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The Story of Nijinsky 2nd.

Harsh Thakore

That he emerged into a Champion was a tribute to the skillsof the maestro Vincent O'Brien.

Foaled in 1967 by Northern Dancer out of Flaming Page
In the year 1967 The great Vincent O'Brien purchased a colt having a meld promenation, by Northern Dancer out of Flaming Page at the Woodbine Sales for 84,000;on behalf of Diamond tycoon Charles Englehard.Few could imagine that day that this colt would emerge into a superstar. Nijinsky was simply the 'King'of Flat Racing, at least in terms of his popularity amongst the Racing public. In the history of Racing perhaps only Arkle and Red Rum surpassed his popularity. There is simply no superlative to describe his unprecedented achievements in 1970,something that till this day a horse has not achieved in Flat Racing.The great Dancer of the Century had been resurrected. There were few better sights in racing than watching this colt's amazing turn of foot. He had the ability to quicken in an instant reminiscent of a racing car accelerating.

Edward P.Taylorin Canada bred Nijinsky.who was the product of a mating between Northern Dancer and Flaming Page. Nijinsky's sire Northern Dancer (by Nearctic out of Natalma), was the best American 3 year old in 1964, who won the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby in 1964, but was unable to stay in the Belmont Stakes.Northern Dancer was to become the greatest sire of the 20th Century producing champion horses such as Nijinsky, The Minstrel, El Gran Senor as well as champion sires including Lyphard and Nureyev. (Dancing Brave and Peintre Celebre, 2 modern superstars were thus Northern Dancer's grandsons.) Nijinsky inherited speed as well as his father's bold intelligent head. From his dam Flaming Page, winner of the Queens Plate and runner up in the American Oaks he inherited her long width and Limbs as well as fiery temper... Northern Dancer's grandsire was the great Nearco the 1937 Italian Derby, Italian 2000 Guineas, Gran Premiode Milano and FrenchGrand Prix de Paris winner (beat great horses like Bois Roussel, the English Derby winner and Cillas, the French Derby winner), who had a remarkable stud record standing in the top 10 stallions for 15 years. His male -line descendants included Roberto, the Minstrel,Mill Reefand Shirley Heights.(ofcourse Nijinsky!)He also bred the great sires Nasrullah (sired Bold Ruler) and Royal Charger (sired Sir Gaylord) Nijinsky's great grandsiresalso included Hyperion (maternal grandsire who sired Nearctic's dam Lady Angela), the 1933 Epsom Derby winner who was to become the most influential sire of the century;. 1936 Epsom Derby winner Mahmoud (Northern Dancer's maternal grandsire) who won the Epsom Derby in record time; to Native Dancer, (sire of Northern Dancer'sdam Natalma) who won 21 of his 22 starts, including the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes (losing his only race by a shorthead in the Kentucky Derby) and Omaha (Nijinsky'sdam's great grand-sire), who won the 1935 American triple Crown Dancer's sire.Nijinsky was thus inbred to 8 different winners,a remarkable statistic in it's own right.
Nijinsky, grew to emerge as a strongly built well-proportioned, big colt 16hands 3ft.high.He was well grown and intelligent, having a good wide forehead with his ears well apart, tremendous heart room, and sound clean legs. He had the characteristic features of a great athlete.

From September 1968 Nijinsky had his earliest schooling in the Ballydoyle Stables of Vincent O'Brien. The colt was a very difficult horse to handle. Nijinsky had to be handled with the most meticulous patience, like a mother nursing or scolding a child. Trainer Vincent O'Brien's skills and experience played a great role in shaping the horse for racing. Nijinsky was so temperamental that often he would rear up, refuse to canter and sweat. Fortunately his work riders handled him with the utmost patience. That he emerged into a Champion was a tribute to the skillsof the maestro Vincent O'Brien.

As a two-year-old the colt made a promising start in the Erle Maiden Stakes, winning easily. He then went on to win 3 of Ireland's biggest races for 2 year olds, winning the Railway, Beresford and Angeles Stakes.In the Beresford Stakes he was given the race of his life by Deices, who went on to win the 1970 Irish 2000 Guineas.He culminated the season winning the William Hill Dewhurst Stakes in effortless style by 4 lengths, thus crowning himself with the title of the Champion 2 year old. With a furlong to go he simply cruised like a missile, displaying his devastating turn of foot to English racegoers, for the first time.

