Simply put, ‘The Classics’ are the oldest and most prestigious races in the horse racing calendar.
A top class horse will have his season geared around competing in these contests, as they carry huge financial incentives not just in prize money, but also in breeding rights after their racing careers have come to an end – not to mention the prestige it brings for winning connections.
There are five classics, the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks, 2000 Guineas, 1000 Guineas, and finally the St Leger at the back-end of the season.
1000 Guineas and 2000 Guineas
The first classics of the season come from Newmarket – where we have ‘Guineas weekend’, kicking off with the 2000 guineas on the Saturday.
This is seen as the colts classic, and although fillies can enter if connections opt to take that route, it is primarily for 3year old colts, whereas the 1000 guineas the following day is restricted to fillies only.
Both races are run over a mile at Newmarket, and is the first opportunity of the season we get to see the leading lights from the previous campaign face off, with the majority of the field making their seasonal debut in the classic.
There has been some historic winners over the years, including the mighty Frankel in the 2011 edition of the colts classic – a performance many regard as the most impressive we are likely to see in our lifetime, scorching off in mind-blowing style from the front to score by 6lengths for legendary trainer Sir Henry Cecil.
The Derby and The Oaks
The second batch of classics appear in early June where we have The Derby and The Oaks, contested at Epsom Downs.
The Derby, first run in1780, is regarded by many as the flagship race of the entire flat racing season and both races are run over the distance of a mile and a half.
In a similar fashion to the guineas, although fillies are eligible to enter The Derby, it is seen as the colts classic, whereas the Oaks the following day is restricted to fillies only.
‘Derby Day’ itself attracts a sell out crowd on the Downs plus a worldwide television audience, and due to the unconventional nature of the Epsom track, it often throws up a visually fascinating contest.
To win at Epsom you need a really well balanced horse due to the undulations of the course, plus you require a horse that has the right combination of early speed but also enough stamina to stay up the Epsom hill as races are usually run at a fierce gallop and often produce memorable tight finishes.
Iconic flat jockey Lester Piggott, often regarded as the most talented rider ever seen on our shores, was known as the master of Epsom, and has 9 wins in the race to his name spanning three decades. Of the current trainers, the leading Irish stable of Aidan O’Brien are the most successful with 6 winners in the Derby, most recently with 2017 winner Wings Of Eagles.
The final classic of the season is the St Leger from Doncaster, known as ‘the oldest classic’ having first been run back in 1776, open to both fillies and colts.
This is the classic that is more of a test of a horses stamina, as is run over a distance of 1mile 6 furlongs.
The contest was the brain child of Anthony St Leger, a local army officer and powerful politician which was originally run over 2miles before being cut to the current distance in 1813, and has remained largely unchanged since.
The race is often run on soft ground due to the time of the year it is contested, and such is the galloping nature of the Town Moor track it is often won by a horse with an abundance of stamina, with many of those that are successful going on to be leading players in the staying division the following season in races such as the Ascot Gold Cup.
The Triple Crown
As each of the races are run over different distances, it is plausible that the same horse could win what is known as ‘The triple crown’ – winning classics at Newmarket, Epsom – and then at Doncaster in the Leger.
This is an extremely difficult thing to achieve as would require a horse to be quick enough for a mile, enough stamina to stay the Leger trip, but also the strength to be in prime condition for the majority of the entire flat racing season.
Just 15 horses have won the standard triple crown (2000 guineas, Derby and St Leger), the last being the infamous Nijinsky back in 1970. Eight horses have won the fillies’ Triple Crown (1,000 Guineas – Oaks – St Leger), the last being Oh So Sharp in 1985.