Camelot may be making a pretty good shot at it but with Nijinsky he has some big shoes to fill and a quite extraordinary story to follow. In fact Camelot’s progress towards his Triple Crown has been almost serene by comparison with how Nijinsky got to Doncaster in 1970. Not that we would have known it at the time.
To the outside eye, Nijinksy was the very height of the Lester Piggott/ Vincent O’Brien axis, a horse worthy of the combined talents of two of the greatest geniuses ever to stride the turf. At 34 Lester had already won four Derbies and seven jockeys championships. At 53 Vincent may have only won a couple of Derbies but, uniquely, had already set unparalleled standards in the jumping game. In that earlier career he had trained three consecutive winners of the Champion Hurdle, The Gold Cup and the Grand National before switching to the flat. In this sphere he had already sent out seven English and ten Irish Classic winners not to mention the 1958 Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe with Ballymoss and the 1968 Washington International with Sir Ivor under Lester himself.
Sir Ivor’s year had included the 2,000 Guineas and The Derby in a season in which his brilliance and Piggott’s ice cool finishing had set new standards for excitement for the racing audience. Now with the majestic, unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable Nijinsky, they seemed to have got the ultimate horse which their destinies demanded. Irish champion Liam Ward rode the colt for his first four successes on local soil so it was not until the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in October 1969 that Lester Piggott was first in the saddle. No one ever rolled a horse beneath him like Lester Piggott, no horse he ever poised above, did it more smoothly than did Nijinsky.
But his road to Suffolk had not been anything as straightforward as the path Camelot had trod before the unrelated Joseph O’Brien sliced him through the 2012 Racing Post Trophy field at Doncaster for their first success in Britain for the jockey’s father Aidan who now trains, as Vincent did, at Ballydoyle. For Camelot would have been known to Aidan and his Coolmore syndicate owners from almost the moment of conception as his dam Tarfah would have come to Tipperary to visit his sire Montjeu the star stallion of the Coolmore operation. What’s more she would have returned to John and Carolyn Warren’s Highclere stud in Berkshire as both her dam and grandam had before her. When the yearling that was to be Camelot was knocked down for 550,000 gns at Tattersalls in October 2010, it was a sale whose antecedents were infinitely well known. It was not quite so simple with Nijinsky.
For a start he was picked out not by plan but by chance. Far from Coolmore scouts having an eye on him from a foal like Camelot, Nijinsky only came on to Vincent O’Brien’s radar in the summer of 1968 because the trainer had been asked to fly the long, long way from Tipperary to E.P. Taylor’s famous Windfields Farm near Toronto to see a yearling colt which he then didnt like. But the request had come from the American multimillionaire Charles Engelhard who had already won three St Legers (Indiana 1964, Ribocco 1967 and Ribero 1968 ) with other trainers and in 1966 had two runners (Right Noble and Grey Moss) saddled by Vincent in the Epsom Derby. The yearling colt over in Canada was by supersire Ribot as both Ribocco and Ribero had been. The hugely overweight Engelhard had been Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Goldfinger. For O’Brien it seemed an offer he could not refuse.
In real life Charles Engelhard was a most genial member of the New York Establishiment and only his size and mineral millions connected him to Goldfinger, and his obesity had the unhappy but honourable origins of having his legs irreparably damaged in a crash when serving as a bomber pilot in WWII. So when Vincent O’Brien told his prospective owner that he would have to reject the Ribot colt for a crooked foreleg but that he had much liked a big yearling by Northern Dancer, he was talking to a sympathetic ear.
He was also writing to an understanding mind when only six months later he had to pen a cautionary note suggesting that the $84,000 dollars (a then Canadian record) that the Northern Dancer yearling had cost might prove to be money ill spent after all. “I am somewhat concerned,” Vincent’s letter read just as carefully as he used to speak, “about Nijinsky’s temperament and that he is inclined to resent getting on with his work. My best boys are riding him and we can only hope he will go the right way.”
The warning was not sent lightly and much later Vincent was happy to pay tribute to the staff who got the knots out of the big two year old’s brain. “If it were not for two very capable work riders, Johnny Brabston and Danny O’Sullivan,” he said, “Nijinsky could easily have been spoiled. They had the strength to handle him and the patience not to knock him about. And for a horse of his size he came up to a race suprisingly quickly.” The debut came in the Erne Stakes on the Curragh on July 12th 1969 and Nijinsky’s home work had been so impressive that he started odds on as he did for three major two year old races the Railway, Anglesea and Beresford Stakes which, as with the Erne Stakes, he duly won without effort.
42 years later another Ballydoyle hopeful was sent out at odds on for his Irish debut but while Camelot duly obliged easily at Leopardstown this unrelated O’Brien chose not to run him again until sending the colt over to England for the Racing Post Trophy in October with his own son Joseph again in the saddle. True his four opponents were not of the calibre Nijinsky faced in the Dewhurst but the style with which he coasted up in the last furlong and the young O’Brien’s untroubled calm did not pale in comparison to the way Lester slid Nijinsky home on their first race together.
What did not compare was Camelot’s honourable, but scrambling winning effort in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket next spring although young Joseph again excelled, scything through his field, switching his whip twice in the last furlong and just nailing it by a neck. It was a gallant victory and set him up to start and win the Derby as an odds-on shot should. Yet for all its excellence it lacked the effortless brio with which Nijinsky had cruised up four full decades before. After the 1970 Guineas everyone was shaking their heads and wondering if that colt might be the best they had ever seen. No one did that in 2012 for the more direct reason that exactly a year before the race had been taken completely apart by Frankel and he was the “wonder-horse” benchmark by which all others should be judged.
