the Triple Crown hadn’t existed prior to this date but it quickly emerged following West Australian’s unprecedented success as a three year old. One of the best British horses of the 19th century, he won both the 2000 Guineas and the Derby before making the journey up north. Ten years earlier Cotherstone did the same but lost out as the odds-on favourite in the St Leger. West Australian avoided suffering the same fate as he become the first horse to win all three of the leading three year old races.
1855 – Portland Handicap Created
Initially the Portland Plate, as it was previously known, took place on a round course opposite a coaching inn called the Red House before being transferred to Doncaster’s straight track. Throughout its long history several horses have claimed two victories in the race but in 2004, Halmahera became the first ever to manage three in a row.
1857 –Park Hill Result Sparks Blink Bonny Riot
Blink Bonny’s appearance in the St Leger drew in crowds from far and wide, desperate to get a glimpse of the extraordinary filly. Many left disappointed though as the 5/4 favourite for the Classic finished fourth after being ridden poorly by Jack Charlton, allegedly on the orders of the bookmaker John Jackson. Lacking proof of foul-play, tensions didn’t boil over but this changed when Blink Bonny won the Park Hill stakes the following day.
Over the exact same distance, with 10 pounds extra weight, the filly clocked a winning time two seconds faster than the St Leger winner, Imperieuse. Angry spectators immediately surrounded Charlton who only avoided a beating thanks to the intervention of former prize-fighters John Gully and Tom Sayers. The pair did little to calm the mood though with 2,000 angry guests creating a mass-scale disturbance on the course, later known as the Blink Bonny riot.
1862 – John Scott Secures 16th St Leger
West Australian’s trainer, John Scott, had plenty prior winning history in the race and he didn’t stop there after saddling the first ever Triple Crown king. During an incredible period of dominance in the St Leger, “The Wizard of the North” as he was affectionately known, scooped 16 winners, the last of which came in 1862.
Success most definitely ran in the family as his brother Bill Scott remains the all-time leading jockey in the race. William, to use his full name, rode the winning horse on nine occasions between 1821 and 1846, doing so six times on one of his brother’s horses.
1915 – Newmarket Hosts St Leger During First World War
As one of the few racecourses able to continue largely as normal during World War I, Newmarket managed to temporarily house the St Leger. The Suffolk-based course took control of the race between 1915 and 1918, renaming it the September Stakes and running it on the Rowley Mile. By hosting the race, albeit under a different guise, it ensured that the St Leger was able to feature as it had done every year following its inception.
1939 – First St Leger Cancellation as WWII Begins
It managed to survive WWI but the untimely outbreak of WWII forced organisers to cancel the St Leger for the first time. Fortunately the historic race quickly managed to find a series of alternate homes throughout the rest of the conflict. It spent a year at Thirsk and Manchester each, then another three at Newmarket before one final appearance away from home at York. This appears to be the only St Leger Festival race salvaged with all others failing to be rehoused during the war.
1967 – Flying Childers Stakes Introduced
Initially known as the Norfolk Stakes, this race needed a new name when Ascot borrowed that title for one of their sprint events. In 1973, six years after being founded organisers opted to rename it the Flying Childers Stakes, as tribute to the undefeated 18th century horse bred at Carr House near Doncaster. It held Group 1 status following the change in title but has remained at Group 2 since 1979.
1976 – May Hill Stakes Inaugurated
A year after Park Hill Stakes champion May Hill was named the top rated British filly, she had a race named after her at Doncaster. On just its fourth renewal the one mile event moved to Kempton Park but returned to Yorkshire a year later. Almost from the off Henry Cecil made his presence felt in the race, saddling twelve winners between 1978 and 2001.
1978 – Park Stakes Added to Card
The St Leger Festival continues to grow as the Listed level Park Stakes becomes the latest event to take place on the course. Initially sponsored by Kiveton Park Steel, Kiveton was removed from the title in 1996. The race has been reclassified twice during its history, first promoted to Group 3 status in 1986 and then to Group 2 in 2004.
1989 – Disaster in the Portland Handicap Causes Abandonment
Falls in flat races are rare yet we witnessed three horses take a tumble in this year’s Portland Stakes. Two jockeys, Paul Cook and Ray Cochrane, both suffered extensive injuries while Madraco, who broke his leg, was retired to stud. After witnessing such scenes, organisers at Doncaster abandoned the rest of the card, including the St Leger which took place at Ayr eight days later. This was the first time the race moved venue for a reason other than war.
Years later and the primary cause of the fall was still a point of controversy. A Jockey Club inquiry ruled that the laying of a longitudinal drain in the months prior had left voids in the ground under the surface. They fell short of deciding that this was the cause of Madraco’s fall but the High Court decided it was, rejecting the idea that the horse’s leg spontaneously broke. As a result Doncaster Racecourse were ruled liable for the unsatisfactory state of the ground, paving the way for Cook and Cochrane to claim compensation.
2004 – Doncaster Cup Dead Heat
We should be set for another dead heat in the Doncaster Cup around the year 2055 judging by past trends. The race witnessed its first shared victory in 1901, then 1953 before another followed in 2004. Nothing could separate Kasthari and Millenary as they crossed the line in the Group 2 contest. The latter did enjoy the spotlight all to himself the following year though as he secured a three quarter length win while Kasthari had to settle for third.
2006 – York Hosts Condensed Festival
As £55m redevelopment work took place at Doncaster, the St Leger Festival moved to York. Talk of hosting at least the St Leger itself at Ascot had been present prior but organisers were keen to keep the historic race in Yorkshire. Unable to offer the full Festival schedule, York only offered 14 races across a two day card but they did include all the major highlights.
2011 – Masked Marvel Narrowly Misses Sub Three-Minute St Leger
No running of the St Leger at Doncaster has seen a winning time break the three minute barrier. When held at other venues the race has dipped beneath but never on the Town Moor course. Masked Marvel came oh so close this year though when setting a record breaking time of 3:00:44 on good to firm going.
2011 – Sceptre Stakes Added as a New Group Contest
The total number of Group events taking place at the St Leger Festival increased to eight this year thanks to the reclassification of the Sceptre Stakes. The event, named after the former St Leger champion Sceptre, had formerly been at Listed status before this year’s upgrade to Group 3.
2013 – Flying Scotsman Takes Listed Status
Previously known as the Frank Whittle Partnership Conditions Stakes, the name the Flying Scotsman Stakes made its first appearance in 2013. The same year the rebranded race claimed Listed status, taking Goodwood’s Stardom Stakes in the calendar. The name change was inspired by the 90th birthday of the LNER Class A3 4472 Flying Scotsman, built in Doncaster.
2015 – Simple Verse St Leger Disqualification Overturned
Connections of Simple Verse thought she had become the first filly in 23 years to win the St Leger during a thrilling renewal. A lengthy stewards’ inquiry took the victory from her though, ruling that she had been guilty of ‘extensive barging’ down the home straight. This was the first time since 1789 that first past the post in the St Leger ended up disqualified. Demoted to second place, the race went the way of joint favourite Bondi Beach.
‘Astonished’ by the decision, Simple Verse’s trainer Ralph Beckett quickly announced his intent to overturn the call. The BHA (British Horseracing Authority) heard the appeal 11 days later and ruled in Beckett’s favour. Panel chairman Tim Charlton ruled that Bondi Beach hadn’t been impacted badly enough for him to have been awarded the victory.