15 September 2002

Popular victory is a splendid advertisement for the St Leger

When do purists become pedants? When they start to argue that the St Leger has lost its touch. They should have been at Doncaster yesterday to see Bollin Eric win for the North.

The crowds had been pouring in from before midday. This is their Classic and they had dressed up for the occasion, a big-race meeting is after all the only place a lady can get fully decked, outside of a wedding. They had studied the form and plundered the bar. They had watched Leeds beat Manchester United on the big screen and now here was a Classic showdown with a Yorkshire horse getting the best of it. This is how racing was meant to be.

Into the straight swung the eight runners for what was to be the third fastest St Leger ever run. The lathered front of the favourite Bandari came to tackle the pacemaking Mr Dinos with a full half-mile to run, but from now on there would be no quarter asked nor given. Richard Hills sent on little Bandari to make his long stride tell, for half-a-furlong Mr Dinos held him but then, 600 yards from the line, the favourite had this final Classic by the throat.

The beauty of the St Leger is that there is time to contemplate the possibilities. In the Guineas you are often into the final furlong before you are clear where each horse is. In the Derby, the rigours of the circuit make everything uncertain. Up the long Town Moor straight the die gets cast and your eye searches to see the consequences. This is racing which grabs the heart.

We looked behind Bandari to gauge how much first Bollin Eric and then Highest had in pursuit. We looked again at Bandari and wondered how much his energy had been drained as he boiled up before the start. For a furlong he held the bigger Bollin Eric a good length behind him but then, 350 yards out, Kevin Darley forged the Yorkshire horse past and the home crowd roared a welcome.

The furlong post flashed by and now it was Highest coming through like a long dog, hungry for the hare. He gained, but not enough. At the line there was over a length in it, Bandari a couple more lengths away as an honourable third.

It has been 29 years since the Malton-trained Peleid became the last Northern-based horse to win the St Leger and now here is Bollin Eric with every one of his connections from north of the Trent. The handsome, bright bay son of 1996 Derby winner Shaamit was bred and owned by Cheshire-based Sir Neil Westbrook, ridden by Wolverhampton-born and Yorkshire-domiciled Kevin Darley, and trained by Tim Easterby, at Great Habton, six miles west of Malton, a first Classic winner for all three. Happiness yesterday was a crowd honouring its own.

Of course, the proud-necked Bollin Eric may not, perhaps, in strict mathematical merit, match up to the great St Leger winners of the past such as Nijinsky or Reference Point. But what he brings to the party is what racing most needs: an uplifting preparedness to battle and a support group utterly and unaffectedly thrilled by what the horse has given them. This was a race for old fashioned virtues.

Chief amongst these is an attitude of mind as well as muscle. After winning the last two of his four races as a two-year-old, Bollin Eric came back to be third at Newmarket in April, second both at York and Royal Ascot, an unlucky third at Haydock and then a closing third in York’s Voltigeur Stakes. Such a string of hard-fought defeats often brings disillusionment and the way his knees come up at full gallop suggests he would prefer softer going. Fast ground was waiting for him yesterday and with both Bandari and Mr Dinos as trailblazers, there was going to be no escape. Bollin Eric may lift his knee but the white flag never goes near his masthead.

“I am so delighted for the horse and even more for his owners,” said Easterby afterwards. “They are the most wonderful people to train for and they have been involved with us for nearly 40 years, beginning with uncle Walter, then my father Peter and now me. Despite offers there was never the slightest chance of the Westbrooks selling the horse. I am sure he will stay in training next year and I am sure he will be an even better horse then.”

With over a million £won in prizemoney this is the best season any Easterby has ever enjoyed. Incredibly, it is only the second Classic runner they have ever saddled but there could have been no more appropriate victor than the 85-year-old former Lord Mayor of Manchester who, with his wife Joan, has always been in racing just for the joy of it. The river Bollin flows through the property on which they run six broodmares in Cheshire. The horse called Eric is by a long way the best they have ever had.

Exactly how good Bollin Eric is or isn’t can be left to the handicappers. But as he tossed that handsome head and moved off for the manger you had to think that he, like the old race, was the very symbol of health.

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