Sixteen runners remain in Saturday's William Hill St Leger at Doncaster after the latest forfeit stage on Monday, with Kew Gardens a clear favourite to give his trainer Aidan O’Brien a sixth win in the final Classic of the season. However, O’Brien still has some way to go to match the achievements of John Scott, the 19th-century trainer who recorded 16 wins in a race that was established in 1776, making it the oldest of Britain's five Classics.
As was the case 12 months ago, when Group 1-winning form was brought to the table by Capri and Stradivarius who landed the Irish Derby and Goodwood Cup respectively on their most recent starts, this year’s renewal features two horses that have a top-level win to their name this season; one of which is Kew Gardens.
Kew Gardens made as little impact in the Derby at Epsom as he had in two warm-up runs for the race, but announced himself on the scene in style when a well-backed four and a half length winner of the Queen's Vase over this trip at Royal Ascot in June. He duly followed up in the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp in July – his Group 1 win – and improved again (under the burden of a 5 lb penalty) when one and a half lengths third to Old Persian in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York last time, left with a lot to do in relation to the first two home.
A proven stayer, Kew Gardens will be suited by a return to this trip, acts on most ground (has won on going ranging from soft to good to firm), and has an obvious chance. The only question mark might be if the ground were to turn very soft, given his impressive staying performance at Royal Ascot came on good to firm.
While history tells us that it’s most efficient to focus solely on Ballydoyle favourites (all five of their winners topped the market), O’Brien has several notable squad members entered, most notably The Pentagon and Southern France.
The Pentagon was a never-nearer third to Saxon Warrior in the Racing Post Trophy here on his final start last term, and, though disappointing on the face of things so far this season, he essentially had a hopeless task when dropped out and given too much to do in the Irish Derby won by Latrobe. He is very stoutly bred (half-brother to Vadamar who stayed two and a half miles) and should progress now his stamina is drawn out.
Southern France has improved with each run, winning his maiden at Leopardstown and a 13-furlong listed race at Navan, both in May. He was given too much to do when a never-nearer second to Kew Gardens in the Queen’s Vase, and was again left poorly placed when two and a quarter lengths fourth to Flag of Honour – one place behind stablemate Giuseppe Garibaldi – in the Irish St Leger Trial at the Curragh last time. Southern France usually responds generously to pressure and is open to further improvement, so is not one to take lightly.
Irish St Leger Trial winner Flag of Honour had previously won the Curragh Cup (by one and a half lengths from Giuseppe Garibaldi) in July and may do better still now he’s found his best trip, though he’s the ante-post favourite for the Irish St Leger proper 24 hours after this race.
The second Group 1 winner in the field is Latrobe – trained by Aidan’s son Joseph – who won the Irish Derby at the Curragh just three weeks after breaking his maiden tag there. That much improved performance meant he became the longest-priced winner of the Irish Derby since Frozen Fire in 2008, and though his half-length beating of Rostropovich owed plenty to being well placed the way things panned out, it was still a gutsy effort.
Latrobe has since been well beaten in the Juddmonte International at York, but is better than that effort, the drop in trip against him, especially with how the race developed, and he wasn't persevered with once held. Better is expected if lining up here instead of in the Irish version a day later.
The aforementioned Old Persian was well backed at big odds ahead of his win in the Great Voltigeur at York last month and rewarded the faith with a narrow defeat of stablemate Cross Counter (who can’t run here because he is a gelding). Old Persian has progressed all year, winning a handicap at Newmarket in April and listed race there in May, both over a mile and a quarter. He followed up in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot in June and put a lesser effort in the Irish Derby (held up) behind him when reverting to more positive tactics in the Great Voltigeur. He is not necessarily bred for it, but shapes as though he'll be suited by this longer trip here, and has to be considered as a result.
Stablemate Loxley would be respected if turning up here given his progressive profile, which includes a two-length win in the Grand Prix de Deauville last time, however connections have nominated the Prix Niel as the most likely port of call for this big, scopey individual. Similarly, though she’s shortened in the betting after being left in on Monday, emphatic York winner Lah Ti Dar looks bound for Sunday’s Prix Vermeille at Longchamp rather than attempting to pick up a belated Classic here (she was ante-post favourite for the Oaks before being ruled out through injury). Should she run here, she’d be a big danger, with the longer trip likely to be no barrier despite the fact her family were all campaigned over shorter.
Of more interest is Dee Ex Bee, a very smart performer who finished second to Masar in the Derby at Epsom in June, but he hasn't matched that form since, going in snatches when four and a half lengths second to Cross Counter in the Gordon Stakes at Goodwood last time. That form has been franked by the winner since, though, and it’s interesting that connections have given Dee Ex Bee a break since that run. He has shaped for some time as if he will be suited by the longer trip here, and whilst he may lack a class edge on some of those ahead of him in the betting, this long-striding colt is not to be underestimated.
Of the others, connections paid £50,000 to supplement Maid Up for this race on Monday, a bold decision despite the filly’s progressive profile. She has risen through the handicap ranks since May, winning three in a row before taking another step forward when a nose second in the Lillie Langtry Stakes at Goodwood. She’s since added another win, this time when beating two rivals in the March Stakes back on the Downs, but will need to improve again here. The progressive Raymond Tusk, a listed winner at Hamilton in July who was second to Hamada in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury last time, is another to consider.
Brian Boru was beaten in the Great Voltigeur before winning the St Leger, Scorpion (2005) landed the Grand Prix de Paris as his prep run, while Leading Light won the 2013 renewal after winning the Queen’s Vase – which was run over two miles at the time – so the route that Kew Gardens has trodden is one that is well-known to those at Ballydoyle. He will rightly be popular as he bids to follow in their footsteps, and is selected to do so at 13/8. Of the others, the value at this stage looks to be 12/1 chance Dee Ex Bee who has lacked a turn of pace since staying on for second in the Derby back in June but should be better suited by this longer trip.
Back Kew Gardens to win Saturday’s St Leger at 13/8
Back Dee Ex Bee to win Saturday’s St Leger at 12/1