Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chapter 3



Rewind to September 12, 1970

England’s St Leger Stakes is the oldest of Britain’s Classic races dating back to 1776 and the third jewel in Britain’s Triple Crown. History could be made this day if Northern Dancer’s son, the Canadian bred Nijinsky can win the classic race (it would be his eleventh straight victory in as many starts). There had not been a British Triple Crown winner in 35 years and no horse had ever won the Triple Crown, the Irish Derby and the King George Stakes.

After an undefeated, champion two-year old season, Nijinsky won the first leg of the Triple Crown (the Two Thousand Guineas) easily in the spring of 1970. He faced a tougher challenge in the Epsom Derby, the second leg in the Triple Crown, where many people felt he would have trouble with the longer distance just as his sire did in the Belmont Stakes. Nijinsky won the Derby going away in the fastest time since Mahmoud in 1936. After Epsom and before the St Leger, Nijinsky won the Irish Derby, then raced against older horses for the first time, destroying a quality field in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. The stage was now set at Doncaster, England for the St Leger stakes and the third jewel in British Racing’s Triple Crown.

There had been serious problems leading up to the St Leger. Nijinsky’s legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien would not have raced him if left to his own devices but owner Charles Engelhard wanted him to win the Triple Crown to punctuate one of the greatest racing careers of all time. Nijinsky had suffered a serious attack of ringworm at the end of August that severely hampered his ability to train for the St Leger.

Despite his recent illness, with a little over a furlong left, Nijinsky showed his trademark acceleration to overtake the leaders and win the St Leger by a length over Meadowville. For the first time in his career however, he had nothing left according to his jockey, the great Lester Piggot. Nijinsky lost 31 pounds during the race and was totally spent.

Nijinsky had succeeded in England where his sire had failed in the United States in winning the third jewel of that nation’s triple crown.

Just like his sire, the brilliant Nijinsky was a National hero (albeit a different nation). He would go on to finish second in his last two races. Nijinsky lost by a head in France’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe to Sassafrass (the French Classic is one of Europe’s most prestigious races). The ringworm and what some say was a questionable ride from Piggot may have been just too much for the champion to overcome. In his last race, the Champion stakes in Newmarket, England, Nijinsky came back to Britain to an enormous, emotional ovation but his final race would be anti-climatic as he finished second 1-1/2 lengths behind Lorenzaccio.

Nijinsky finished his racing career with an impressive record of eleven wins, two seconds in thirteen lifetime starts (13-11-2-0), earning $677,118. He was Champion Two Year Old of England and Ireland and Champion Horse of Europe as a three year old.

Following Nijinsky’s career from Canada opened my eyes to the history and tradition of European racing. To see a Canadian bred horse dominate the way Nijinsky did in Britain was almost as exciting as watching his father win the Kentucky Derby in 1964. I would follow the careers of many Northern Dancer offspring but Nijinsky was perhaps the most exciting of all from purely a racing performance standpoint.

Nijinsky’s exceptional performance on the track did not mark the end of his influence on racing. Just like his father, Nijinsky went on to be an outstanding sire, producing multiple Epsom Derby winners, Guineas winners and even a Kentucky derby winner.

From Northern Dancer’s standpoint, the mark Nijinsky made on the International thoroughbred scene raised the profile of his sire to another level. Nijinsky was out of the Dancer’s second crop of foals. People were already paying attention to Northern Dancer as a sire but now that attention was coming from all over the world. Northern Dancer’s stud fees would rise from $10,000 for a live foal in 1965 to $100,000 by 1980 (eventually he would turn the thoroughbred breeding economy upside down with fees of $1,000,000 and no guarantees of a live foal). All this from the little horse no one wanted for $25,000 in 1962.

Nijinsky - Pedigree

Nijinsky - with Vincent O'Brien and Lester Piggott

Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame

Heartbreak - L'Arc 1970 - Undefeated heading into it - it's still hard to beleive he didn't win it. So many of the videos of Nijinsky's career are not available but this one is still out there.

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