Op/Ed: Long May The Leger Run

While conducting a long overdue tidy-up of my office I came across a copy of the brilliant Pacemaker International magazine of June 1980. (For the avoidance of doubt, it had not been on my desk all that time.)

There were some throwbacks, such as an advert for Leslie Combs II’s draft of yearlings from Spendthrift, and another for Rover cars (imagine that in a racing publication nowadays!), as well as items that served as a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. To this effect, the first advertisement in the magazine was claimed by Coolmore and featured a large roster of stallions, while later in the publication the headline on the sales review exclaimed, ‘Upward Trend Continues at Newmarket’. I think I may have used that one myself on more than one occasion.

There was one article, however, that stopped me in my tracks. Here was Peter Willett, bloodstock journalist of great repute and the man who, only a decade earlier, could be credited as being the architect of the Pattern, stating that the St Leger should be reduced in distance by four furlongs. 

If this piece had been written by almost anyone else, the magazine would have been swiftly consigned to the bin in disgust despite its rather lovely cover image of The Minstrel. But, along with Arthur Budgett and Lord Oaksey, Peter Willett happens to be one of my all-time racing heroes. His words are always worth reading and, typically, such a potential bombshell of a topic was dealt with in his knowledgeable, analytical and reasoned manner.

Willett had been prompted to write on this controversial subject after studying data put forward by Professor Paddy Cunningham showing a deterioration in race times for the St Leger since the 1930s. Willett then conducted his own examination, comparing the decades 1920-29 and 1970-79, which showed that the average Derby time was 2.5 seconds faster in the ’70s, but the average time for the St Leger was more than 3 seconds slower.

Willett wrote, “The Classic Races…form a series of races suited to the purpose of indicating the best three-year-olds over various distances, and they have provided the criteria of selection on which the evolution of the British Thoroughbred rested for nearly 150 years up to the middle of the 20th century. But, when one race in the series ceases to be an automatic target for the best horses, that race is no longer acceptable as a ‘Classic Race’, according to the definition.”

After suggesting a swingeing cut to 1m2f, he added, “This distance would complete a Classic series designed to assist in adapting the British Thoroughbred to a trend which, whether we like it or not, is firmly established in the final quarter of the 20th century. British breeding now accounts for only a tiny fraction of the world Thoroughbred population, and cannot exist out on a limb.”

Stirring stuff. We are now firmly established in the first quarter of the 21st century and, arguably, the sliding scale of horses being bred for a certain distance has moved even more significantly towards a great proportion of them now not even being able to stay a mile. But the St Leger is still run at one mile, six furlongs and 127 yards. Is tradition holding sway over sense?

I had only just celebrated my first birthday when Nijinsky won the Triple Crown. Since then, the only horse who has come close was Camelot in 2012, an heroic attempt that prompted a very early departure from Newmarket to Doncaster on Leger day to get a spot on the rail by the winning post in the hope of witnessing history in the making. Alas, it was not to be, but that hope remains.

Camelot is the only Derby winner this century to have run in the St Leger–a scenario that would have been unthinkable 100 years earlier– and perhaps if he hadn’t won the 2,000 Guineas he would have followed a number of the others by being dropped back in trip for their next runs, for the Eclipse, or Juddmonte International, and swerved Doncaster altogether.

The list published on Tuesday of the 83 horses remaining in the reckoning for this year’s Derby showed that 31 of them are in training with Aidan O’Brien. There are two ways of viewing this. On the one hand such domination of major stables, on the Flat and over jumps, dilutes some of the interest of racing’s ‘narrative’, to use a loathed term. But on the other, here is an operation which, despite standing stallions across the range of distances and disciplines, still appears to have winning the Derby as its central aim. One could say, at its heart.

And amen to that, because we know that, if an O’Brien-trained and Coolmore-owned Guineas winner goes on to land the Derby then there is a very good chance that colt will be set on a path towards following one of Ballydoyle’s greatest incumbents in attempting to achieve what is starting to seem more and more like the impossible. Perhaps though, these days, it is not so much mission impossible as mission undesirable, especially when considering the rarity of a St Leger or Gold Cup winner being given a spot at a major Flat stud. Stradivarius is a shining outlier in this regard.

There is, however, at least one glimmer of hope to be gleaned for those in favour of retaining the status quo when it comes to the St Leger, and that is when considering another of Willett’s comments in the article.

“The trend away from stamina is evident in important racing and breeding countries as diverse as the United States and Australia,” he wrote. “[…] It would be unrealistic to try to isolate the British Thoroughbred from this trend in an age when the racehorse has become a kind of international currency.”

To an extent the British (and Irish) Thoroughbred has not been isolated from this trend in the intervening years, but the continuing prestige of Europe’s middle-distance races has meant that among owner-breeders at least they remain the key targets. And, as sales returns in recent years have shown, there is a growing number of American and Australian buyers flocking to Britain and Ireland in pursuit of more stamina-laden blood, both in the form of proven horses in training and, increasingly, as young stock. The Thoroughbred is indeed an international currency.

This trend in itself presents an entirely different problem in a raising the possibility of an eventual drain of key bloodlines in Europe, but it also suggests that in some ways our friends in those nations have gone too far in their pursuit of speed. 

Another change since 1980 has been the emergence of Japan as a major force in world racing. The difference in Japanese breeding compared to other regions is that there has been no move away from producing horses along middle-distance and staying lines. In fact, Japanese breeders’ adherence to these principles has seen their horses playing an increasingly dominant role at international meetings, which in turn has increased the general appreciation of stamina. 

Let’s not forget that Deep Impact ran to the top level over two miles, and if his son Auguste Rodin manages to clinch the 2,000 Guineas and Derby this season, you know exactly where you will find me on the afternoon of Saturday, September 16.

In the matter of reducing the distance of the St Leger, I do not agree with Peter Willett, despite his very well argued piece which provides much food for thought. But I would be interested to hear the views of TDN readers if you feel agreeable or disagreeable enough to drop me a line on emmaberry@thoroughbreddailynews.com.

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