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Archive for April, 2012

As the press fills with stories, hunches and reports about our 2012 Derby contenders, THE VAULT offers some “fun facts,” together with a focus on the tail female of the Derby favourites. 

Churchill Downs, 1901: Echoes of a proud history.....

With all the hoopla in the last few weeks before the Kentucky Derby, it’s easy to forget that just to make the list of the Top Twenty starters, out of thousands of thoroughbreds born in 2009, makes each one of our 2012 Derby contenders a special kind of baby — no matter what happens on May 5. And our dashing Derby prospects are babies — meaning that they still have a lot to learn, some maturing to do and, for at least 40% of the field, have yet to show what they’ve really got. After all, just like it is among human babies, not every individual is going to be precocious.

This article from THE VAULT concentrates on a few fun facts with which Derby fans can compare these exceptional colts, beginning with their respective Dosage Index (DI) and Centre of Distribution (CD).

To help those new to the business of handicapping, we need to stress that both the DI and CD of any thoroughbred are, in actuality, trends used by breeders more than “facts” per se. What we mean by this is that both DI and CD are attempts to consolidate pedigree information along the lines of stamina and speed influences. The CD and DI of a thoroughbred are tied to the influences of chef-de-race stallions found in a horse’s pedigree over the first 4 generations. But influences are just that and no more than that — even the great Secretariat’s speed-stamina profile did not quite capture what he showed us on the track!

"Little Big Red" (Available at secretariat.com)

A thoroughbred’s Dosage Profile, from which its DI and CD derive, is calculated based on the number of stamina-speed sire influences of chefs-de-race in a thoroughbred’s pedigree. There are five categories: Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Solid and Professional, with “Brilliant” denoting a preference for shorter distances (speed influence) and “Professional,” longer distances (stamina influence). Horses classified as “Classic” have an almost-equal speed and stamina ratio. The numbers assigned in all 5 categories (even if 1 or more are 0) constitute the Dosage Profile. Then, through a numerical ponderation formula, the DI and CD are calculated and they indicate a trend represented by a ratio of stamina-to-speed influences that may (or may not) indicate the conditions under which a horse does best. The higher the DI or CD, the greater the speed influence. 

So let’s begin by looking at the DI of several 2012 Derby contenders.

Dullahan registers the highest DI at 4.20.

Went The Day Well registers the lowest DI at 1.91, indicating a stamina-longer distance preference, based on sire influences. Photo and copyright, The Blood-Horse.

Went The Day Well registers the lowest DI at 1.91, indicating a stamina-longer distance preference, based on sire influences. Photo and copyright, The Blood-Horse.

Other than Dullahan, Derby contenders with a DI ratio that seems to favour speed and shorter distances include Hansen and Prospective, the latter currently listed at #15 in graded stakes earnings. Other than Went The Day Well, those Derby babies whose DI ratio shows a stamina- longer distance profile include Creative Cause @ 1.43, Alpha @ 1:67, I’ll Have Another @ 2.11, Union Rags @ 2.14, Done Talking @ 2:33, Daddy Nose Best @ 2:43 and El Padrino @ 2:60, with both Gemologist and Sabercat @ 2:73. Contenders with sire influences that indicate a speed-stamina balance  (DI 3:00) are Bodemeister, Daddy Long Legs, Isn’t He Clever, Liaison, Mark Valeski, Take Charge Indy and Trinniberg. One of the most famous examples of a Derby winner with a DI of 3:00 was the great Secretariat.

Will he or won't he? Trinniberg's owner only decided to send his colt to Louisville late last week.

There are two Derby contenders that show a distinct speed-shorter distance CD: Daddy Long Legs @ 1.11, with both Isn’t He Clever and Trinniberg @ 1:00.

Coolmore's Daddy Long Legs, another son of Scat Daddy, holds the highest CD @ 1:11.

The lowest CD belongs to Creative Cause @ 0.29, with Alpha @ 0.44, I’ll Have Another @ 0.50, Went the Day Well @ 0.56, Liaison @ 0.60 and Take Charge Indy @ 0.66 rounding out the top six horses in the field whose pedigree favours stamina and longer distance.

If we look again at Triple Crown Winner Secretariat, whose CD was 0.90, those Derby babies of 2012 who come closest to this figure are Daddy Nose Best @ 0.83, Mark Valeski @ 0.88, followed by the undefeated Gemologist and Hansen @ 0.89, with Dullahan @ 0.92.

