As an event the 1961 Irish Derby was inevitably overshadowed by the prospect of the 1962 Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes Derby, destined to offer a prize fund of £60,000. The richest horse race ever to have been staged in Europe, with a world record entry of 627 dwarfed the last of the old-style renewals, even if its £7, 921 winner’s prize was in itself a record. It attracted a field of eighteen, the market headed by Vincent O’Brien’s Light Year, winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas. Of the two English-trained challengers Dual was mildly fancied, while Your Highness was friendless at 33-to-1.
Trained in Newmarket by Humphrey Cottrill for Mrs Stanhope Joel, Your Highness had won an Epsom handicap on the eve of Psidium’s 66-to-1 shock success in the Derby. The relative winning times gave Your Highness little or no chance of beating Psidium’s victims – Cipriani, Dual, Neanderthal, Supreme Verdict or Time Greine.
In the event the Epsom form was badly let down, Neaderthal doing best of that quintet, as veteran Herbert ‘Bert’ Holmes got Your Highness home by half a length from the gigantic Soysambu. That shock Irish Derby success rounded off a remarkable ten days for the Joels, for whom Curragh trainer ‘Brud’ Fetherstonhaugh had provided three Royal Ascot winners from three runners. It also provided Bert Holmes with compensation for being ‘jocked off’ that Ascot treble, reinstated now at Brud Fetherstonhaugh’s insistence. Admitting to being in his fiftieth year, Liverpool-born Bert Holmes reported, somewhat enigmatically: “I was always in the first three as instructed. When you ride for these English trainers, you have to do what you’re told.”
‘Watershed’ may suffer somewhat from over-exposure nowadays. Nevertheless, the inception of the Irish Sweeps Derby in 1962 was nothing less in the history and development of Irish flat racing. The richest race ever staged in Europe had attracted a world record number of entrants – 627. Three years of hard work by its promoters – directed by Irish Sweeps co-founder Joe McGrath and publicity genius Spencer Freeman – were rewarded by a 24-strong field, headed by recent Epsom hero Larkspur. The prospect of his becoming the first dual Derby winner since Orby back in 1907 drew crowds estimated at between forty and seventy thousand, among them HE President de Valera. The home team, headed by Vincent O’Brien’s pair, Larkspur and Sebring, faced four English challengers in addition to the French pair, Arcor and Tambourine II.
Neville Sellwood, successful on Larkspur in that sensational Derby in which seven of the field came down, was claimed to ride Arcor, replaced now by compatriot ‘Scobie’ Breasley. However stable jockey Pat Glennon remained faithful to Sebring, fifth at Epsom. The vast Curragh crowd nevertheless put their trust in Larkspur, sending him off 9-to-4 favourite, 6-to-1 bar one. A furious early gallop from a walk-in start ensured the inaugural Irish Sweeps Derby was a true test of class and stamina.
French ace Roger Poincelet went for home from the head of the straight on the blinkered Tambourine II, the great prize seemingly at his mercy, as neither Larkspur nor Sebring mounted any real challenge. Then Bill Williamson eventually extricated Arctic Storm from a pocket on the rails, closing down the Frenchman with every stride. The pair flashed past the winning post inseparable to the naked eye. Silence fell as the judge consulted the photo-finish film, broken only after the announcement that Tambourine II had held on by a short head, with Sebring a further five lengths back in third, one ahead of Larkspur.
Tambourine II and Arctic Storm returned to a storm of cheering as the enormous crowd set aside patriotism to acknowledge Tambourine’s feat in proving the Irish Derby a truer test than Epsom through his clear-cut defeat of Larkspur. In a typically Gallic gesture Tambourine’s lad whipped off the blinkers lest they take from the colt’s photogenic potential. The Curragh stewards prudently chose to overlook this infringement of the Rules of Racing, which could have been cause for disqualification at that time.
