Today, Doncaster’s St Leger Racing Festival, which started earlier in the week, will be brought to a head with the St Leger Race itself.
For Doncaster, it is the most prestigious and exciting day, the St Leger being the world’s oldest classic horse race.
Besides the St Leger there are four other British ‘classics’ – the 2000 and 1000 Guineas start the season off at Newmarket, before the Derby and Oaks at Epsom in June. Yet a well-known racing saying states: ‘The fastest horse wins the Guineas; the luckiest the Derby – and the best horse wins the St Leger.’
According to S Fletcher in his 1902 book, The History of the St Leger Stakes 1776-1901, horse racing was in favour at Doncaster in the 16th century.
There was a racecourse on the Town Moor at the very beginning of the 17th century. It is referered to in an order made by the Doncaster Corporation, dated May, 2, 1600, which states “That whereas Hugh Wyrrall, gentleman, hath caused a stoope to be sett on Doncaster More at the west end of the horse-race, Mr Maior, Mr Huscroft, and Mr Levett maye likewise sett a workman to cutt down or dig upp the sayd stoope.”
During the 18th century there were a good many alterations in the times and conditions of racing in Doncaster. John Orton, in his 1844 Turf Annals of York and Doncaster, first mentions race meetings at Doncaster in 1728, when plates of 20 and 40 guineas each were run for on July 22 and 23.
The meeting of 1729 was held in August, the 1730 one took place in May, and it moved to June in 1731. For a time thereafter June was recognised as the ‘racing’ month.
By the middle of the century, however, September appears to have been definitely fixed upon for celebrating what has since become regarded as an annual event of great importance.
There were five days’ racing at the meetings of 1757 and 1758 and four in the following year. After that the races were sometimes on three, sometimes on four days.
In 1768, however, sport was particularly poor, as there was only a race and a match on the Monday, plus the race for the Doncaster Cup on the Wednesday.
A sweepstake of 25 guineas was held over two miles (3 km) on Cantley Common, two miles east of the current Doncaster racecourse, on September 24, 1776. The rules stipulated that colts should carry eight stone (50.8 kg) in weight, and fillies seven stone 12 pounds (49.9 kg).
The event was organised by Charles Watson-Wentworth, Second Marquess of Rockingham, who was a prominent politician and former Prime Minister, and was the idea of Lieutenant Colonel Anthony St Leger, a former MP.
On the day, the winning horse from a field of five was owned by Rockingham, with a horse owned by St Leger following in second. The event didn’t receive its name until a meeting held between the 1777 and 1778 meets. When it was suggested that the race should be called the Rockingham Stakes, the Marquess is said to have replied: “No it was my friend St Leger who suggested the thing to me – call it after him.”
In 1779, the race moved from Cantley to a new course on the Town Moor, where it has remained.
An interesting description of the Doncaster course is provided in Benjamin Silliman’s Journal of Travels of 1805 to 1806): “Near Doncaster I observed the extensive race grounds for one of the favourite amusements of the English. In this instance, an elliptical space, two miles in circumference, was enclosed by a fence; the horses run around this space on a fine green sward, and are kept from flying off, by an exterior railing. “Contiguous to the ground there is also a large building which serves as a kind of office or stand for the gamblers of the turf, who are very numerous in Yorkshire. But racing is fashionable all over England, and is even encouraged by parliamentary and royal countenance, for the alleged purpose of improving the breed of horses.”
During the 19th century Doncaster was literally besieged and occupied for days before and after the September meeting and there was such variety and colour in the High Street and the Market Place, to say nothing of the many strange sights to be seen on the way to the Town Moor and on the course itself.
Folk of all classes came from far and near, driving in their chariots and their po’chay carriages, mounted on stage coaches or tramping on foot to take up residence in the town until the last winner of the meeting had caught the judge’s eye, and often for some days later.
Inns and houses were filled to overflowing and all manner of sports and pastimes helped to amuse the anxious searchers after pleasure and excitement. There were plays at the theatre and assemblies and concerts in other public places. There were cock pits everywhere and those who admired the noble art could see as much boxing as they pleased.
Jockey John Singleton rode Alabaculia, the first winner of the St Leger but from 1838 to 1841 William Scott, born at Chippenham in 1793, had a monopoly of the race, riding nine winners – Jack Spigot in 1821, Memnon (1825), The Colonel (1828), Rowton (1829), Don John in 1838, Charles XII (1839, Launcelot in 1840 and 1841 and Sir Tatton Sykes in 1846.
Lester Piggott, considered to be the greatest flat jockey of all time, with 4,493 career wins, had eight St Leger victories. His winners were St Paddy in 1960, Aurelius the following year, Ribocco in 1967, Ribero in 1968, Nijinsky in 1970, Athens Wood in 1971, then Boucher in 1972 and lastly Commanche Run in 1984.
Quite a wide range of personalities have attended Doncaster races and include Ras Prince Monolulu, best known for his cry “I gotta horse!” authors Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, ex-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and singer Bing Crosby. The course has also been well attended by Royalty.
Besides the St Leger, Doncaster’s other notable flat races include the Champagne Stakes, Doncaster Cup, Flying Childers Stakes, Lincoln Handicap, May Hill Stakes, November Handicap, Park Hill Stakes, Park Stakes, Portland Handicap and Racing Post Trophy.
More history was made at Doncaster in 1992 when it staged the first-ever Sunday meeting on a British racecourse. A crowd of 23,000 turned up, despite there being no betting.
For all those having a flutter on the St Leger today, Retro wishes you luck.