(But when we look at the CD’s of the other 10 Triple Crown winners, we also see just how misleading this kind of information can be if used as the sole criteria for picking a Derby winner: Sir Barton @ 1.00, Gallant Fox @ 0.57, Omaha @ 0.75, War Admiral @ 0.52, Count Fleet @ 0.25, Whirlaway @ 0.10, Assault @ 0.46, Citation @ 0.04, Seattle Slew @ 0.68 and Affirmed @ 0.55. Then add, for good measure, Man O’ War @ 1.17, Alydar @ 1.10 and Little Current (whom many feel should have won the Triple Crown) @ 0.22 and one sees that while the CD is a useful indicator of the ratio of speed-to-stamina in an individual’s pedigree, it can also prove very dodgy for punters!)

Impressive winner of the Arkansas Derby, Bodemeister, registers a CD of 0.72 which comes close to a speed-stamina balance, with a slight edge on speed.

Neither a high nor a low DI and/or CD make any Derby contender better or worse. Rather, these trends should be taken as one way of looking at the compatibility between a horse’s pedigree and what will be asked of him on that first Saturday in May.

Which colts are coming out of the gate with the most number of starts or, put another way, the greatest amount of racing experience?

Daddy Nose Best, with 10 starts under his belt, is the most experienced in the field. Creative Cause, Dullahan and Sabercat come next, with 8 starts apiece. The least experienced runner, in terms of number of starts, would be Bodemeister who has only run 4 times and was unraced at 2. Lightly-raced horses with only 5 starts are Gemologist, I’ll Have Another, Mark Valeski, Daddy Long Legs and Went The Day Well. At 6 starts apiece we find Hansen, El Padrino, Alpha, Union Rags and Take Charge Indy.

The handsome El Padrino comes into the Derby with 6 previous starts under his belt, a figure he shares with the likes of Alpha, Union Rags, Hansen and Take Charge Indy.

The trainer with the most Derby wins is Bob Baffert. And his experience as a trainer of Derby winners is going to be an invaluable asset to Bodemeister. How a colt is trained is paramount to realizing its full potential and, in a 20-horse field, it seems certain that only those (precocious) colts who can win from a variety of tactical positions have the best chance. Keeping in mind, of course, that pulling a poor post position can be equally damaging to an otherwise good colt’s chances of winning. Still, we doubt the prospects of a one-style racehorse in general — unless they’re Zenyatta — and especially on the Triple Crown trail, since it’s too easy for other trainers and jockeys to strategize a way of beating them.

Given his Derby experience, Bob Baffert will undoubtedly have a racing strategy on the first Saturday in May!

One perspective on our Derby hopefuls that gets little popular press is the matrilineal influence in their pedigrees. The latest research tells us that the dams of our Derby babies are at least as important an influence upon their potential as are their sires. Specifically, mitochondrial DNA — passed undiluted from a mare to her offspring, whether filly or colt — has a decisive influence on lung capacity and, as a result, on just how far and how fast that baby will go.

In a Derby field that is being praised as one of the deepest in many years, it’s striking to see the high percentage of favourites who boast a strong tail female. Too, the pervasive influence of Mr. Prospector, Secretariat and Northern Dancer is noteworthy, reminding us that, as John Sherrifs said in an interview before the 2010 Breeders’ Cup “…it has taken 300 years to produce the thoroughbred of today.”

Union Rags (Dixie Union ex. Tempo)

Union Rags’ pedigree shows inbreeding to Northern Dancer (3 X4), Mr. Prospector (3 X 4) and Native Dancer (5 X 5). His broodmare (BM) sire is Gone West, whose own BM sire is Nijinsky II. Gone West descends from Secretariat through a daughter, Secrettame. The colt is a potential candidate for the large heart X through his dam, who traces back to both the Princequillo sire line through Gone West and the Blue Larkspur sire line through Nijinsky. This makes Tempo a “double copy” mare with twice the chance of passing down a large heart X trait to either a son or a daughter. Union Rags’ tail female is a strong one, filled with names (other than those already mentioned) like Bull Page and his daughter, Flaming Page (who produced both Nijinsky and Fleur, the dam of The Minstrel) as well as Nearctic and the incomparable Hyperion. And these are powerful influences that hint what Tempo’s bloodlines carry to her accomplished son. Like many of our 2012 Derby babies, Union Rags’ tail female is indeed a “work of art.”

An adorable Union Rags at 2 days old. A royal baby with a royal bloodline.

