The St. Leger Stakes was established in 1776, at the suggestion of Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony St. Leger – erstwhile Member of Parliament for Greater Grimsby and later promoted to Major-General – as a sweepstakes for three-year-olds, run over two miles on Cantley Common, Doncaster. The inaugural running featured just five horses, the owners of whom contributed 25 guineas each to the prize money. Three years later, the St. Leger was transferred to Town Moor and, in 1813 – the year before the race was officially designated a ‘Classic’ by the Jockey Club – the distance was shortened to 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 193 yards.
Despite diminishing status in recent years, the St. Leger remains a Group One contest, run over the slightly shorter distance of 1 mile 6 furlongs and 115 yards, at Doncaster in September. The race is open to thoroughbred three-year-old colts and fillies – but not geldings, which have been excluded since 1906 – and, in 2018, the total prize fund was £700,000.
Originally a local event, the St. Leger soon gained nationwide recognition and, in the early twentieth century, royal patronage from King Edward VII, who attended the St. Leger Meeting between 1903 and 1909. Indeed, in 1909, the King owned a contender for the so-called ‘Triple Crown’ – the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St. Leger – but his colt, Minoru, could only finish fourth of seven, beaten six lengths, behind Bayardo in the final Classic of the season.
The St. Leger has been cancelled just once, in 1939, due to the outbreak of World War II, although it has been staged in a number of different guises at various racecourses, including Ayr, Newmarket, Thirsk and York, over the years. The leading trainer in the history of the race is John Scott, a.k.a. ‘Wizard of the North, who saddled an astonishing 16 winners between 1827 and 1862. The widest-margin winner ever was Never Say Die, ridden by Charlie Smirke – deputising for the suspended Lester Piggott – who sauntered home by twelve lengths in 1954.