St Leger fighting its corner

The ABP fall-out threatened to cast a long shadow over what – at this stage – looks set to be the final Ladbrokes St Leger lunch.

Sword Fighter was given a positive mention by Frankie Dettori and others

The Magic Sign haven't signed up to the BHA scheme – and the two parties seem as far apart as ever. They are therefore not in a position to renegotiate and extend the current deal so after 12 years that is that.

It seems a huge shame. The race has long held a special place in my heart, being a son of Yorkshire you're raised on it's history and heritage. It is the world's oldest Classic and there have been many unforgettable autumn days on Town Moor.

I'm too young, despite the grey flecks in the beard, to remember Nijinsky but I was there to see Lester Piggott boot home his final winner of the great race on Commanche Run. I remember the "Old Firm Strike" headlines as Joe Mercer and Cut Above gave Dick Hern another Leger victory as a legless and below-par Shergar treaded water through the final two furlongs.

Sun Princess and Minster Son nursed and punched home respectively by Willie Carson, the peerless Oh So Sharp completing the fillies' Triple Crown. They're days that never fade.

It was a race that mattered – but sadly not as much as it once did. In recent years though the Leger meeting – and the race itself – have been reinvigorated.

It's not just the increase in prize money – as welcome as that has been – but a concerted marketing push. Every day of the Festival now has it's own identity and purpose, from the Marmite Legends Race through to Saturday's Classic climax.

Ladbrokes have worked the sponsorship hard and have played their part, Doncaster and ARC too deserve immense credit, but we can't afford to lose momentum now.

The Leger has never faced a bigger challenge, competing as it does for column inches not only with with the Behemoth that is Premier League football, but Irish Champions Weekend, a concept that deservedly grows year on year.

British racing needs a strong St Leger – and the race needs a strong sponsor. I hope we get one.

So onto the race itself and after a three-course lunch, salmon carpacchio, a beef fillet and mustard mash followed by a chocolate mint mousse, it was over to the connections of the 14 runners.

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It should have been 15 but Jim Bolger, seemingly struck by an acute bout of stage fright, not only didn't appear on the phone line but – via host Martin Kelly – ruled Twilight Payment out of the race only an hour-and-a-half after persuading Godolphin to part with the fee to keep him in it. They're not short of a bob or two though.

Neither are Coolmore and of the seven horses they have engaged Aidan O'Brien expects to run "three or four".

One will be Idaho – who everyone in the room agreed had a favourite's chance. There was hardly a discerning word about him until the very final guest of the afternoon spoke, Frankie Dettori was there as ambassador for the sponsors – he rides at Leopardstown on Saturday – but did express his concern that the current odds-on favourite took an awful long time to put the Great Voltigeur to bed. Sword Fighter was his – and a few other decent judges' – idea of the best bet on Saturday.

It certainly wouldn't be Red Verdon based on Ed Dunlop's comments. It seems his progressive three-year-old hasn't escaped the bug that's plagued Newmarket this summer. He's had the devil's own job to get him ready for Saturday for all the colt pleased big-race jockey James Doyle in a recent spin.

Second favourite is Muntahaa for John Gosden. By the trainer's own admission this is very much a work in progress and a horse who is only going to improve further as he strengthens up.

He was at pains to point out how he was never going to pitch Hamdan Al Maktoum's charge in against Idaho in the Great Voltigeur. "They get racing very early at York, just after they turn in, and I didn't want to bottom my fellow."

The kid gloves come off on Saturday and you sense Gosden knows he's going there with a live chance – not that he'll ever admit to it.

What – he – and O'Brien – did though was to reiterate the importance of St Leger.

The master of Ballydoyle said: "It's a race that sorts out the pecking order of the stayers. We already know where we are with the sprinters, milers and ten furlong horses but Doncaster makes it clear what stage the three-year-olds who want further are at."

Gosden pointed out the enticing programme that lies ahead next year – and beyond – for the colts and fillies who take high rank on Saturday. Sagaro Stakes, Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup, Doncaster Cup, QIPCO Long Distance Cup. They're again races most owners and breeders want to win.

"Lose the stayers and you lose a third of our top level programme. Don't let's become like America and have one-dimensional one-turn races. Please sponsor again next year," he appealed to the Leading Light table where Mike Dillon kept his own counsel.

That's as close as we came to the three-letter word being muttered over coffee and petit fours.

Saturday may not be a vintage renewal of the Ladbrokes St Leger but it's again a fascinating horse race. Idaho, Muntahaa, Red Verdon, Sword Fighter and the rest are striving to add their name to one of the sport's most iconic and historic rolls of honour.

For over a decade now the Ladbrokes St Leger has re-established itself it an increasingly crammed and international autumn racing programme.

Let's hope the race can find a way to further strengthen it's position in the years ahead.

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