Where better to start this series on Yorkshire’s famous races, but with the best known of them all, the world’s oldest Classic race, the St Leger at Doncaster?
When the St Leger was first run in 1776, George III was on the British throne, Marie Antoinette was queen of France, the United States had just begun its fight for independence from Great Britain and only five years had passed since James Cook had returned to Britain having charted the eastern coast of Australia for the first time.
The race was originally run over two miles at Cantley Common, Doncaster on Tuesday, September 24, 1776 although you wouldn’t have known it as it then had no title, but was reported at the time as ‘A sweepstake of 25gns each’. It was won by Lord Rockingham’s brown filly with Mr St Leger’s bay filly second.
Lord Rockingham, who subsequently named his brown filly Allabaculia, chaired a dinner party at the Red Lion Inn in Doncaster in 1777 when the race was discussed and at the Chairman’s instigation it was named after the man who had suggested it, Colonel Anthony St Leger.
St Leger, who had been born in Grangemellon, County Kildare in 1731, was a career soldier and politician, whose brother Barry St Leger, another career soldier, was a colonel in the British Army which unsuccessfully attempted to quell the rebellion of the colonials in the American War of Independence.
Anthony St Leger was educated at Eton and Cambridge. In 1761, he married Yorkshire-born Margaret Wombwell and was also appointed lieutenant-colonel of the 124th Regiment of Foot, only for the regiment to be disbanded the following year.
So, in 1762 St Leger settled at the Park Hill Estate in Firbeck, near Rotherham, where he established a Stud farm. He also served as Member of Parliament for Grimsby from 1768 to 1774. He later served as Governor of Saint Lucia from 1781 to 1783 when the British occupied the French colony.
Anthony St Leger died on April 19, 1786 aged 55. He is buried in St Anne’s Church in Dawson Street, Dublin.
The race named in his honour has had its ups and downs, particularly in the early 1970’s when Vincent O’Brien, trainer of Nijinsky, who had become the first horse for 35 years to complete the Triple Crown of 2000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger in 1970, claimed it was running in the St Leger which had cost his colt his chance of winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
That claim has now been disproved, which helped to restore the fortunes of Britain’s oldest Classic and while the search goes on for another Triple Crown winner, the race is still one of the major highlights of the British season.