Storm the Stars, O'Brien trio, filly Simple Verse among 8 in St Leger
The world's oldest classic -- the St Leger (G1) at Doncaster -- will be staged for the 239th time on Saturday. The third jewel in Britain's Triple Crown, the 1 3/4-mile, 132-yard prize tests the stamina of these three-year-olds.
Storm the Stars brings classic form into the St Leger, having finished third behind Golden Horn in the Derby (G1) at Epsom and second to Jack Hobbs in the Irish Derby (G1) at the Curragh. In his latest, the William Haggas trainee captured a St Leger prep, the 1 1/2-mile Great Voltigeur (G2) at York, where he was fortunate not to be disqualified for herding runner-up Bondi Beach. Aside from the distance question, the son of Sea the Stars has also had a very busy season. This will mark his ninth start of 2015, but connections are hopeful that he's tough enough for the job.
"He is a tough sort," said Maureen Haggas, the trainer's wife who is also the daughter of legendary jockey Lester Piggott. "We don't do much with him at home as he isn't a horse that likes going to the gallops. Early on he wasn't very well behaved and looked like he needed more education, so we kept running him to try and make him a bit more professional and bring him on. It doesn't appear to have done him much harm.
"Hopefully, the step up in trip will improve him but you never really know until you actually go and do it. The signs are that he should be a better horse over a bit further but it is the end of a long, hard year and he has given us everything so far. If we could get one more big run out of him, that would be great but he doesn't really owe is anything.
"From the Derby onwards, the St Leger was always the route we were going and dad (Piggott) didn't put us off that - he would certainly have told us if he didn't agree! The St Leger was the obvious way to go as he is a galloper and the further he goes, the better he should be."
Racing Manager Bruce Raymond sounded more categorical about it.
"I think Storm The Stars is an ideal horse for the St Leger," Raymond said. "I would be surprised if he doesn't stay well. He is a bit one-paced, as most of them are, but he is a classic horse, with a second and third in two Derbys. So he is a proper horse for the St Leger."
As might be expected, trainer Aidan O'Brien is well represented in search of his fifth St Leger. The master of Ballydoyle has three improving types, all sons of Galileo with experience at 1 3/4 miles -- Order of St George, who comes off a career-best romp over older horses Sea Moon and Kingfisher in the Irish St Leger Trial (G3); Ballyroan (G3) scorer Fields of Athenry, an honorable fifth versus tough older handicappers under a big weight in the Ebor; and the aforementioned Bondi Beach, who had edged the reappearing Order of St George in the Curragh Cup (G3) prior to his troubled second in the Great Voltigeur.
"The three horses all have different profiles and it is hard to say which will be best on Saturday," O'Brien said.
"I am not sure if Joseph (O'Brien) will be riding any of them, as it is possible he will stay at Leopardstown that day."
Interestingly, Order of St George was intended to be on the Derby trail earlier this season, hinting that he might have an extra touch of class up his sleeve.
"Order Of St George had a bit of a setback around Derby trial time," O'Brien said. "He was due to go Lingfield for the Derby trial instead of Kilimanjaro but got a temperature. We had been very happy with him up until that point.
"I was very happy with him at the Curragh last time and the ease in the ground suited him. He won very nicely. He has also form on fast and good ground and I think he is one of those horses that can handle anything."
[Update: O'Brien ended up switching Order of St George to Sunday's Irish St Leger [Ire-G1] versus older horses, in light of the ground likely being softer at the Curragh than Doncaster.]
An intriguing supplementary entry is the filly Simple Verse, who was added to the field Monday for £50,000. It wasn't a massive surprise, since trainer Ralph Beckett looked like the proverbial Cheshire cat when asked about the Leger after her resounding win in the 1 3/4-mile Lillie Langtry (G3) at Glorious Goodwood. In a fairly open-looking renewal, a rapid improver who stays the trip as well as she obviously does is worth a look.
Moreover, Simple Verse has some nifty collateral form. The older filly who was runner-up in the Lillie Langtry, Godolphin's Hidden Gold, came back to finish third versus classy males in the Lonsdale Cup (G2). And two starts back, Simple Verse narrowly beat a strong Mark Johnston trainee, Polarisation, while giving him four pounds. Polarisation's hectic summer campaign has since featured notable wins in the Melrose at York and a handicap at Hamilton (where the second, four-year-old Nakeeta, was the subsequent winner of the Old Borough Cup).
Both of Beckett's previous St Leger runners were fillies, Oaks (G1) winners Look Here and Talent, and each placed (in 2008 and 2013, respectively).
Should Simple Verse upstage the colts, it would crown a terrific season for her exported sire Duke of Marmalade. Since his departure to South Africa in 2014, the Duke has been in rare form this year, with no fewer than three 2015 classic winners -- Star of Seville in the French Oaks (G1), Sound of Freedom in the Italian 1000 Guineas (G3), and Nutan in the German Derby (G1) -- as well as multiple Group 2-winning four-year-old Big Orange.
France has one St Leger contender in Vengeur Masque, who faces a class question in the wake of his fourth in the Prix de Reux (G3) at Deauville in his stakes debut. But his connections warrant respect -- the Wildensteins and trainer Mikel Delzangles -- and the regally bred son of Monsun has untapped potential.
"He is an improving three-year-old and improving all the time," Delzangles said. "He was very laidback and we had a few issues with him at the beginning of the season - he bruised a foot - and we were quite late getting going.
"He seems to be coming up very well and is well-bred. The two races he won ( a maiden and allowance) are definitely not as good as the St Leger will be on Saturday. But both victories came on left-handed tracks which suited him very well.
"The longer distance of the Leger will suit him too. He is really improving and his last run at Deauville (in the Prix de Reux) was not as good as I had hoped for. It was a true French race with no pace and turned into a sprint.
"Vengeur Masque has always shown a lot in the mornings and he will suited by the style of racing in England. We will find out whether he is good enough on Saturday."
Rounding out the octet are rank outsiders Medrano and Proposed, who both appear up against it on form.