(Published 16 August, 2018) – It’s looking like a proper St Leger trial. With the five-day declarations through for the £170,000 Group 2 Sky Bet Great Voltigeur Stakes, nearly all the colts hoping to carry off the final British Classic of 2018 are currently engaged in this critical mile-and-a-half contest on Wednesday’s opening day of York’s superb Ebor Festival.
John Gosden’s Lucarno was the last horse to do the Great Voltigeur-St Leger double back in 2007, but in the last decade alone some fine horses have used the York race as a stepping stone to even greater things later in the campaign and the following season. Rewilding (2010) and Sea Moon (2011) both went on to win top-class races, Postponed (2014) went on to establish himself as a high-class middle-distance performer, and 12 months ago Gosden’s Cracksman relaunched his career with a fine win here before going on to glory in the Champion Stakes at Ascot, ending last season as the world’s highest rated three year old.
Will Cross Make His Mark?
One horse who won’t be going to Doncaster to tackle the St Leger is Charlie Appleby’s Cross Counter (4/1 with Paddy Power), having been gelded this March despite winning on his only two previous racecourse appearances. The son of Teofilo obviously was finding it hard to concentrate his mind on the job of racing, and following the unkindest cut of all has certainly developed at a rate of knows this mid-summer. Runner-up at Sandown on his first start following the gelding operation, he then stepped up to a mile-and-a-half for the first time and ran well to be fourth in the highly competitive King George V Handicap at Royal Ascot in June.
Cross Counter smashed the course record in the Gordon last week ??
— Goodwood Racecourse (@Goodwood_Races) August 11, 2018
Cross Counter’s first success of the 2018 campaign back at Ascot just over three weeks later when winning a good handicap easily off a mark of 101, then he stepped up to Group 3 company at Glorious Goodwood and turned over the Investec Derby runner-up Dee Ex Bee in the Group 3 Gordon Stakes with a relentless display that shattered the previous course record that had stood for more than 30 years. That win had “Melbourne Cup” written all over it. As he seems to be progressing with every run, the Godolphin representative is to be feared and looks sure to run another big race.
The O’Brien Family Contenders
Eight of the 16 horses remaining in the Great Voltigeur Stakes are trained at Ballydoyle the legendary Aidan O’Brien and, as usual, just trying to figure out which ones are going to run – never mind if any of them can win – is quite a challenge. It does appear though that the yard’s first string, Kew Gardens (3/1 with Sky Bet), is an intended runner, and given the way the Galileo colt has progressed over the last few months he should go well.
That said, I have to admit to struggling to find a place in my heart for the horse who looked as slow as a boat when soundly trounced in the Lingfield Derby Trial in May, although the winner that day, Knight To Behold, went to France earlier this week and put up a great winning performance in Group 2 company. Kew Gardens seemed to be a Cup horse in the making when looking a thorough stayer in landing the Group 2 Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot in June over a mile-and-three-quarters, before following up beating Neufbosc and Dee Ex Bee in the Group 1 Grand Prix De Paris at Longchamp back at 12 furlongs, showing a useful turn of foot in the process.
That success suggested – even to a doubter like me – that O’Brien’s charge really is getting better, and getting quicker. He should run a big race at York, especially if a pacemaker (such as Cypress Creek) is kept in the race to ensure a decent gallop throughout.
O’Brien’s six other entries – Flag Of Honour, Guiseppe Garibaldi, Nelson, Southern France, The Pentagon and Zabriskie – all fail to whet the appetite for a variety of reason, concerning trip and ground, but most particularly because they just haven’t done enough this summer to suggest this is a race any of them are up to carrying off. Southern France is the most likely improver of the bunch, but over an extra two furlongs in the St Leger itself. We’ll find out soon enough, but few could argue that this term’s crop of three-year-old colts at Ballydoyle are anywhere near the supremely high standard standard of the previous years. You can’t win ‘em all.
Aidan’s son and former Irish champion jockey Joseph O’Brien, on the other hand, has a proper horse on his hands in the shape of his surprise Tattersalls Irish Derby winner Latrobe (8/1 with 888sport).
There was absolutely no fluke about the way he stayed on gamely to resist his father’s pair of Rostropovich and the Qipco 2000 Guineas winner Saxon Warrior at the Curragh in late-June. The son of Camelot has had a nice little break since then and if he were to run in this race he would have a favourite’s chance – but it does appear that connections are currently favouring dropping him back a furlong-and-a-half to take on the older horses in the Group 1 Juddmonte International Stakes just over half an hour after the Great Voltigeur next Wednesday.
Yorkshire Hopes On The Warpath
The two big local hopes for keeping the prize in Yorkshire are the aforementioned Derby runner-up Dee Ex Bee, trained by Mark Johnston at Middleham, and Malton-based Tim Easterby’s recent Group 3 winner Wells Farrh Go.
Dee Ex Bee (14/1 with Leo Vegas) is a frustrating horse. He was a fine runner-up to Young Rascal (also engaged in the Great Voltigeur) when the pair were separated by just half a length in the Group 3 MBNA Chester Vase in May, then performed even better when a superb second to Masar in the Investec Derby, staying on really well once headed to resist both Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior, subsequently first and second in the Coral Eclipse Stakes. That form is excellent (see below), but the dismal effort from Johnston’s colt when well fancied for the Irish Derby was hard to fathom. He led until headed two out then looked woefully one-paced in coming home fifth behind Latrobe and may well have simply had an off-day.
It was a very similar story when he was again found wanting in the Grand Prix De Paris won by Kew Gardens, leading until being swept aside. At Goodwood last time he could never land a glove on Cross Counter, although it did prove to be a track record time and the undulating course may not have suited the big, rangy son of Farhh. All the same, Dee Ex Bee doesn’t look one to place too much faith in at present although he may well develop into a smart stayer next term.
WELLS FARRH GO (11/2 with Betfair) is an out-and-out galloper who won both his starts over seven furlongs as a juvenile, including the Group 3 Acomb Stakes at York where he edged out the talented James Garfield. From the start of this campaign trainer Tim Easterby has made no secret that his stable star is all about the St Leger, so it came as no surprise when he wasn’t quick enough to go with Roaring Lion and co. in the Dante Stakes over 10 furlongs in May. He did better when stepped up to a mile-and-a-half in the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot, staying on to take fifth behind Old Persian, then clicked into gear over an extra furlong at Newmarket’s July meeting beating Loxley by two lengths with a pillar-to-post victory. The runner-up has gone on to land a listed race in France recently so the form seems solid.
While it’s fair to say that Easterby won’t want to leave his St Leger behind on the Knavesmire by giving his pride and joy a very hard race, the contest reportedly means a lot to the man who sent out the 2002 St Leger winner Bollin Eric, and he feels Wells Farrh Go may well be a better horse. He looks a rock solid each-way investment.
An improved display from the Chester Vase winner Young Rascal (8/1 with Paddy Power) is by no means ruled out, the Investec Derby seventh set to return from a near three-month break if taking his chance on Wednesday, while Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes winner Old Persian (14/1 with LeoVegas) probably raced again too soon when turning out for the Irish Derby and disappointing a week later. He remains a horse of some potential and had been on an upward curve prior to his flop at the Curragh.
ADVICE: WELLS FARRH GO (11/2 with Betfair)
Written by Paul Alster
Paul Alster has been part of the British and international racing media for more than three decades working as a race commentator, TV/radio presenter, journalist, betting correspondent, SP returner, and form analyst. He’s always sought out overpriced runners in handicap races, a quest that excites him as much now as it did at the start of his career.