Nijinsky made a smashing 3-year-old debut in the Gladness Stakes in Ireland.Here he disposed of Deep Run and Coventry Stakes winner Prince Tenderfoot with utter disdain by 4 lengths. The horse had now become the shortest priced favorite for the Guineas since Colombo in 1934,at odds of

In the Paddock Nijinsky's coat gleamed and he strode majestically to the paddock. His chief rivals were Yellow God high-class milerand Amber Rama and Huntercombe, 2 high-class sprinters. Amber Rama set a scorching pace. Till the hill Nijinsky was travelling smoothly on the bridle when Lester pushed his mount. Nijinsky responded superbly simply seizing the lead from Yellow God, and winning by 2 and half-lengths. However towards the end of the race the colt began to idle and this did not impress his fans. The reason attributed to this showing was that he lay too close to the pace and thus in the end could not produce his best acceleration. However nobody could deny it was the performance of a an exceptional horse.

In the Epsom Derby, a lot of pundits doubted Nijinsky's ability to stay. The chief reason was that his sire Northern Dancer, could not stay no more than 10 furlongs, not being able to stay the grueling 1and a half miles in the Belmont Stakes.Nijinsky also faced Gyr, son of superhorse Sea Bird; one of the most talented colts to race in France in recent years. Etienne Pollet, who previously trained champions Like Sea Bird and Vaguely Noble postponed his retirement to train this colt and considered his colt invincible. Another strong rival was Stintino, who won the Prix Lupin and the Prix de Guiche.Nijinsky started at odd of 11 to 8 starting at Odds against for the first time in his career.

In the race Cry Baby and long Till set a scorching pace with Lester settling Nijinsky in the middle of the field, held on the bridle. Coming down at Tattenham Corner Nijinsky improved his position now lying closer to leaders like Long Till, Meadowville and Moon Plaisir.The French Champion Gyr lay on his off-side. Into the straight with 2 furlongs to go Gyre guided by Bill Williamson, stormed into the lead and seemed set for victory, striding past Great Wall.Stintino at this point came up with a tremendous run on the outside and even overtook Nijinsky, who was racing between the 2 colts. For a short while the 3 colts were engaged in a tussle. Lester now showed his mount the whip and his mount responded magnificiently. Nijinsky strode away from Gyre like a truly great horse to win by 2 and a half lengths in the time of 2mins 34.68 secs, the fastest time since Mahmoud in 1936.(clocked 2mins 33.8 secs.)The strides he displayed to win were those of a truly great horse in contrast to just a very good one. It was the equivalent of watching the majestic strokes of great Batsmen like Rohan Kahnai and Garfield Sobers in Cricket at that time-the strokes that differentiated truly great batsmen from just very good ones. (Kahnai and Sobers were the greatest batsmen of their times) Stintino came 3 lengths behind and Great Wall and Meadowville were the only other horses to finish 18 lengths behind the winner. What was amazing that 2 days before the race Nijinsky suffered an attack of Colic!

Subsequently Gyr went on to win the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud with ease.
Stintino defeated the subsequent French Derby winner Sassafras in the Prix Lupine. This showed that Nijinsky was head and shoulders above any 3 year old in Europe.The great colt confirmed his form winning the Irish Sweeps Derby easily by 3 lengths from Meadowville and Master Guy.Nijinsky however played up at the start, losing his calmness. This time Liam Ward was

In the King George 6th and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes Nijinsky faced older horses for the first time. These included Blakeney, the previous years Derby winner, Karabas, the previous Washington International winner, Caliban, the Coronation Cup winner, Hogarth, the Italian Derby winner and Crepellana, the 1969 French Oaks winner. Coming down the distance on the bit he overtook Caliban and effortlessly drew away to win by 2 lengths from Blakeney being pulled up. Nijinsky even had the time to gaze behind, something rarely seen in racing. It was the performance of a superstar. Nijinsky had now become an emperor, the equivalent of a a Muhammad Ali or a Pele to Flat Racing. Never before had Royal Ascot witnessed a field being demolished with such ease in the King George.Nijinsky treated high-class horses like starters hacks and that performance would not be forgotten in the history of racing. It was like witnessing the best innings of Sachin Tendulkar in cricket. (The greatest batsman of modern times).

