Doncaster drama as St Leger favourite evokes memories of Devon Loch!
If it's not the winner being controversially disqualified, it's the odds-on favourite stumbling and unseating his rider! You can't match the drama that is engulfing the modern renewals of Doncaster's ancient Classic.
The Ladbrokes St Leger might have its cynical critics who question its relevance in an era that places more emphasis on stamina than speed.
It might have been forced to play second fiddle in the big-race stakes on Saturday to a mind-blowing running of the Irish Champion at Leopardstown.
And it might be about to lose its high-profile sponsor (more of which later).
But few can argue Town Moor’s showpiece isn’t still craving attention when it comes to newsworthy tales of the unexpected.
What most expected on Saturday was Aidan O’Brien’s hotpot IDAHO to win if he stayed the 1m 6f trip. No-one had factored in the similar Jumps-style equation that he would surely win if he stood up. But visions of Cheltenham in March, and even Devon Loch in the Grand National, were thrown up when the three-year-old Derby third took his bizarre false step 3f from home and jettisoned jockey Seamie Heffernan to the canvas.
We will never know if Idaho’s stamina would have prevailed. But Ballydoyle had every right to curse the contest being snatched from them for a second successive season after BONDI BEACH’s flirtation with glory 12 months earlier when he was awarded the race in a stewards’ inquiry, only to lose it again, to the first-past-the-post filly SIMPLE VERSE, on appeal.
The curse couldn’t be lifted all weekend either because O’Brien and Co endured setback after setback in Leopardstown where warm fancies such as US ARMY RANGER, MINDING, HIT IT A BOMB, DOUGLAS MACARTHUR, BEST IN THE WORLD, PROMISE TO BE TRUE, RHODODENDRON and even 1/7 shot ORDER OF ST GEORGE all bit the dust in a sequence of setbacks salvaged only by the free-flowing ALICE SPRINGS in the Group One Matron Stakes and the beach-fighting CHURCHILL in the Group One National Stakes.
Idaho’s slip paved the way for a most unlikely hero in 22/1 outsider HARBOUR LAW, whose handler, Laura Mongan, became the first woman to train a Leger winner in the race’s 240-year history. Indeed she was only the third British-based woman to win a Classic of any kind. The fact that she had never even saddled a runner in a Group One race before left most of us scratching our heads, as well as doffing our caps.
The triumph proved once again, less than 18 months after Coneygree’s pilfering of the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the Bradstocks, that small-time trainers can still make it big in racing. Your surname does not have to be O’Brien or Mullins, Magnier or McManus.
But once all the excitement and emotion had died down, it was hard to escape the conclusion of most purists and connoisseurs -- that this was not a Leger of rich quality. Not only did the favourite come a cropper but his closest rival in the market, John Gosden’s long-striding beanpole, MUNTAHAA, ran a stinker after refusing to settle.
Early-race keenness was an affliction that also handicapped the finishing effort of HOUSESOFPARLIAMENT, who was surely in prime position to take advantage of stablemate Idaho’s demise, having chased him home at York last month and, indeed, beaten Harbour Law at Newmarket in July. All of which left in front a couple of colts who went into the race without any pretensions to dining at the top Group One table, although both, it has to be conceded, could well develop into serious players in Cup races next term, given how strongly they got every yard of the Leger distance.
Runner-up VENTURA STORM’S chances appeared reliant on the heavy overnight rain that was widely forecast as we went to bed on Leger Eve. So you can well imagine the rollercoaster ride suffered by his syndicate connections and supporters on the day of the race. First, the frustration as the rain did not materialise; next, the pride as he still ran a blinder; and finally, the anguish as a momentous victory was stolen from his grasp in the dying strides. I know how they felt. I was on at 20s.
Opinions aside, however, the 2016 Leger still provided a thrilling spectacle, which probably added to the angst Ladbrokes say they are feeling in waving farewell to their successful 12-year sponsorship.
The deal is a victim of the BHA’s stance that refuses to accept the backing of firms who are not approved betting partners (ABPs). In other words, firms who do pay financial contributions to racing from the wagers they take in betting shops, but who refuse to do so from their overseas operations, which are not covered by the long-standing levy arrangement and yet embrace bets placed here by phone, online and via mobile apps.
Given the wide range of sponsors Doncaster’s admirable marketing team attracts every year for the four-day Leger Festival, I have little doubt they can find a replacement. But Ladbrokes’ loss of the Leger should not be depicted as a sob story, in which the the track and the BHA play the roles of villains.
Deploying spin that would have made Tony Blair blush at the height of the last Labour government, the firm’s veteran PR director Mike Dillon said: “It’s totally out of our hands. There’s nothing we can do about it.” Of course, they can do something about it. They can pay up and assume ABP status, just as rival companies Betfair, Bet365 and 32Red have.
Ladbrokes haven’t been kicked out of Doncaster. Rather, they have stumbled in the home straight and unseated their rider......
Race of the season deserved a better fanfare
When I highlighted, two weeks ago, the dazzling array of autumn meetings that light up the Flat season finale, I neglected, criminally, to mention Longines Irish Champions Weekend. Two days of spectacular action at Leopardstown and The Curragh on Saturday and Sunday underlined the impact the newly-created extravaganza has made, with its jewel in the crown being the Qipco Champion itself which, without doubt, was the race of the season. Not only did it bring together winners of 16 Group Ones and six Classics, it also mixed the generations and the genders in a fusion of the highest class that even the ‘fantasy racing’ enthusiasts would have been hard pushed to come up with. What a shame then that the race failed to attract the attention it deserved in the UK media.