The St Leger Stakes, Doncaster, Wednesday, 6 September, 1939 - The race that never was
We know that “The fastest horse wins the Guineas; the luckiest the Derby – and the best horse wins the St Leger” but in 1939 we were denied the final classic. Blue Peter was certainly the fastest at Newmarket, he might even have been a tad lucky at Epsom, but would Pharis II had beaten him at Doncaster? Tony Lake studies the pre-war form.
Blue Peter was a son of Fairway out of Fancy Free by Stefan the Great. Bred by his owner, Lord Rosebery, at his Mentmore Stud, the chesnut took the eye with his beautiful blazed-face. Put into training with champion trainer John (Jack) Jarvis at Park Lodge, Newmarket, his highly competent stable jockey, Eph Smith, wore the primrose and pink silks aboard Blue Peter.
After running green on his debut, on 1 October, when finishing down the field behind Heliopolis, at Kempton in the Imperial Produce Stakes, he then stepped up on that form when finishing second in the Middle Park Stakes, 1 ½ lengths behind Foxborough II. That pair headed the Free Handicap with Cecil-Boyd Rochford’s colt set to concede four pounds to Blue Peter (9st 3lb).
At three, Blue Peter was a revelation. Possibly short of work, he trounced nine opponents in the Blue Riband Trial at Epsom, winning by four lengths from Diadoque. Seven days later the colt turned out for the 2000 Guineas. Twenty-five runners faced the starter and Blue Peter was made 5/1 joint favourite with the Aga Khan’s Dhoti. After always being prominent, Blue Peter led coming out of The Dip when he was challenged by Hypnotist, Fairstone and Casanova. Just as he repelled them, Harry Wragg came with a typically late swoop with Admiral’s Walk. At the line, Blue Peter had half a length to spare from his stable-mate… and was promptly made 3/1 favourite for the Derby.
Those who opposed the favourite for the Empire Day Derby doubted his stamina, but they were proved wrong. Trained to perfection and ridden confidently, he won the 27-runner contest, by four lengths and three lengths, from Fox Club and Heliopolis. Whilst giving the winning connections their first Derby the Triple Crown looked to be theirs for the taking.
Before then he took on his elders in the Eclipse Stakes and won by 1 ½ lengths from Glen Loan. Running lazily he was not as impressive as he had been at Epsom. He had done nothing wrong, however, and was the obvious favourite for the St Leger. Meanwhile in France Pharis II was making a name for himself.
Pharis II was a son of Pharos out of Carissima by Clarissmus. The impressive black colt grew to 16.2 hands and possessed a calm temperament. Owned by Marcel Boussac, Pharis was placed in training with Boussac's private trainer, Albert Swann. Charlie Elliott, as Boussac’s retained jockey, would wear the orange jacket, grey cap colours aboard Pharis. Elliott had been apprentice and stable jockey to Jarvis, who considered him, by the age of nineteen, “the equal of any jockey in the world”.
Neither Boussac nor Swann was in a hurry to race the colt and he did not run as a juvenile. Like the horse across The Channel he was a revelation at three. In late May, Pharis made his debut in the Prix Noailles at Longchamp (1 ½ ml) and easily beat the favourite, Foxhound, by three lengths.
On 11 June, he won the Prix du Jockey Club in impressive style. Run in a torrential storm, Pharis’ pacemaker, Horatius, made the running, while Pharis was settled at the rare. As he moved up, he ran into interference and then seemed to lose his chance. Gathered by Elliott and asked to quicken, he produced a scintillating turn of foot, passing his 13 rivals, and running down the leader, Galérian, to win by 2 ½ lengths. In giving Boussac his fifth French Derby in such thrilling style Pharis became a hero overnight.
A fortnight later, Pharis' next performance was an equally dramatic win in the Grand Prix de Paris (15 furlongs) at Longchamp, on heavy going. Settled at the back of the 20-runner field, with two furlongs to go, Elliott found himself boxed in behind some of the weakening runners and clipping heels, Pharis stumbled. However, as soon as an opening appeared on the rail, Elliott, sent him through and Pharis flew home, winning by 2 ½ lengths and 2 lengths from Tricameron , winner of the Ormonde Stakes, and Etalon Or, with Allegory fourth and Galérian fifth. The Captain Boyd-Rochford trained Hypnotist was the only English representative and was well beaten. Not only was Pharis the champion of France, but he was being compared with “The Avenger of Waterloo”, Gladiateur.