To the great misfortune of racing Nijinsky suffered an attack of ringworm towards the end of August, thus his training suffered a severe setback. Against his trainer O'Brien's wishes Charles Engelhard wished his horse would run in the St. Leger and thus win the Triple Crown.

On the day of the Leger Nijinsky made history becoming the first horse to ever win the triple Crown, the King George and the Irish Derby, something unequalled till this day. He registered his 11th consecutive win, a record for a middle-distance British Racehorse. Lester settled the colt nicely. Davies set the pace leading the field from Politico, King of the Castle and Fort Roy and Charltown with Meadowville and Nijinsky in the rear. On entering the straight on the bit, Nijinsky accelerated, overtaking leaders Politico and Charltown, with a furlong and a half remaining. Nijinsky drew away in typical style, in the end winning on the bit by one length from Meadowville by a length. Nijinsky had become the first Triple Crown winner since Bahrain in 1935.

However in the end for the first time the colt had nothing in hand. Piggot faced the problem of conserving the great horse's energy, to prevent the race taking the toll out of him. Nijinsky had cetainly not won with as much ease as it seemed at that time.
The Leger was his 11th consecutive win, record for a British Middle-distance racehorse. However after the race the colt had lost 31 lbs. He was simply burnt out, like an empty petrol tank.
The stage was now set for the Prix del'Arc de Triumph, Europe's greatest race. Despite his training setback Nijinsky was a red hot favorite and faced strong opposition only from Gyr.Ortis, was the main challenger from Italy.Sassafras, the French Derby winner had won the French St Leger on an objection and won the Prix du Jockey Club by only three Quarters of a length,thus standing no comparison with Nijinsky. However the great horse was disturbed greatly by fans in the paddock who simply thronged around him. He was also harassed by journalists in the manner of press reporters surrounding a Hollywood Star.This disturbed him greatly and simply unnerved him. In the pre-race proceedings Nijinsky had received an Ovation perhaps unequalled in the history of the great race and was reminiscent of the attraction the Chinese Leader Mao-tse -Tung drew from the Chinese people at that period in history. Mao was at that time perhaps the most popular political Statesmen to have ever ruled a nation, his public impact simply being phenomenal. (The Little Red Book had surpassed the popularity of the bible). Watching the great horse run to the start was one of the most touching moments in the history of racing.

However in the race Nijinsky was not his old self...La and Golden Eagle dictated the pace followed by Sassafras, Ortis and Blakeney.Nijinsky lay ahead of only 4 horses for most of the race but was not far behind the good opponents.
The order remained till the straight. Coming into the Straight Miss Dan strode into the lead from Golden Eagle.Ortis, who was well up with the pace throughout the race now had weakened considerably and Gyr was making the most significant improvement. Sassafras too came to challenge the leaders and at this point Lester, with still a lot to do was at first was unable to find a gap having had to switch twice. When an opening appeared Nijinsky came with a devastating run on the outside passing Gyr and Miss Dan and very marginally overtaking French Derby winner Sassafras who had seized the lead about a few yards before. It seemed the race was over but alas Nijinsky could do no more and Sassafras caught him in the last few strides to beat him by a head. The great Colt had been beaten for the first time in his career. Racing's emperor had been de-throned.

It was like Napoleon losing the Battle of Waterloo.The post race proceedings resembled the funeral procession of a great leader. There was no better way to describe the shock it gave to racing fans.
What was the chief cause of Nijinsky's defeat? Was it Piggot's riding? Lester had placed Nijinsky well behind the leaders for most of the race and possibly gave it a lot to do at the beginning of the straight. However it must be noted that Nijinsky was also not his old self and Lester did his utmost to conserve the colt's energy until the end. Infact Nijinsky was only 6 lengths behind the leaders when he delivered his challenge. The point where Nijinsky lost the race on the camera was when he swerved left before the winning post after Lester hit Nijinsky with the whip for the first time since the Derby..To this day trainer O'Brien blames Lester for giving him too much to do.In his pre-race instructions he warned Lester to lie close up to the leaders and not give Nijinsky a great deal to do in the straight.This point will be debated forever as long as racing continues but there was no doubt Nijinsky, was not at his best. The attack of ringworm he faced plus the grueling race he faced in the Leger had simply taken the toll out of him.In my view those factors robbed him of a certain win.There was no doubt in the mind of several racing experts that Nijinsky was certainly not at his best .The old Nijinsky would certainly have won.By the solitary margin of a head Nijinsky was denied the historic feat of winning the triple Crown,the IrishDerby,the King George and the Arc-the greatest possible statistical achievement of a 3 year old colt.

