I thought the American St. Leger was here to stay.
I know, this probably makes me a fool. This is Illinois, after all. Sometimes we're not even sure if horse racing is here to stay in this state: with purse money uncertain, with stallions and broodmares wandering out of the state, with future funding as stable as quicksand.
But, the American St. Leger felt like the beginning of a wave. This one and eleven-sixteenths mile race (the longest three-turn distance Arlington can host without sticking the starting gate on the clubhouse turn) began in 2012. It drew Jakkalberry for its first running -- globetrotting Jakkalberry, Group 1-placed in Dubai earlier that year. Three months after he won the inaugural American St. Leger, Australian-owned Jakkalberry finished third in the Melbourne Cup, one of the world's greatest turf marathons, the race that stops a nation.
Jakkalberry set a precedent for globetrotters to start trotting to Arlington, even if they wanted more than the mile and a quarter of the Million, especially if they wanted more than a mile and a quarter of the Million. Jakkalberry paved the way for another Aussie-owned, Marco Botti-trained stayer, Dandino, to raid Chicagoland and win the next year. He set the precedent for a line of well-travelled, Group-quality horses to try America, to try Arlington: for Havana Beat, Moment in Time, Eye of the Storm, Lucky Speed, Panama Hat -- the British-bred, not the Illinois-bred war horse -- for Clondaw Warrior, Wasir, Billabong.
The American St. Leger also ignited the hope that stayers' races could be a classy affair in the United States, no longer merely relegated to closing-day novelties restricted to starter $5,000 or starter $10,000 company. Born in 2012 with a purse of $400,000, and drawing horses with national and international graded stakes resumes, the American St. Leger began as a listed race and earned Grade 3 status beginning in 2015.
The race formed the vanguard of a true marathon division in the United States, something beyond the twelve furlongs that had previously been the nation's excuse for a Really Long Turf Race. The two-mile Belmont Gold Cup debuted in 2014, a $200,000 listed race at its inception. By 2017, it was a $400,000 Grade 3 that drew as many international shippers as domestically based horses. The Belmont Gold Cup was subsequently rewarded with increased prestige; it has a Grade 2 this year. Gulfstream also joined the ranks of racetracks offering classy tests of stamina. It carded a $75,000 two-miler in January of 2015, honouring H. Allen Jerkens. Now a $100,000 race in late December, the H. Allen Jerkens hasn't attracted horses from abroad like Arlington and Belmont. But, it has consistently drawn competitive fields of American stayers, and this year's winner Run Time will try his stamina against the globetrotting stayers' set in next weekend's Dubai Gold Cup (G2) at Meydan.
Yet, the trend that the American St. Leger heralded was not enough to keep it afloat. The twin forces of limited purse funds and legislative uncertainty for Illinois horse racing have forced a tough decision. Last year, the purse of the American St. Leger fell to $250,000, an all-time low, and that proved insufficient to lure a single international shipper on the plane to Arlington. This year, the American St. Leger is off the calendar.
In a sense, it's hard to fault this decision. That freed up purse money for a pair of Grade 3, $100,000 races that were run at Churchill Downs instead of Arlington last year to come home: the seven-furlong Chicago Handicap and the nine-furlong Arlington Matron. These could attract American shippers, as graded stakes on synthetic surfaces are few and far between, and more local barns have horses suited for these distances than the marathon trip of the American St. Leger.
But, the only way more trainers in Chicago and beyond will have horses suited for marathon distances is to have enough classy and lucrative staying races to make breeding horses with great stamina attractive. The American St. Leger started that trend, a trend two more premier tracks have since followed.
A few stallion farms in the United States even stand real stayers now. Calumet Farm in Kentucky stands Musketier; though his racing career drew to a close right around when the first American St. Leger was run, he was a fixture in North American twelve-furlong races for years, and his veins flow with the long-winded blood of the German breeding program, one of the world's premier breeding programs for stayers. Poplar Creek Horse Center in Ohio stands perhaps the closest we have to a modern American staying star: Da Big Hoss, winner of both the American St. Leger and the Belmont Gold Cup in 2016.
Developing a program of stamina pedigree is a long game, but a valuable one both for fans of staying races and for the broader diversity and hardiness of the Thoroughbred breed. It's a shame that the American St. Leger won't be run for long enough to help continue the development of a true American stayers' division, and to nurture the fruits of these and future American staying stallions.
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