Fifty years after witnessing his debut St Leger, our columnist recalls his experiences on Town Moor and looks back at some of the great winners of the world’s oldest Classic
I’ve often thought that if I had been blessed with a private income, I would have been a historian. If I wasn’t actually born with a sense of history, I certainly acquired one very early. My parents never bought books, and I soon learnt that the relatively few about the house had been handed down from previous generations or – perhaps the majority – were marked ‘East Sussex County Library – Discarded’, acquisitions from Aunt Daisy, who worked at the library in Lewes.
Between the ages of 11 and 15, when I actually studied history at school, I gave my teachers, Eric Halliday and Dickie Snailham, no inkling that I had a gift for the subject, and the former expressed astonishment that I had contrived to pass my ‘O’ Level paper. I had struck lucky over that, because the period I studied – roughly from George III to William IV – coincided with the early years of the Classic races, and I could remember the dates of the supposed main events by reference to what was happening on the racecourse in those years.
By 1958, when I sat the exam, I was already a seasoned buyer of racing books, most of them acquired very cheaply at the Caledonian Market in Exeter, and they were all very old. The Badminton Library’s volume on Racing and Steeplechasing, published in 1886, was one of the first, along with several works of Henry Hall Dixon, who used the nom de plume The Druid, and whom I still regard as the finest of all racing writers. He died in 1870, and from him I learnt about the great horses and racing personalities of his era. It would be a safe bet that I knew more about the lives of Frank Buckle, Jem Robinson and Sam Chifney than the average schoolchild; I certainly knew more about them than I knew about the William Pitts, Elder and Younger, and the Duke of Wellington.
Sure, I did know that the North American colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776, but that was only because I had that date fixed in my mind as the inaugural year of the St Leger, the world’s oldest Classic race. When I acquired the first three volumes of John Fairfax-Blakeborough’s Northern Turf History, the third, which featured York and Doncaster and provided extensive material on all the St Legers up to 1950, was the one most eagerly devoured. Smart-arse kid that I was, I even wrote to the author, pointing out that he had given the wrong rider of Pewett, the winner of 1789. Gracious fellow that he was, Fairfax-Blakeborough responded, admitting his error.
Fairfax-Blakeborough was in his 93rd year when he died on New Year’s Day 1976, having witnessed every St Leger between 1902 – when Sceptre became the only horse to win four Classics outright – and 1975. As the race was abandoned in 1939 on the outbreak of World War II, his score was 73, a tally perhaps matched only by Sir Tatton Sykes, the 4th baronet, who certainly watched more than 70, but for some reason missed the 1839 renewal, the occasion of the historic dead-heat and run-off involving Charles The Twelfth and Euclid. He survived into his nineties and was on hand when the colt named after him scored in 1846.
That is what our greatest racedays deliver, and I have never ceased to feel the connection with the ghosts of yesteryear when those occasions occur
The Fairfax-Blakeborough and Sykes scores are under threat now from my esteemed colleague, Doncaster-born Howard Wright, who was the same age as the runners when he saw Black Tarquin win in 1948 and has been present at every St Leger since then. I look forward to seeing him on Town Moor this month, when he will be attending his 66th St Leger and my own relatively meagre tally reaches 51.
The first time is unforgettable
In his Northern Turf History, Fairfax-Blakeborough said that none of the St Legers he had witnessed gave him the same thrill as the first. “The memory of that race and of Sceptre was lastingly photographed on my mind, and I somehow felt that I had attained the full heritage of a Yorkshireman, and that all my previous and limited experiences of racing at little local meetings was as nothing compared with the impressiveness, expanse, crowds, tenseness and wonders of Doncaster.”
I am no Yorkshireman, but I can readily relate to Fairfax-Blakeborough’s sentiments. The 1963 St Leger was the first Classic I attended. I recall walking down Bennetthorpe among the mass of humanity emptying the town for the annual ritual enacted on Town Moor, realising that this was how it had been for close on two centuries; the past and present merged for the occasion, and I was experiencing nothing less than living history.
That is what our greatest racedays deliver, and I have never ceased to feel the connection with the ghosts of yesteryear when those occasions occur. What is taking place is taking place because it always has. These events matter because they have always mattered. At the same time, in the same place every year, they have mattered to umpteen generations of breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys and spectators. And when I raise my binoculars for what will be my 51st St Leger and 244th Classic, I shall feel conscious of being a witness to living history.
Like Fairfax-Blakeborough, I began my personal involvement with the St Leger in a top year. I did not arrive at Doncaster in the expectation of seeing a very competitive race, as there were only seven runners, and one, the Irish Derby and King George victor Ragusa, was at long odds-on. What I wanted to see was a dominating performance, and that is just what I did see, Ragusa winning by six lengths to confirm that he was the best three-year-old in training in England or Ireland. Timeform rated him 137, one pound higher than Relko, who had beaten him at Epsom, and he was by some way the best horse I had seen in action up to that time.
On the journey home, when I had made up my mind that I would never willingly miss another St Leger, was I conscious that I would be lucky ever to see a better winner? I doubt it, but that turned out to be the case. Only two St Leger winners have since been Timeform-rated more highly – Nijinsky (138) in 1970 and Reference Point (139) in 1987. Both were also Derby winners and among the few Epsom heroes who were later to target the Doncaster Classic.
I saw Charlottown’s failure against Sodium in 1966, the mighty Shergar no nearer than fourth behind Cut Above in 1981, and Camelot’s vain bid to emulate Nijinsky as a Triple Crown victor last year. There will be no Derby winner at Doncaster in 2013, but in a season that has given us mixed messages over the three-year-old crop, we may well be able to celebrate a top-class performance in the most demanding race in the Classic canon. I can hardly wait.