Interviewed post-race, Roger Poincelet claimed that he had gone for home as early as he did because the pace had been slow. The stop-watch gave the lie to that. Tambourine II’s time – 2min 28.8secs – had lowered Talgo’s Irish Derby record by over two seconds. Undismayed the winning rider declared that the roars of encouragement from the massed grandstand had caused his mount to check, thereby allowing Arctic Storm to draw level. Bill Williamson confirmed that Arctic Storm had simply galloped on at one pace, running the winner as close as he had rather through Tambourine II decelerating.
John D Schapiro, promoter of the Washington DC International, immediately extended an invitation to Mrs EM Caroll, owner of Arctic Storm. In Virginia owner-breeder Mrs Howell E Jackson’s absence, delighted trainer Etienne Polllet would not commit on future plans for Tambourine II. As it transpired, injury prevented the inaugural Irish Sweeps Derby from ever seeing a racecourse again. Retired to stud in France, Tambourine II failed to live up to early promise in that role. Arctic Storm went on to add the Champion Stakes at Newmarket to his earlier Irish 200 Guineas success. Retired to trainer John Oxx’s Park Stud, Arctic Storm did not live long enough to demonstrate whether his progeny could emulate their sire in outperforming a distinctly plebeian pedigree.
The second Irish Sweeps Derby seemed destined to go to the French, such was the superiority of Relko, cantering winner of both the French 2000 Guineas and then the Derby at Epsom. Less misfortune befall this odds-on favourite, the market said that victory would most likely go to another French raider – Cervinia – trained by Alec Head for HH Aga Khan III, who sought a remarkable sixth success in Ireland’s premier flat race.
Whereas the inaugural Irish Sweeps Derby had produced a dramatic finish, twelve months later the drama occurred before the start. Feeling that the favourite was moving short, possibly caused by his pre-race parade antics, rider Yves Saint-Martin called for a veterinary examination. Unfortunately, Yves’ command of English was little better that starter Hubie Tyrrell’s grasp of French. Following a hurried conference with trainer Francois Mathet over the starter’s field telephone the rider of the odds-on favourite was instructed to request the starter to permit his withdrawal. Unaware of the cause of delay, the vast crowd packed into the grandstand listened incredulously to the announcement over the public address system: ‘Number 16, Relko, is lame and has been withdrawn.’ Hardly had Saint-Martin been seen to hurl his helmet to the ground in disgust when there came the familiar cry ‘They’re off!’
Whereas the inaugural Irish Sweeps Derby had produced a dramatic finish, twelve months later the drama occurred before the start. Feeling that the favourite was moving short, possibly caused by his pre-race parade antics, rider Yves Saint-Martin called for a veterinary examination. Unfortunately, Yves’ command of English was little better that starter Hubie Tyrrell’s grasp of French. Following a hurried conference with trainer Francois Mathet over the starter’s field telephone the rider of the odds-on favourite was instructed to request the starter to permit his withdrawal. Unaware of the cause of delay, the vast crowd packed into the grandstand listened incredulously to the announcement over the public address system: ‘Number 16, Relko, is lame and has been withdrawn.’ Hardly had Saint-Martin been seen to hurl his helmet to the ground in disgust when there came the familiar cry ‘They’re off!’.
A moderate early gallop led to a short-lived dual between Ragusa and Vic Mo Chroi, from which the former surged clear to win by over two lengths with the English-trained Tiger a similar distance back in third. While those who had backed Ragusa to improve on his third to Relko at Epsom, rejoiced in the result, their rejoicing was tempered by the announcement that the last-minute withdrawal of the odds-on favourite necessitated bookmakers deducting 50% of their liabilities on the winner. A stewards’ enquiry into possible interference amongst the placed horses resulted in the placings remaining unchanged. A dope test ordered on Relko subsequently proved negative. Ironically, Relko was also the subject of an inconclusive urine and saliva test following his Epsom success, albeit it was not until October that the Derby winner received the All Clear.