It is not Camelot’s fault that he has yet to fully catch the public imagination because his Derby success this year was every bit as impressive as Nijinsky’s back in 1970 but this was the summer of the best ever England team battling (and failing) to win the World Cup in Mexico while our greatest ever jockey once again made an Epsom legend of his own. It looked superbly easy on the day. 24 hours earlier it had been anything but. In the racecourse stables Nijinsky was sweating and pawing and trying to get down and roll in his box. He had got colic. Forget his Derby chance, his very life was under threat.
The best treatment for colic is an injection to relax the stomach muscles which are spasming as indigestible gases fail to clear the system. But no medication could be permitted so close to a race. The crisis lasted an hour and a half and then Nijinsky accepted a little grass mixed with bran and bicarbonate of soda. He was on his way. O’Brien’s team could breathe again. And somehow no one had breathed a word about it and Vincent had very good reasons for keeping any news of the drama away from the press.
For the glorious immediate aftermath of his first Derby win with Larkspur in 1962 had been ruined by an immediate summons to the Stewards room to answer rather pointed questions as to why he had publicized a training set back a week earlier only to re-appear with a successfully backed winner. No censure was made but Vincent was insulted by the implicatons. Also, someone stole his top hat.
So it was that one of the most magical of Derby days came and went with all of us in blissful ignorance of the stress that the favourite had been through. High above Nijinsky’s back Lester Piggott was, as ever, a stress free zone. It was the fifth of his nine Epsom triumphs and never was he more dominant than when he stalked the crack French colt Gyr and then set Nijinsky down to victory in the straight. “I wanted to relax him,” he muttered as he drove to the course next morning, “and when I first asked him he had gone to sleep on me a bit. Had to give him a crack. But then…. he did it easy.” Those famous Brandoesque tones trailed off as if in meditation. There was nothing more to say.
But Nijinsky had plenty more to give and indeed stress for those around him although maybe nothing as acutely embarrassing as the dilemma that beset Charles Engelhard on the way to the Royal Box at Epsom. In the lift his braces broke leaving him to hold his hat and profer a hand to the Queen while trying to keep his trousers up with his elbows. At the Curragh for the Irish Derby the trousers kept up but the rains came down in such a downpour that the trophy was filling so rapidly at the presentation that that the sodden owner said wistfully “if this goes on much longer perhaps the good lord can turn the water into wine.”
At this stage Nijinsky seemed a miracle of his own. He had won that Irish Derby in a canter under Liam Ward but it was with Lester Piggott at Ascot King George VI and Quen Elizabeth Stakes that he reached the very pinnacle of his performance. Other great horses might have won races further or, like Frankel in this era, looked more flat-out exciting, but nothing in my experience has bettered the sheer class with which Niijinsky and Piggott coasted up and contemptuously dismissed a top class field headed by the 1969 Derby winner Blakeney. Even through the fuzzy prism of old footage the wonder shines through. “You have never seen anything like this,” calls Peter O’Sullevan’s voice across the ages. We hadn’t. And even though Nijinsky was to run three more times, we would never would again.
For back at Ballydolye it was not colic that hit him but ringworm. “So much of his hair fell out he was bald over most of his body,” Vincent said later. “Of course there was no way we could put a saddle on him. The most we could do was to lead him out and lunge him a little.” By now Nijinsky was being widely dubbed as “The Horse of The Century” and taking his career forward to the final target of the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe was going to be the trainer’s greatest challenge. Even more so when David McCall, Charles Engelhard’s racing manager came forward that what the owner would really love to do would be to make history by winning the St Leger en route to the Arc and so become the first Triple Crown winner since Bahram way back in 1935. O’Brien had his misgivings but the challenge was taken up.
Would that an owner and indeed a racing fan’s dreams could be so easily realised. After Epsom this year John Magnier reflected how in his most ambitious early days the St Leger “would not have been on the agenda” before reflecting “but things look different as you get older.” It is our thrill that his team have pointed Camelot towards Doncaster just as it was when Charlie Engelhard set it as Nijinsky’s target and before we cast him as too heedless of his horse’s condition we have to make allowances for his own. He was a man who did not as a rule interfere with his trainers but he not only had a sense of history he knew that he would not get many such opportunities. Indeed he was not to live out 1971.
Some stories of Nijinsky’s set back filtered through but “a touch of ringworm” was a grave understatement for the pressures that the Ballydoyle team were under. “Even in late August,” Vincent later reported, “you could not ride him for ten minutes or he would bleed.” The star’s work was not brilliant but it was decided he was well enough to tilt at the St Leger and Doncaster has never had a greater day. To the outside eye the sight of Lester cruising to the front 300 yards out was the crowning fulfilment of horse and man’s talent but, as so often, it was easy to be deceived as to how much more Piggott had in his pack. As Johnny Seagrove and Meadowville threw their last trumps at him, he still seemed to have cruised home unworried. In truth there was little left up the maestro’s sleeve.
The racing world now knows that Nijinsky did not win again. Even now controversy can rage as to whether Lester got too far out of his ground in the Arc or whether it was actually his lack of condition that found him wanting. Vincent never really got beyond the first view, Lester was adamant that having actually reached the winner Sassafras, Nijinsky then hung away to defeat because of weakness. But what can surely be agreed is that the horse of midsummer would have taken the Arc as if it were a commonplace. He had the Triple Crown – but it took its toll.
So now, 42 years since Nijinsky and 77 from the Bahram Triple Crown, Camelot and young Joseph O’Brien come up for their date with destiny. They have been spared both the pressure of Nijinsky’s “wonder horse” fanfare as well as the training crisis which threatened to derail him. Anyone with a heart will wish them well.