Capri took the William Hill St Leger on Saturday in much the same manner Aidan O’Brien, his trainer, has galloped through the Flat season. Relentless and determined, he pounded through the final quarter-mile at the end of 14 furlongs without any hint of weakness, dismissing the best that Newmarket had to offer as he did so to register O’Brien’s 18th Group One success of the season.
Another eight wins at the highest level this year, which is more than the vast majority of trainers manage in their entire careers, will take him past Bobby Frankel’s all-time record of 25 in a calendar year. O’Brien was a 10-1 chance to break the record at the start of the season, despite being on a pace to do so for much of 2016. This time around, like Capri, he shows no sign of stopping, and is now down to even-money to make it to 26.
On paper, this was one of the best and most competitive Legers for years, and it produced a memorable finish as Capri held off the late challenge of Crystal Ocean by half a length, with Stradivarius a short-head away in third. But there was also a sense from the early stages, as O’Brien’s four-strong team occupied the first four places and The Anvil set a frantic pace, that Ballydoyle had a grip on the season’s final Classic that would not be loosened.
Already, most of the attention in the biggest crowd of Doncaster’s season was directed towards Capri, who had been strongly backed in the minutes leading up to the race to start favourite at 3-1. Next in the betting was Stradivarius, despite Frankie Dettori’s decision to ride Coronet, his stable companion at John Gosden’s yard, and it was James Doyle, Dettori’s replacement, who moved up to challenge Capri three furlongs out as the pace-setters dropped away and the principals came to the fore.
They locked horns for a furlong but Capri’s remorseless gallop gave him the upper hand well inside the final quarter before Jim Crowley asked Crystal Ocean to quicken towards the lead. Sir Michael Stoute’s colt summoned up enough speed to reach Capri’s quarters but not enough to take him any further and O’Brien’s fifth St Leger was secure with nearly half a furlong to run.
“As he had a blip [when he missed a trial race in August], we were a little worried coming here,” O’Brien said, “but Ryan [Moore] gave him a class ride.
“We had it in our heads that if all went well today and everything went well after he could run in the Arc [in Paris in 15 days’ time]. He’s probably a mile-and-a-half horse with class, so he’d have no problem going a mile-and-a-quarter. He has a great cruising speed, and we always knew he had courage and stamina as well as class.”
For the second time in six seasons, O’Brien has taken four of Britain’s five Classics. No one has won all five, though O’Brien went very close in 2012 when Camelot started odds-on to complete the Triple Crown in the Leger but was beaten by the outsider Encke.
The Oaks was the only Classic he failed to win this time around, as Gosden’s brilliant filly Enable finished five lengths clear of O’Brien’s Rhododendron in second.
Enable is also the strong favourite for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, a race in which O’Brien saddled the first three home last season, and while the trainer’s team for Europe’s showpiece race do not look as strong this season, Capri is now an each-way hope at around 20-1, not least if the ground at Chantilly turns soft to blunt the speed of the market leaders.
Arc day at Chantilly, which has a total of six Group One contests on the programme, could go a long way towards determining whether O’Brien heads into Champions Day at Ascot and then the Breeders’ Cup meeting at Del Mar in California in early November with a clear chance to overhaul Frankel’s record, which has stood since 2003.
The Group One Dewhurst Stakes, meanwhile, is the target for his colt Seahenge, who came from last to first under Donnacha O’Brien to win the main supporting race on the card, the Group Two Champagne Stakes.
Seahenge was well beaten behind Expert Eye, Britain’s top juvenile colt, at Glorious Goodwood in August but showed improved form for the experience to beat Hey Gaman by a neck with the stable’s apparent first-string, Mendelssohn, trailing home last of the seven runners.
“We came here thinking he could be one for the Dewhurst and that looks the obvious next step,” the trainer said. Stride by stride, as unflagging as his latest Leger winner, O’Brien is building a season of historic proportions