A late foal by Ribot, then based in his native Italy, Ragusa was out of Fantan II, an American-based mare then sent to Ireland to visit Red God. In the normal course of events the colt would have joined owner-breeder Harry Guggenheim’s English trainer, Cecil Boyd-Rochfort. Unfortunately, Boyd-Rochfort’s voluble dislike of Ribot’s progeny resulted in the ‘Ribot rat’ going to the sales, where PJ Prendergast secured him for 3,800 guineas on behalf of his patron, Hong Kong shipping magnate JR ‘Jim’ Mullion.
Called after the old name for Dubrovnik, a Black Sea port, Ragusa made a winning debut at the Curragh in October 1962, immediately retired to winter quarters viewed by his astute trainer as his Derby horse, for which Epsom might simply come too soon. Although only just turned three, Ragusa finished an honourable third to Relko at Epsom. Whether he could have reversed that form in the Irish Sweeps Derby would never be known.
Improving with time and physical development, Ragusa went on to win the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York and then the St Leger, thereby creating a European stakes-winning record. Kept in training as a four-year-old – his owner having turned down an American offer of £600,000 – Ragusa repaid that faith by adding the Eclipse Stakes to his illustrious portfolio.
Syndicated at £40,000 per share, Ragusa was retired to his owner’s Ardenode Stud, where his death aged only thirteen was regarded as a disaster. He left behind him such as Ballymore, Caliban, Homeric and Duke of Ragusa. The subsequent 1973 Derby triumph of his son Morston, followed by the 1974 Ascot Gold Cup triumph of another of his sons, Ragtime, only heightened that justifiable sense of loss. Relko recovered to win the French St Leger, likewise kept in training to go through 1964 unbeaten in the Prix Ganay, Coronation Cup at Epsom and the Grand Prix de Paris. A subsequent stud career in Sussex proved a dismal failure.
Irish Sweeps Derby misfortunes for Epsom winners Larkspur and then Relko in their attempts to emulate Orby failed to curb the Curragh hordes’ conviction that Santa Claus was a stone cold certainty to succeed. Such was the aura surrounding this 1,200- guinea yearling, cantering winner of the National Stakes on his second and final start as a two-year-old, Bernard Sunley had staked an ante-post wager of £6,000 each way to win the 1964 Derby. Ladbrokes, having stood this monster bet at 9¼–to-1, duly paid out £69,375, a world record for a single winning bet. Leggy but lethally swift, Santa Claus carried the colours of octogenarian John Ismay, who owned him in partnership with his trainer’s mother, Mrs Darby Rogers.
Willie Burke, who had partnered Santa Claus to win the National Stakes and then the Irish 2000 Guineas, had been replaced by ‘Scobie’ Breasley at Epsom, but was now back in the saddle in this bid to emulate Orby’s 1907 Derby double. Cecil Boyd-Rochfort and stable jockey Harry Carr relented on their longstanding boycott of Irish racing, represented now by Lionhearted. While this team finished second, ahead of seventeen rivals, Lionhearted was merely the best of the rest. From the moment Willie Burke gave Santa Claus the office the odds-on favourite sprinted clear of his struggling opponents, four lengths to the good at the line.
Harry Carr’s report, to the effect that the moment Santa Claus joined battle he knew his chance had gone, was confirmed by Willie Burke who reported that Santa Claus had never been out of a canter. The judge needed to scrutinise the photo-finish film to sort out a wall of contenders for minor honours before ruling that Lionheated had finished second, by a short head from Sunseeker. Crete was a similar distance back in fourth, by a neck from All Saved, with Dilettante II a head away in sixth.
In saddling Santa Claus to win an Irish Derby, JM ‘Mickey’ Rogers emulated his grandfather JT ‘Jack’ Rogers, successful with Museum (1935) and Phideas (1937). The sequence had been upheld by Darby Rogers, Mickey’s father, who sent out Bright News to win in 1946. Moreover Mickey Rogers had previously won the Derby itself with Hard Ridden, the 280-guinea yearling, also successful in the 1958 Irish 2000 Guineas.
