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In many ways, September’s St Leger Festival brings the curtain down on the flat racing campaign. There are meetings to follow, but none will deliver the quality of racing – not least the oldest ‘Classic’ in the sport – that the Doncaster showcase has to offer.
The festival, which this year will take place from September 13-16, is a historic affair that hosts two of the most iconic races on the flat. Friday’s Doncaster Cup is the oldest race currently run under the Official Rules of Horse Racing, while Saturday’s headline act – the St Leger Stakes – is the most storied of the British Classics and the third leg of the Triple Crown, which also features the 2000 Guineas and the Derby.
From a punter’s perspective, the St Leger Stakes is the obvious standout of the meeting. Only three-year-old thoroughbreds and fillies are eligible to enter this 1m 6f renewal, and the history books have shown a pattern of outsiders taking the glory at Doncaster. That might sound like good news for the bookmakers, but keen-eyed punters can make the most of some interesting betting angles to follow in.
The 22/1 fancy Harbour Law is the reigning champion. Trained by the first woman to clinch a Classic, Laura Mongan, he took full advantage after the bookies’ favourite, Idaho, took a tumble and unseated his rider. It was a moment that saved the sportsbooks an estimated £5m in payouts.
History was also made in the St Leger 12 months earlier when Simple Verse (8/1) became the first filly in 23 years to take the honours. It was a renewal not short of controversy, however, as Ralph Beckett’s charge was demoted following a steward’s inquiry which found her guilty of interference.
The case went all the way to the British Horse Racing Authority’s appeals procedure, with Simple Verse eventually reinstated over second-placed Bondi Beach (2/1).
So, there’s a lot for the 2017 renewal to live up to. Who should ante-post bettors be keeping an eye on?
Defoe (current price: 11/1)
Roger Varian is a former winning trainer of the St Leger thanks to his 2014 entry Kingston Hill; fast forward three years and the Newmarket based handler could have another champion on his hands.
Defoe, a three-year-old colt rather than the Bournemouth and England striker, has been outstanding in his short career to date, winning five of his six starts and improving tangibly in 2017.
As an 8/1 hopeful he eclipsed the bookmakers’ favourite, Mucho Applause (7/2), in the London Gold Cup Handicap, and in his last outing at the tail-end of July he triumphed in the EBF Glasgow Stakes at a BHA mark of 104.
Bred from Dalakhani, a four-time Group One winner, Defoe could have a chance to establish his St Leger credentials in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury in August, and a victory there will see this 11/1 ante-post price plummet.
The current favourite with the sportsbooks is Capri, one of the latest proteges from the all-conquering Aidan O’Brien yard.
The Irishman has four St Leger titles to his name but only one in the past decade, so a return to winning ways at Doncaster is long overdue for the champion trainer.
The spawn of Galileo took a step up in trip to 12f in the Derby, and while that didn’t quite work out for him a return home to Curragh for the Irish Derby certainly did; he took the honours by just a neck from Cracksman.
That victory was something of a grind however, and with just one win in his last five starts any punters will be wondering if that 7/2 rice is justifiable.
Crystal Ocean (4/1)
The Gordon Stakes is usually a good indicator of form heading into the final stretch of the flat racing season, and the manner in which Crystal Ocean took the spoils in that renewal earlier in August suggests he is one to watch at Doncaster.
Four outings in 2017 have yielded a couple of wins and a pair of third place finishes, both of which came in Group 2 company behind the impressive Permian, so by that reckoning there is some improvement required from Sir Michael Stoute’s charge.
But that win in the Gordon Stakes was the finest of his career to date, and hints at a promising upswing ahead of his biggest challenge thus far.
A rampaging 2017 campaign has fired Stradivarius into the punter’s eye, and the John Gosden trained colt is very much a live contender here.
Victories at Beverley and Ascot pointed the way for the betting public to keep an eye on this three-year-old, and he cashed in on that potential with a barnstorming win in the Qatar Goodwood Cup Stakes in August, where he took the honours from the highly-fancied Big Orange by a comfortable enough margin of one-and-three-quarter lengths.
Any Group 1 champion has to be taken seriously in this St Leger renewal; particularly one that stays on as strong as Stradivarius.