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Mark Johnston seeking cherished success in St Leger

10 Sep 2019

Trainer's principal hope for the world's oldest Classic is Sir Ron Priestley

Sir Ron Priestley and Norton combine to land the March Stakes at Goodwood. Photo Ian Headington /

Mark Johnston is hopeful either Sir Ron Priestley or Nayef Road will give him a cherished first success in the William Hill St Leger at Doncaster on Saturday.

Johnston has trained many great stayers over the years but success in the world’s oldest Classic, which forms part of the Long Distance category of the QIPCO British Champions series, has eluded him.

Nayef Road won the Group 3 Qatar Gordon Stakes at Goodwood last month but his principal hope is Sir Ron Priestley, who was making it five wins from six starts this year when landing the Group 3 Ladbrokes March Stakes at the Sussex venue on his latest start.

The Australia colt is owned by Paul Dean, one of Johnston’s longest-standing patrons, and will be ridden by 49-year-old Franny Norton, whose decorated CV does not yet include a Group 1 winner.

Johnston said: “Sir Ron Priestley is going to have to up his game considerably but he’s done everything else we’ve asked of him and so he’s got to have a shot at the St Leger.

“We are under no illusions about the fact he will need a personal best to win. He won a Group 3 race on his last outing, while this is a Group 1 with Classic horses in there and a much taller order. But he stays the trip well and it’s not impossible he could bridge the gap.”

Great Britain’s winning-most trainer added: “The St Leger is a race I would dearly love to win and it would be fantastic for Paul [Dean] and Franny, who’s as good as ever, to get a big one.

“Paul’s a tremendous owner and has been with us almost as long as I’ve been training. I always say bookmakers make great owners because they’ve made their living out of the fact that we don’t know what is going to win.

“Most of his horses have been called after friends and he gives them a knighthood that they didn’t actually have. I tried to call one Sir Paul Dean but he heard about it just before and asked me not to. The name’s been reserved and there will be a Sir Paul Dean one day.”

Sir Tatton Sykes (1846) and Sir Visto (1895) feature among previous winners of the oldest Classic, which is run over an extended mile and three quarters and was first run in 1776.

There will be a maximum of nine other runners on Saturday. The John Gosden-trained Logician, an unbeaten son of Frankel who will be ridden by Frankie Dettori, heads the ante-betting, while Aidan O’Brien, seeking a seventh win in the race, has a team of six to juggle as it stands, that includes Sir Dragonet, beaten under a length when fifth in the Investec Derby in June.