As all Ireland toasted their champion, now worthy of his place alongside Arkle, rapturous reported wrote that this magnificent racing machine, an incredible combination of stamina and speed, would never again taste defeat. As it transpired, firm going brought about his downfall in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, only a lacklustre second to Nasram II. As it had earlier been decided to retire him at the end of the 1964 season, only the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe offered Santa Claus the chance of redemption. Ridden by Jimmy Lindley, Santa Claus overcame interference to beat everything except the Italian champion Prince Royal II.
He nonetheless retired to stud as the highest stakes-winning three-year-old in the history of European racing, though no longer undisputed champion of his age. Having sired Santa Tina (Irish Oaks), Reindeer (Irish St Leger) and Ebor Handicap winner Bonne Noel, Santa Claus died suddenly in1970, the same year in which his trainer JM ‘Mickey’ Rogers retired from training, aged only forty-five. Sadly, neither Mickey Rogers nor Willie Burke was destined long to outlive his finest hour. The former died in 1985, aged just sixty, while Willie Burke succumbed a decade later, also sixty.
Paddy Prendergast, the first Irish-based trainer to head the British flat trainers’ table in 1963, had retained that title in 1964 and now sought his hat trick, only to have his juvenile stars of 1964 – Prominer, Carlemont and Hardicanute – sidelined indefinitely by the coughing epidemic which had ravaged Rossmore Lodge, then the largest public stable in Europe. However, such was the strength in depth of his Curragh operation, Paddy had sent out Meadow Court to beat all bar the brilliant Sea Bird II in the Derby, the one classic that continued to elude the master of Rossmore Lodge. In the absence of that French superstar the 1965 Irish Sweeps Derby appeared to be Meadow Court’s for the taking.
Ridden, as he had been at Epsom, by Lester Piggott, Meadow Court was sent off 11-to-10 favourite to beat twenty rivals and duly did so with two lengths to spare from English challenger Convamore, both first and second sired by the exported Court Harwell. In giving his trainer a fourth Irish Derby following Dark Warrior (1950) , Thirteen of Diamonds (1952) and Ragusa (1963), Meadow Court provided Lester Piggott with the first of five such triumphs in Ireland’s premier classic. Bred by American Pansy Parker Poe, Meadow Court was owned in partnership by Max Bell, Frank McMahon and Bing Crosby. The last-named enchanted the Curragh crowd with his impromptu rendition of ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ in the winner’s enclosure.
Meadow Court went on to emulate Ragusa when demolishing a high-class field in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on his reappearance, in the process helping to ensure his trainer of that British training championship three-timer. Beaten as much by bottomless going as the mud-loving Provoke in the St Leger, Meadow Court bowed out when only ninth to Sea Bird II in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Meadow Court proved dismally infertile at stud in England, prompting Max Bell to buy out his syndicate partners, intent on putting the horse back in training in Canada, without success. On Max Bell’s death in 1972, Meadow Court passed to his daughter, for whom he covered a strictly limited book of mares with some success.
An outbreak of the dreaded Swamp Fever in Europe in the early part of 1966 prompted the Department for Agriculture to impose an indefinite ban on the importation of horses from the mainland, followed a week later by a similar ban by Britain. Besides frustrating French trainers of classic contenders, this ban resulted in a marginal reduction in the Irish Sweeps Derby prize fund. In the absence of continental challengers Ireland’s premier flat race appeared at the mercy of Charlottown, recent winner of the Derby, in which Sodium had finished a distressed fourth, prompting his trainer to order a private dope test, which proved negative. This duo dominated the market, Charlottown being sent off odds-on, with Sodium next in demand.
Although starting stalls had been introduced in Ireland, the Sweeps Derby, run over the ‘old course’ was started in the traditional manner. As the market suggested, the race developed into a duel between Charlottown and Sodium. Unwilling to risk interference, ‘Scobie’ Breasley brought Charlottown round his field, whereas Frankie Durr opted for the riskier route along the rails. His choice determined the outcome, Sodium gaining his revenge with a length to spare, with Paveh, winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas, staying on gamely to take third place.
