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Nijinsky the wonder horse

TIMES SPORT, 23 March 2020

When Nijinsky arrived at Newmarket for the 2000 Guineas in the spring of 1970, he bore with him the ultimate racing promise. That he would win not just that first Classic but all three, The Triple Crown. He delivered. No horse has done so since. They probably never will.

But it was much more than by scoring over the mile of the 2000 Guineas, the mile and a half of the Derby and the mile and three quarters of the St Leger that Nijinsky should be judged – and remember Frankel was never tried beyond a mile in his own Classic season. Nijinsky gave us an absolute. He was the ‘wonder horse’ that Vincent O’Brien was born to train and Lester Piggott to ride.

By then Lester was at the very height of his fame. He had ridden his first winner, aged 12 in 1948, his first Derby in 1954, had been champion jockey for the past six seasons, and had controversially switched to O’Brien in 1966. Vincent was an equal genius, having won the Grand National in three consecutive seasons and done the same in both the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle, before conquering the flat. In 1968 he and Lester had won the 2000 Gunineas and Derby with the brilliant Sir Ivor but Nijinsky promised something even better.

He was a massive brute but as classy and light on his feet as his legendary namesake. He came to Newmarket unbeaten, un-extended in six previous races and in the Guineas, Lester eased him home hardly turning a hair.

For a moment in the Derby it looked as if French challengers might threaten, but one flick from the long tongue of the Piggott whip and Nijinsky swept majestically away. He then hacked up in the Irish Derby before putting up a truly astounding performance at Ascot in July with Piggott, the stony-faced showman, cantering past the very best older horses in Europe with nothing short of contempt.

When he and Nijinsky appeared to coast home in the St Leger, ‘Horse Of The Century’ seemed an understatement. But, unknown to us, Nijinsky had been stuck by ringworm in August and the horse that was then narrowly beaten in the Arc and humbled in the Champion Stakes was not the monster of midsummer.

Great players, great horses, sear memories into the retina. I can see one now. It is of a massive three year old colt in full flow with the bent hairpin shape of Lester Piggott angled high up behind the mane, the rider’s body still, the eyes cold behind the goggles, the hands holding unlimited power at the end of the rein.

We saw that figure on many, many great horses but nothing quite matched this image of Nijinsky in his pomp. 300 years of thoroughbred breeding had come to this.

Ah yes, that great summer of 50 years ago and Nijinsky, the nonpareil . We will never see his like again.