Vincent O'Brien wanted the superstar to retire on a winning note in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket.The reception the colt received was reminiscent of Bradman playing his last test and receiving a standing ovation. Sport has rarely witnessed more emotional moments. Sadly Lorenzaccio beat Nijinsky by a length and a half, the latter not even being able to re-produce his Arc form. Ironically Bradman was out for two ducks in his last test. In similar style did Nijinsky, the equine superstar bow out of racing. His last 2 races were simply an anti-climax to a great racing career. (11 wins in 13 starts) Nijinsky had been retired to the Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.He was syndicated for $5and a half million record sum at that time. At stud Nijinsky re-produced his racing brilliance. He sired stalwarts like Lammtaara (1995 Epsom Derby, King George and Arc winner), King's Lake (1981 Irish 2000 Guineas winner) Shahrastani (1986dual Derby winner), Golden Fleece (1982 Epsom Derby winner),

Shadeed (1985 2000 Guineas winner as well as champion miler), Royal Academy (1991Breeders Cup winner) Ile de Bourbon (1978King George winner) and Ferdinand.
(1986 Kentucky Derby winner), Caerlon (Champion 3 year old andFrench Derby winner and sire of 1991 Dual Derby and King George winner Generous), Green Dancer (sire of 1991 Arc winner Suave Dancer) As a stallion he outclassed greats like Sea Bird and Brigadier Gerardand fared marginally better than Ribot and Mill Reef.(though very marginally)Producing 3 Epsom Derby winners, 6champion middle-distance yearolds,a Kentucky Derby winner,2 great milers as well as champion sires like Caerlon who's son Generous won the Derby is a phenomenal performance!Nijinsky followed in his father Northern Dancer's footsteps!Ribot did outstandingly well producing Arc winners such as Prince Royal and Molvedo,Irish Derby and King George winner Ragusa as well as Kentucky Derby winner Tom Rolfe. Amongst the champion middle-distance runners as far as breeding is concerned Mill Reef was Nijinsky's greatest rival producing Reference Point(1987Derby winner),Shirley Heights(1978 Derby winner who produced French Derby winnerDarshaan).Acamas(1978French Derby winner),Doyoun(2000Guineas winner and also sire of 1998 Champion older horse Daylami)Behara(Arc runner-up), Lashkari (1984 BreedersCup Winner) and Fairy Footstepse (1981 1000 Guineas winner) but in the end Nijinsky fared slightly better. Sea Bird's only high-class horses were Allez France,Gyr,Gay Mecene and the Prix Ganay winner Arctic Tern.

Lester Piggot believed that he had never ridden a racehorse with as much natural ability as Nijinsky.However he believed that Nijinsky was a very temperamental animal and was a very difficult horse to settle before the horses were to enter the starting gates. After coming out of the stalls the colt could be settled anywhere. He also felt that Nijinsky did not possess Sir Ivor's character. Trainer VincentO'Brien felt that Nijinsky was the best horse he trained as far as brilliance was considered but in regards to toughness Ivor was ahead.

How does Nijinsky compare with the all time greats? Nijinsky could certainly be a strong contender for the horse of the Century with Secretariat, Phar Lap, Man O'War, Sea Bird, Ribot and Mill Reef or Brigadier Gerard. (His achievements have been considered only as a miler) Amongst the great European horses even horses like Sea Bird, Mill Reef or Ribot did not achieve the feat of winning the triple crown, the Irish Derby and the King George. His facing an attack of ringworm cost him a victory in the Arc but for which he would have achieved the greatest combination of victories a 3year old colt can possibly achieve) His versatility was unparalleled. (Winning from mile to a mile and 6 furlongs) In terms of statistical achievements I personally rate him the horse of the Century.

In 1992, this colt left for his heavenly abode. To racing fans his loss was the equivalent of what Mao and Gandhi were for the masses of those nations when they died. He was a true immortal.
© Harsh Thakore 2002

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