By the surprise 1961 Derby winner Psidium, Sodium carried the colours of Bombay chemical manufacturer Radha Sigtia, secured for him as a yearling by Manton trainer George Todd for 3,500 guineas. While the winning owner and his wife were present to welcome Sodium back, congratulating Frankie Durr on his opportunistic ride, the trainer was conspicuous by his absence. Kenneth Mackenzie, managing director of British Home Stores and also a patron of George Todd’s, eventually managed to get through to Manton by telephone. Audrey Todd answered, saying that George was out walking his dogs on the downs and would be back in an hour. Lord Howard de Walden, another stable patron, recalled George Todd’s explanation for his refusal to leave his native land. “I never travel. I went abroad once to a place called Passchendale, didn’t like it, have never been [away] again.”
Sodium and Charlottown met again at Newbury, where Charlottown routed his Curragh conqueror, subsequently laid low with kidney trouble. When the pair met again in the St Leger Charlottown was inevitably sent off hot favourite. Sodium, looking a picture in the paddock, remained easy to back at 7-to-1. Charlottown had it won everywhere except at the winning post, where the judge gave it to Sodium by a head. These baffling animals both remained in training for a third campaign, in which Charlottown proved more successful. Neither made his mark at stud, Sodium being sent to Japan in 1973 and Charlottown to Australia two years later.
Subsequently proven the best horse to contest that 1966 Irish Sweeps Derby finished down the field – Busted. Transferred to Noel Murless as a four-year-old to serve as a lead horse for future Derby winner Royal Palace, Busted proved a revelation, carrying off the Eclipse Stakes, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix Henri Foy at Longchamp in an unbeaten campaign, retiring as ‘Horse of the Year’ and European Champion of 1967. Equally successful at stud, Busted got such as Weavers’ Hall, Bustino, Bog Road, Crash Course, Blustery, Cheveley Princess and Sorbus.
That the outcome of the 1967 Irish Sweeps Derby – the first to be run since the demise of its founder, Joe McGrath – looked likely to be determined by Epsom form was obvious. However, such considerations were overshadowed on this occasion by a human interest story. In 1966 Lester Piggott had stunned the racing world by terminating his longstanding and fabulously successful association with trainer Noel Murless in order to win the Oaks on Valoris for Vincent O’Brien. Now freelance, Lester could only wonder at the wisdom of that break when Noel Murless and Australian ace George Moore combined to carry off the 1967 Guineas with Fleet and Royal Palace prior to the latter’s Derby triumph, with Lester beaten into second place on Ribocco.
On the strength of that form Ribocco started favourite to gain compensation in the Irish Sweeps Derby, in the absence of his Epsom conqueror. Noel Murless added piquancy to the prospect in sending over Sucaryl, his first ever runner in Ireland. Moreover, Ribocco was likewise youthful Fulke Johnson-Houghton’s first runner on this side of the Irish Sea. While Sucaryl had yet to race in 1967, no one doubted Murless’ ability to produce one at its peak first time out. Further stardust was strewn around the Curragh enclosures by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy, glamorous widow of the slain US President.
Drama struck early when Royal Sword, the second favourite, fell, breaking his leg and interfering badly with Dart Board. Two furlongs out George Moore headed for home on Sucaryl, stalked by Piggott on Ribocco. Ice-cool as ever, Lester pounced close home to win cleverly by a length, with the hampered Dart Board finishing fast to take third place in an all-English finish. In response to encouragement from an appreciative and uninhibited Irish audience, Lester responded to the collective chorus of ‘Smile, Lester!’ with a boyish grin of unfeigned delight.
Ribocco’s victory, emulating Ragusa four years earlier, confirmed the belief of owner platinum billionaire Charles Englehard and his European racing manager David McCall that American-based Ribot’s offspring were infinitely better suited to the European racing scene. Dart Board might have avenged that Curragh defeat at Goodwood, but Ribocco went on to confirm his superiority when winning the St Leger with that adversary only fourth. Ribocco was then beaten just a neck and a short head by Topyo and Salvo in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Retired to stud in America, Ribocco was later exported to Japan.
