British Classics: The Five Biggest Events in Flat Racing

The British Flat racing season has any number of highlights from big meetings to high profile Group 1 races. It’s the five Classics which stand out as the first among equals. The 2000 Guineas, the 1000 Guineas, the Oaks, the Derby and the St Leger are the most eagerly anticipated races of the season, offer up the most prestige and prize money, and are the number one target for connections of any top class three-year-olds.

Although every Classic win is well earned, the highest levels of celebration are reserved for horses who win multiple Classics and the Triple Crown for both colts and fillies is the gold standard for horses on the flat. That said, it is now virtually unheard of for a horse to even attempt to win the St Leger on top of the earlier two Classics, let alone to actually do so.

The last horse to land the biggest prize, the colts’ Triple Crown, was the mighty Nijinsky, with Lester Piggott taking the ride(s) in 1970. It remains highly doubtful that we will ever see another horse land the Triple Crown but you never know. Ultimately, each of the Classics exacts its own demands on horses, with the Leger in particular a rather different test. We’ve looked into what it takes to win each of them, as well as providing you with a little information on these brilliant contests.

2000 Guineas - Milers Coming to the Fore

Key Facts

  • Racecourse - Newmarket
  • When - Late April/Early May
  • Distance - 1 Mile
  • Prize Money - £500,000
  • Restrictions - Three-Year-Old Colts and Fillies

Flat racing is not a sport that stands still. The best trainers are always working to improve best practices and in recent years it has become clear that the Classics are being treated increasingly as specialist races. That is most certainly the case with the 2000 Guineas which is now a race for milers rather than simply the first step en route to a potential Triple Crown.

Some thought that Saxon Warrior’s win in the 2018 renewal was a turning point back towards the 2000 Guineas being about separating the best three-year-old around but his subsequent failures showed that it can no longer be viewed as a stepping stone to the Derby.

It is of course still possible for quality horses to win over the 1 mile trip of the 2000 Guineas before going on to win the Derby. However, the only two horses to complete the double in the last 20 years are Camelot and Sea The Stars, both of whom were of the very highest calibre.

The one thing that 2000 Guineas winners almost all have in common is showing some impressive form as juveniles with two-year-old Group level wins almost a prerequisite for success at Newmarket. The importance of form from the previous year is perhaps one reason why punters have turned the tide with the bookies as winning favourites are becoming more common after years of the 2000 Guineas proving puzzling.

1000 Guineas - Newmarket Form Essential

Key Facts

  • Racecourse - Newmarket
  • When - Late April/Early May
  • Distance - 1 Mile
  • Prize Money - £500,000
  • Restrictions - Three-Year-Old Fillies Only

The 1000 Guineas is the fillies’ equivalent of the 2000 Guineas, taking place one day later on the Sunday of the Guineas Festival. It’s run over one mile on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile course and, like all the Classics, is open only to three-year-olds. Another similarity with the two races is that few fillies even attempt the Fillies’ Triple Crown, although the 1000 Guineas is less of a race for specialist milers.

Winners of the 1000 Guineas have gone on to be successful at various different distances and can come from several different routes. That makes it a tough race for punters to call which is reflected in the winning odds in recent years. Between 2009 and 2018 winners went off at 11/10, 9/2, 9/1, 25/1 and 66/1 which shows this really is a race in which all sections of the market have a chance.

Punters looking for one key trend to hang their hat on should focus on previous course form at Newmarket. The Fillies’ Mile is an important race for two-year-olds as is the Rockfel Stakes which is run over 7 furlongs. Once they turn three, leading fillies can run at Newmarket in the Nell Gwyn Stakes but it is relatively common for winners to be making their first appearance of the season.

Epsom Oaks - Stamina Vital at Epsom

Key Facts

  • Racecourse - Epsom Downs
  • When - June
  • Distance - 1 Mile 4 Furlongs
  • Prize Money - £500,000
  • Restrictions - Three-Year-Old Fillies Only

The increase of four furlongs from the 1000 Guineas to the Epsom Oaks may not look like much but it makes a big difference. Gone are the days where the leading three-year-old fillies can warm up for the Oaks with a good performance at Newmarket. Stamina is now the key attribute required to win the Oaks and increasingly that stamina must be proven.

