National flags in the Doncaster infield flew at half staff on Sept. 15 for the running of the world's oldest classic, the 225th Rothmans Royals St. Leger (Eng-I). Gray skies and a cool, gusting wind enhanced a forlorn feeling among the crowd of more than 23,000, but business was conducted. If proof were needed things were returning to normal, trainer Aidan O'Brien collected his 15th group I race of the season when Milan was an easy winner over the extended 14 furlongs. Number 16 would come the following day from Hawk Wing in the Curragh's National Stakes (Ire-I).
O'Brien, who is now virtually assured the British training title, was also winning his seventh European classic of a spectacular year. The last Irish trainer to top the British standings was Vincent O'Brien (no relation) in 1977, who trained out of the same Ballydoyle yard in County Tipperary.
Co-owner Michael Tabor only arrived back in Britain the morning of the $514,850 race after being held up at the Keeneland sales, but he was on hand to witness Milan's finest hour. Stable jockey Michael Kinane was cool as a cucumber when he appeared trapped on the rail some two furlongs out, but when he set Milan alight, they went by Demophilos in a few strides to win going away by five lengths.
Demophilos, supplemented into the race for £20,000 by Athos Christodoulou, ran gallantly after claiming the lead approaching the 4 1/2-furlong stretch and came home three lengths clear of Canadian-owned Mr Combustible, who looked ill at ease warming up and drifted from 2-1 to 3-1 in the betting behind 13-8 favorite Milan.
"There was a good headwind and I wanted to get hidden from it until the last furlong," Kinane said after his first St. Leger ride. "They'd gone very fast, I knew they were going to hit the wall, and I had plenty of horse. I had all the cover and didn't have to face the wind."
"I wasn't very confident a furlong-and-a-half out and I thought Michael would have to jump to get out of there, but he was always confident on him and had all the moves covered," O'Brien said. "He's been high on him since York (won Great Voltigeur Stakes, Eng-II) and the plan was to come here and then go to the 'Arc' (Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Fr-I, Oct. 7)."
Milan (Sadler's Wells --Kithanga, by Darshaan) was bred by trainer Luca Cumani's Fittocks Stud and sold to Demi O'Byrne for 650,000 guineas ($1.1 million) at the Tattersalls Houghton yearling sale. The Great Voltigeur had been his first win from five starts this year, but he goes to the Arc with a big chance after the three principal French trials for the race were run 24 hours later at Longchamp.
Favorites won all three of the 12-furlong heats--13-10 Golan took the Prix Niel (Fr-II); 8-5 Aquarelliste the Prix Vermeille (Fr-I); and 1-2 Hightori the Prix Foy (Fr-II)--but punters sifting through the form were as confused as they had been going in. For instance, with Godolphin's Juddmonte International (Eng-I) winner Sakhee now more likely for the Dubai Champion Stakes (Eng-I), Coral made Golan their 3-1 Arc favorite while Ladbrokes put a 10-1 price on Golan with Aquarelliste their 7-2 choice.
Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I) winner Golan, returning after disappointing behind Galileo in the Budweiser Irish Derby (Ire-I), ran the fastest trial but his three-quarter length victory over Prix du Jockey-Club (Fr-I) winner Anabaa Blue was more workmanlike than brilliant. Kieren Fallon rode Lord Weinstock's 3-year-old, in whom Coolmore bought a share in the spring, for trainer Michael Stoute.
"He traveled well and when the gap came, I had to go for it, but he was in front too long," Fallon told the Racing Post. "He felt great, stronger than he did earlier in the year."
Aquarelliste won a little cheekily from Diamilina, if only by a neck, and earned high praise from Alec Wildenstein, son of owner Daniel Wildenstein.
"Allez France, Pawneese, and All Along were all exceptional fillies for us and this one gives me the same feeling as Allez France," he said. "I would put her towards the top end of that group. She did it well today but I found her a bit fat in the paddock. She will be much fitter for the Arc."
Aquarelliste remains unbeaten after four starts and saw out her first 12-furlong race well. After Wildenstein transferred some 30 horses from trainer Andre Fabre in May, Aquarelliste won the French Oaks (Prix de Diane, Fr-I) for new conditioner Elie Lellouche.
"I'm very happy," he said. "The runner-up was 100% fit and Aquarelliste has not been out since the Diane in June."
Hightori had been favorite in some bookmakers' lists before Sept. 16, but his was perhaps the least impressive warm-up in the Foy. The time was the slowest of the trials as Hightori got home by a half-length from Idaho Quest in the field of six. Gary Tanaka's 4-year-old is now priced between 4-1 and 13-2 for the Arc.
Hightori took the lead more than a furlong out but couldn't draw off in the late stages for Gerald Mosse. Trainer Philippe Demercastel related the horse hadn't been eating well since he was withdrawn from the Grosser Preis von Baden (Ger-I) and underwent a dental operation.
"He was ridden closer to the lead this time and he continued on and repelled all attackers," Demercastel said. "He would like it softer (than "good") and can only be better in the Arc."
Vinnie Roe almost traveled from Ireland to Doncaster for the St. Leger but stayed home to take his local version for trainer Dermot Weld. Millenary, who won the Doncaster St. Leger last year for Neil Jones of the Pacific Northwest, went to post the 9-4 favorite for the Jefferson Smurfit Memorial Irish St. Leger (Ire-I), which is open to older horses. He acquitted himself well in finishing second, although Vinnie Roe was drawing clear late to win by two lengths after 14 furlongs at the Curragh.
Veteran British stayers Marienbard and Persian Punch finished third and fourth, giving Weld a marker for Vinnie Roe's next target.
"I have had the Melbourne Cup (Aust-I) in mind for him for some time, and for that reason I wanted to try him against top-quality older horses here," Weld said. "If he was to justify the journey, he had to beat a horse like Persian Punch who has already been to Melbourne." (Weld is the only trainer to have sent a Northern Hemisphere horse to win the Melbourne Cup, turning the trick with Irish St. Leger winner Vintage Crop eight years ago.)
Vinnie Roe's win gave Weld his ninth career Irish classic and provided a first for jockey Pat Smullen, who took over as stable jockey when Kinane departed to join O'Brien. The stewards looked into Millenary drifting right and tightening up Persian Punch on the rail in the latter stages but let the placings stand.
Susan Magnier's Hawk Wing broke the Curragh's seven-furlong course record by 1.3 seconds in winning the National Stakes, vaulting him to prominence in Two Thousand Guineas betting for next year. Three of the top five in the market--Hawk Wing, Johannesburg, and Rock of Gibraltar--are trained by O'Brien. Hawk Wing confirmed the form of his victory in the Futurity Stakes (Ire-II), winning off by 2 1/2 lengths from Naheef, who was supplemented into the National.