Any dip in fortunes Lester Piggott might have experienced in breaking with Noel Murless had been handsomely offset by his new alliance with Tipperary maestro Vincent O’Brien. They had combined to carry off both the Two Thousand Guineas and Derby with the brilliant Sir Ivor, poised now to complete that elusive Derby double achieved only by Orby in 1907 and Santa Claus in 1964. However, under the terms of his agreement with Vincent O’Brien, Liam Ward asserted his right to resume the mount on Sir Ivor in his races in Ireland. Only when he reluctantly accepted that situation did Lester agree to ride Ribero, Ribocco’s full-brother, likewise trained by Fulke Johnson-Houghton for Charles Englehard. Ribero had recently finished a twelve-length second to Connaught, the Derby runner-up at Ascot. On that form he had no chance.
With Sir Ivor unbackable at 1-to-3, the debate centred round what would finish second in this the first Irish Derby to be started from stalls. Two furlongs from home the answer appeared to be Ribero, as Liam Ward played cat and mouse with Piggott’s hard ridden mount. Suddenly the roars from the massed Curragh stands died in countless throats as it was not Lester but Liam who began to send out alarm signals. Far from outspeeding his rival, Sir Ivor seemed to come to the end of his tether. In total silence Ribero crossed the line two lengths to the good. It was a further five lengths back to the French challenger Val d’Aoste. What could possibly have gone wrong? Was Sir Ivor sickening for something?
On the end of the grandstand at the Curragh there is a clock, and underneath it the legend: ‘Time discloses all’. Therein lay the answer. Ribero had covered the Irish Derby course fully 4.6 seconds faster than had Sir Ivor at Epsom. Only Lester Piggott knew Sir Ivor’s stamina limitations. Now he had put that unique insight to devastating effect, riding Ribero to outstay the favourite. Liam Ward recalled going on to ride the last three winner son the card, all of them for Vincent O’Brien, who assured the hapless jockey that he had done everything right on Sir Ivor. Liam further recalled the pre-arranged ‘celebration’ dinner in the American embassy that evening as a cheerless occasion. That gloom extended throughout Ireland where racing enthusiasts sat down to dine. The Red House – John Morgan’s famous eatery north of Newbridge – resembled a morgue.
Ribocco and Ribero thus became the first full-brothers to win consecutive renewals of the Irish Derby. Portmarnock (1895) and Carrigavalla (1901) were full-brothers, as indeed were Harinero (1933) and Primero (1934), but the latter had only managed to share the honours with Patriot King. Ribero went on to emulate Ribocco by winning the St Leger. Retired to the Sandringham Stud, Ribero acquitted himself well, albeit with stock as slow-maturing as himself. Almost inevitably, in 1977 Ribero followed his sibling to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Ribofilio, full-brother to Ribocco and Ribero – dubbed by owner Charles Englehard as ‘the last of the cheap Ribots’ – was sent off favourite to land an Irish Sweeps Derby hat trick for the Englehard, Johnson-Houghton-Piggott team. That he should have been flew somewhat in the face of all known racecourse form. Favourite for the 2000 Guineas, he had been pulled up. Favourite once again for the Derby, he had finished fifth behind Blakeney, Prince Regent (FR) and Moon Mountain, all in similar search of Curragh laurels. Such was the aura surrounding Ribofilio and his connections, he was favoured ahead of all his three Epsom conquerors.
In the event Ribolfilio came close, looking all over the winner until inside the final furlong, when Geoff Lewis unleashed Prince Regent (FR) to gain amends for what appeared to have been a singularly unhappy Epsom venture under Jean Deforge. Trained in Chantilly by Etienne Pollet, previously successful with Tambourine II, Prince Regent (FR) was bred and owned by the Comtesse de la Valdene, sister of former US Ambassador to Ireland, Raymond Guest, whose Reindeer finished third, some five lengths behind Ribofilio.
