The Origins of the St Leger – and the one running missed!

The Origins of the St Leger and the one running missed!


As the St Leger will soon be upon us, I thought it of interest to return to the origins of the race and its fragmented history.

The St Leger is the oldest of the five Classic races and throughout the Victorian era it fiercely rivalled the Derby for supremacy. Its origins were, however, both obscure and humble.

First run on Tuesday, 24 September 1776, as an unnamed sweepstakes for three-year-old colts and fillies over two miles, it was run on the old course on Cantley Common, Doncaster.

Five ran and the winner was an unnamed filly owned by the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, who he later named Allabaculia.

The following year the race was run under the same conditions, but in 1778 the race was given a name and a change of venue.

 At a dinner party held at the Red Lion Inn, Doncaster that year, the Marquis of Rockingham proposed the race be called the St Leger’s Stakes as a compliment to the popular local sportsman Lt-Gen. Anthony St Leger of Park Hill. The venue was then changed to Town Moor, Doncaster and the race run on Tuesday, 22 September 1778.

The distance remained at two miles, until, with various changes, it was eventually run over the current distance of 1m. 6f. 132yds.

  In a strange and varied set of circumstances, the St Leger has taken place at seven different venues: Cantley Common, Town Moor, the Cesarewitch Course, Newmarket, Thirsk, Manchester, the July Course at Newmarket and, in 1989 at Ayr.

Incidentally, the St Leger is the only British Classic to have skipped a year from its inaugural running, and in unique circumstances it happened so.

 In 1939, the 6th Earl of Rosebery’s Blue Peter, having won the 2,000 Guineas and Derby, was undergoing his preparation for the St Leger. However, history intervened at 11 o’clock on Sunday 3 September, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast the news to the nation that Great Britain was at war with Germany. Subsequently, the St Leger was cancelled, thus denying Blue Peter the chance of the Triple Crown.

The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Nijinsky in 1970, seen below, winning the St Leger at Doncaster, with Lester Piggott aboard.

1970 St Leger

For more Racing History see Michael’s Books for Sale.

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