There was a hush of admiration as the unbeaten and seemingly untouchable Brigadier Gerard cantered serenely past on his way to the start of what was the first Juddmonte International Stakes at York 50 years ago. The same buzz will spread as the brilliant and still unvanquished Baaeed sets off tomorrow. But remember what happened to “The Brigadier”? I do. I was there!
We had watched Brigadier Gerard taking on all-comers and all conditions for three seasons now. We had seen him trounce Mill Reef in one of the best 2,000 Guineas ever run. We had watched him dominate all rivals over a mile, outgun them even in soft ground over the mile and a quarter of tomorrow’s trip. In his previous race he had even moved up to a mile and a half to win the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. Sure it had been a bit of a struggle, but nothing would better “The Brigadier”.
He had just four rivals, Baaeed has six. He was to start at 1-3, Baaeed is priced at 4-9. His two main rivals were Roberto and Rheingold who had been first and second in the Derby; but since then Roberto had run so badly in the Irish Derby that Lester Piggott had switched to Rheingold, who had just won a big race in France. As for Roberto’s rider, they had resorted to a Panamanian.
Britain may feel insular now but it was much worse then. None of us had heard of Braulio Baeza but we should have done. We even mocked the contrast as he and little Roberto were walked on the leading rein in the morning while Brigadier Gerard cantered mightily by. The leather-lined face under the black velvet riding helmet had the high cheekbones of the Aztecs and a faraway look. Baeza had topped the American jockey lists for the previous five seasons. He was not here on holiday
Roberto never ran as well before or since and the most likely explanation is that this was one of the finest pieces of front-running riding ever accomplished on a British racetrack. Baeza set a good but not frantic gallop and even allowed the 66-1 shot Bright Beam to lead for a while. But he kept his horse in perfect breathing rhythm and when Brigadier Gerard loomed up he still had a trump to play.
To be fair, Brigadier Gerard had already run five times that season, twice over a mile and a quarter and once at a mile and a half, two of them in quite a battle. Baaeed has waltzed through the Lockinge, the Queen Anne and the Sussex Stakes, all over a mile, the identical route Frankel took before winning so gloriously here ten years back. But if Brigadier Gerard was below par the formbook did not show it. Three lengths behind Roberto, he still bettered the track record and had Rheingold a full 12 lengths adrift.
Joe Mercer always said that Brigadier Gerard was not himself that day but I still have the image of the great horse moving majestically up and Roberto amazing us as Baeza found some more. Jim Crowley, Baaeed’s rider, describes him as a “horse of a lifetime,” but he knows he can take nothing for granted and in Mishriff and Native Trail he has rivals who on paper offer every bit as much as Roberto and Rheingold ever did.
Native Trail has always looked as if age would bring extra strength and he was only just behind Mishriff on his first shot at this trip in the Eclipse last month, when the pair filled the frame behind Vadeni. Mishriff probably should have won that race and his devastating victory in last year’s International, along with big-race success in Dubai and Saudi, made him the world’s top-rated horse last term. If that horse turns up Baaeed could have a Roberto job on his hands.
But Mishriff is getting into the habit of missing the start and at five years old his mind may not be as focused as it was. Besides, Baaeed has become one of the most exciting horses I have seen and could be even more thrilling over the extra distance, which his breeding calls for. I can’t believe that defeat will happen — but it may.