That all-important suffix to his otherwise sacrosanct name – Prince Regent – was only barely sufficient to assuage Irish indignation that any horse should have been registered as such. Prince Regent, winner of the 1946 Cheltenham Gold Cup and regarded by his trainer Tom Dreaper as on a par with the legendary Arkle, was surely worthy of having his name ‘protected’ for posterity. Ironically, Prince regent (FR) went on to make his name as a National Hunt sire, living on to the considerable age of twenty-seven.
Thwarted in his attempt to achieve that own-brothers Irish Sweeps Derby hat trick with Ribofilio, Charles Englehard was back again in 1970, this time with one that simply could not get beaten – the imperious Nijinsky (CAN). Bred in Canada by EP Taylor and trained by Vincent O’Brien, Nijinsky (CAN) was unbeaten in eight races, including the 2000 Guineas and Derby. Moreover, the imposing bay seemed certain to compensate Vincent O’Brien and his Irish stable jockey Liam Ward for their debacle with Sir Ivor two years previously. The market said it all – 4-to-11 Nijinsky, 10-to-1 bar one.
On this occasion everything went according to script, Liam Ward bringing the hot favourite home three lengths clear of the 1968 villain of the piece Lester Piggott on Meadowville. The rapturous reception to which the winner returned was directed for the most part at Liam Ward, almost certainly partnering Nijinsky (CAN) for the fifth and final time in that champion’s career. So it proved. Reunited with Lester Piggott for his remaining overseas forays, Nijinsky (CAN) reappeared to beat the best around in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Recovering in the nick of time from an a bout of American ringworm, Nijinsky (CAN) went on to become the first Triple Crown winner since Bahram in 1935 when coming home an apparently easy winner of the St Leger, chased home once again by Meadowville. Lester piggott’s immediate post-race reaction – ‘That was too far for him’ – was borne out by the discovery that the colt had lost no less than 44lb during the race. Committed to retiring his champion to stud at the end of his three-year-old career, Charles Englehard decided to give his Triple Crown hero the chance to stamp himself one of the greatest of all time, by attempting to extend his unbeaten sequence to twelve in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
That gamble came agonisingly close to success, foiled by only a head to Sassafras, in the race that had never proved lucky for one Lester Piggott. Unfortunately, Nijinsky (CAN) was saddled once more for the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, less than a fortnight later. Visibly upset in the preliminaries, the odds-on Triple Crown hero ran way below his best when second to Lorenzaccio, a decent racehorse, but no world-beater. Retired to stud in Kentucky, Nijinsky (CAN) sent back reminders of his brilliance in progeny such as Golden Fleece, Shahrastani, Caerleon, Green Dancer, Caucasus and Ile de Bourbon. His name alone guaranteed stud success, inspired as it was by the legendary Russian ballet dancer Waslaw Nijinsky. On his deathbed in 1950 Waslaw Nijinsky vowed to return to this earth as a stallion.
Writing in the South China Morning Post, 18 April 1992, Robin Parke paid tribute. ‘Those who live for the sight of a great horse in action will have been understandably saddened by the death of Nijinsky this week in Kentucky. They just do not come any better. ‘His superlative display in the Epsom Derby of 1970, to be followed by his success in the Irish equivalent three weeks later, remains a treasured memory for those who saw this magnificent son of Northern dancer stamp his greatness on the history of world racing.
‘Just as there are inevitably claimants to the crown of Arkle in the jumping game, those who have sought greatness post-1970 have had to stand measure with Nijinsky. There are a number who have come close, but he still stand supreme. ‘Nijinsky was a glorious looking horse, tremendously athletic and with the uncrushable will to win that separates the true champion from the rest. . . ‘Nijinsky’s brilliance, of course, remained an indelible memory and he then became a tremendous sire, easily the best of Northern Dancer’s progeny. He has sired a host of classic winners around the globe and made an unforgettable mark on the world of breeding.
‘An era undoubtedly ended in Kentucky this week but Nijinsky’s exploits will remain as long as racing continues. And, for those fortunate to have seen him, a racing conversation will be stilled by the words: “I was there when Nijinsky won the Derby”.’