Recent renewals have seen several high class fillies fail against supposedly lesser opponents who have already raced at distances over a mile. Going forwards it will take a filly of the utmost class to win the Oaks having gone down the traditional route towards the 1000 Guineas. Instead, punters should look for fillies who have performed well over longer trips.

The change in emphasis of the Oaks provides great opportunity for punters as the market doesn’t always price in the importance of stamina. With that said, the bigger yards very much understand what’s required, hence the excellent record of Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden in particular.

Epsom Derby - Class and Stamina Separates the Best in the Derby

Key Facts

  • Racecourse - Epsom Downs
  • When - June
  • Distance - 1 Mile 4 Furlongs
  • Prize Money - £1,500,000
  • Restrictions - Three-Year-Old Colts and Fillies

If there is one of the Classics that stands out above the others it’s the Epsom Derby. It has the biggest prize fund by some distance and is the race that tends, more than the others, to produce the biggest stars, as well as attracting the most media and public attention. Australia, Camelot, Sea The Stars and Galileo have all come through the Derby since the turn of the century, as well as a host of other equine legends.

Class, however, is not enough to see every fancied runner home. Just like the Oaks, many horses who have performed excellently at Newmarket just found the step up to four furlongs too much for them. Moreover, those who have come from Newmarket to do well at Epsom all have a certain amount of stamina in their breeding.

In the quest to prove that their horse can get the 1m4f trip trainers have a number of options in terms of warm up races. In Britain, the Dante Stakes and the Chester Vase are the most important trials whilst Irish contenders will often take in either the Ballysax Stakes or the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial.

St Leger Stakes - Headline

Key Facts

  • Racecourse - Doncaster
  • When - September
  • Distance - 1 Mile 6 Furlongs 115 Yards
  • Prize Money - £743,000
  • Restrictions - Three-Year-Old Colts and Fillies

Whether it’s because of the prize money available, the kudos of the races or the future stud value, leading horses are increasingly unlikely to race in longer distance races. That has had an inevitable impact on the St Leger which rarely hosts the very best of the Classic generation. For every change there is an opportunity though and horses who have been bred for the longer distances are seizing their chance at Doncaster.

Camelot was the last Epsom Derby winner to attempt the St Leger in 2012, so punters have become used to looking beyond sheer class and instead turn their attentions to horses who may be yet to shine at the highest level but have suggested in both their breeding and performances that the longer distances are where they will flourish.

The St Leger is the fifth and final Classic of the season and as it allows both sexes to race it is the final leg in both Triple Crowns. Although winning fillies are rare, it’s always worth considering those who are viewed as good enough by connections to be entered into the St Leger. Half of the 10 fillies who competed since 2005 claimed a place at least, with three of them winning in that time.

A Brief History Of The Flat Racing Classics

Simply put the five British Classics are the most prestigious and important races of the Flat racing season. The importance of the Classics stems from the fact that they are designed to test the very best three-year-olds against one another across three different trips. Their prestige also comes from their history which harks all the way back to the late 18th century.

The St Leger is the oldest of the five races having been first run in 1776. It was the brainchild of Anthony St Leger who was from Doncaster. Although the early renewals were popular, the race has changed significantly since then, including the shortening of the trip from 2 miles and the exclusion of geldings. The St Leger first came to national prominence thanks to a horse called Champion who was the first to win two Classics.

The Derby and the Oaks at Epsom followed hot on the heels of the St Leger. Legend has it that the Oaks came about as the result of a conversation at a party hosted by the Earl of Derby in 1778. Whatever the truths of that story, the Oaks was first run in 1779 with the Derby being inaugurated one year later. Ladies first!

It took a further 30 years before the 2000 Guineas was introduced at Newmarket and five more years before the 1000 Guineas was first run in 1814. It was at that point that the idea of the Classics came into being.

From there the idea that winning multiple Classics was a mark of the very best thoroughbreds grew. Multiple wins have always been a rare thing but a host of horses have completed either the colts’ or the fillies’ Triple Crown. Oh So Sharp is the most recent filly to complete the Triple Crown in 1985 and, as said, Nijinsky the most recent colt in 1970. It is highly unlikely that Sceptre’s feat of outright winning four Classics in 1902 will ever again be attempted, let alone completed.

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