The Anglo-French clash in the St Leger was eagerly awaited and appeared to be a two-horse race. Heliopolis had won the Chester Vase in good style and met trouble in running in the Derby before an impressive victory in the Princess of Wales’s Stakes. His bubble then deflated. At odds of 1/4 he scrambled home by a neck in the Gratwicke (Produce) Stakes at Goodwood and then next time out, he could only manage fourth place behind Portmarnock in the Hyperion Stakes at Hurst Park. After winning the St Leger Trial Stakes at Gatwick, Herbert Blagrave’s Atout Maitre came into the picture, but he had no more than an outside chance. Galatea II, who was attempting to win the Fillies’ Triple Crown, had lost supporters since disappointing in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot. Another from Lawson’s yard, Quick Ray was mentioned as a contender but Lord Astor’s colt flopped in the Manton Stakes at Salisbury. By the end of August the bookmakers offered 8/11 Blue Peter, 9/4 Pharis, 10/1 Heliopolis, Atout Maitre, 100/6 Quick Ray, Galatea II.
Both camps were confident. Jack Jarvis had a form line through his Gold Cup winner, Flyon, who had been beaten by Tricameron at Chester. Knowing how superior Blue Peter was he was certain that his inmate would win. Furthermore he felt that Pharis’ confirmation would be unsuited by the firm going expected at Doncaster. Jack Jarvis, who trained the winner of nine English classics and was three times champion trainer, considered Blue Peter to be the best horse he ever trained.
In France they saw things differently. Blue Peter’s victory in the Eclipse suggested that he had peaked whilst Pharis was still open to improvement. Rather than interpret collateral form they preferred to judge a horse on his racecourse accomplishments. Viewing Pharis’ brilliant performances, overcoming all sorts of trouble in running, they felt that their colt would come out on top. Elliott, who won fourteen English classics and every big race there was to win in France, considered Pharis to be the best horse he ever rode.
But we shall never know. As Pharis was settling in at Steve Donoghue’s yard the Nazis invaded Poland. Three days before the St Leger, Neville Chamberlain declared war, and all racing was cancelled.
If the winner of the “race that never was” was to be decided on the merits of their off-spring, Pharis II would have the edge. He stood for one year in France before being commandeered by the Nazis in 1940, which meant he was lost to French breeders for five years before returning. Nonetheless he sired multiple top class winners: Ardan (Prix du Jockey Club and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe); Asterbute (German Derby); Scratch II (Prix du Jockey Club and St Leger); Stymphale (French St Leger); Auriban (Prix du Jockey Club); Philius (Prix du Jockey Club). His daughter, Corejada, won the French 1000 Guineas and Irish Oaks, bred Apollonia, successful in the French 1000 Guineas and Oaks, and Marcip, a Gold Cup and French St Leger winner.
As for Blue Peter, he sired only two classic winners, Ocean Swell, winner of the Derby and Gold Cup, and Botticelli, winner of the Triple Crown in Italy and the Gold Cup. His other significant winners were Blue Train, winner of the Newmarket Stakes, and Unknown Quantity, winner of the Yorkshire Oaks. Blue Peter’s daughter, Glen Line, produced an Eclipse winner, King of the Tudors, and Our Babu, winner of the 2000 Guineas.
Although the war can be blamed for the failure of the “Duel on Town Moor” to materialise, actually Pharis was not impressing on the Blewbury gallops and was on the brink of being scratched. Nonetheless it’s worth recalling a certain English ambassador, quoted by Arthur Fitzgerald in “Prix de l’Arc Triomphe, 1920-1948”, who is supposed to have remarked: “it is inconceivable that in a country of sport-lovers like ours, war should have been declared before the St Leger, which was to be the race of the century and for which I especially planned my holidays”