Hansen (Tapit ex. Stormy Sunday)

Hansen is inbred to Mr. Prospector (4 X 5) and Raise A Native (4 X 5). His BM sire is Sir Cat, a son of Storm Cat who was sent to Chile. Next to his connection to Hansen, Sir Cat’s most successful progeny to date is the millionaire Surf Cat, who stands in California. Hansen is a potentially large heart X candidate, since his dam traces back to the War Admiral sire line. However, Hansen is only the second offspring of Stormy Sunday, so it is hard to guess at her influence as a single copy mare (one with a 50% chance of passing a large heart on to a son). However, Hansen’s tail female is loaded with talent. Storm Bird, a 2 year-old champion in the UK and the sire of Summer Squall, Belmont Stakes winner Temperance Hill, as well as Storm Cat (Storm Bird ex. Terlingua, Secretariat’s daughter) and Private Account, the sire of the great Personal Ensign, appear within the first 4 generations of Hansen’s pedigree. All this makes him an interesting individual to watch throughout the Triple Crown series, since there is a lot going on in his pedigree that makes him a bit of a wild card — in the very best sense!

Hansen as a foal with his dam, Stormy Sunday.

Gemologist (Tiznow ex. Crystal Shard)

Gemologist is inbred to Northern Dancer ( 3 X 5 X 5) and Native Dancer (4 X 5). His broodmare sire is none other than the mighty Mr. Prospector, whose exploits as a sire hardly need to be expounded here and who may very well have more to do with Gemologist’s coming into the Derby as an undefeated colt than his sire, the great Tiznow. Although Gemologist is her most successful progeny to date, Crystal Shard’s offspring have all raked up earnings save for one, making her a fairly consistent producer of decent horses, due to the influence of her own BM sire, Northern Dancer. Although not linking back to a large heart X sire line, Gemologist boasts a very strong tail female. His dam’s “credentials” are impeccable, even if her Derby darling is the only millionaire among her offspring. As well, Gemologist’s pedigree on the bottom over 4 generations includes Raise A Native, the sire of not only Mr. Prospector, but also Alydar and Majestic Prince, as well as Exclusive Native, who sired Affirmed.

The undefeated Gemologist boasts a very impressive female family -- and a sire noted for his heart and determination!

Dullahan (Even The Score ex. Mining My Own)

Dullahan is inbred to Mr. Prospector (3 X 5) and Raise A Native (4 X 5). His sire, Even The Score, is a useful son of Unbridled’s Song whose best progeny to date, other than Dullahan, is Take The Points. Although the colt cannot lay claim to a large heart X influence, his dam is very accomplished in her own right — of 4 foals, she has already produced a Kentucky Derby winner in Mine That Bird. Dullahan also bears a rather striking resemblance to his dam, another reason to suspect a prevailing influence from his tail female in his pedigree. Dullahan’s BM sire is the fabulous Smart Strike, sire of champions Curlin, English Channel, Fleetstreet Dancer, Lookin’ At Lucky, Soaring Free, Papa Clem and Tenpins. Smart Strike is considered to be Mr. Prospector’s “all-weather” son, a definite plus in Dullahan’s favour come Derby Day. As well, Smart Strike has shown himself to be a very good BM sire influence. Other than these individuals in his beautiful pedigree, Northern Dancer and his son, Vice Regent, Raise A Native and Classy N’ Smart, dam of Canadian Triple Crown winner, Dance Smartly and champion Smart Strike round out the significant influences in Dullahan’s tail female. Note that each of these influences in his female family carry a promise of scope, soundness and distance, making the handsome chestnut son of Mining My Own a horse to watch.

Dullahan has a mighty tail female and even as a yearling, looked like a descendant of his BM sire, Smart Strike.

Bodemeister (Empire Maker ex. Untouched Talent)

Our boy Bode is inbred to Northern Dancer (4 X 4), Secretariat (4 X 5) and In Reality (4 X 5). His sire, Empire Maker, is an impressive individual with  an impressive bloodline that includes both Unbridled and Toussaud. Toussaud was the winning daughter of the talented El Gran Senor, a Northern Dancer son who was trained by the great Vincent O’Brien and campaigned in the UK. As gutsy as was his BM sire, Bode’s dam was a winning daughter of Storm Cat, whose own broodmare sire is the mighty A. P. Indy. In other words, Bode’s tail female reflects a strong dose of the powerful Northern Dancer-Secretariat nick and this bodes well for Bode! Untouched Talent is a double copy mare for the large heart X, since both her sire and dam trace back to the Princequillo sire line through Secretariat. Indeed, of all the colts who go to the gate that first Saturday in May, it is Bodemeister who carries the most influence of Big Red in his pedigree. As well, his tail female includes Seattle Slew and Roberto, both mighty sires in their own right. Is this boy the “real deal”? How could he not be!

The late Robert Frankel with Bode's sire, Empire Maker.

El Gran Senor was one of the best of his generation and noted for never, ever giving up.

Toussaud and her goat. Also trained by Robert Frankel, who admired her greatly, Toussaud is Bode's paternal grandam.

Daddy Long Legs (Scat Daddy ex. Dreamy Maiden)

Daddy Long Legs is inbred to Mr. Prospector (3 X 5), Raise A Native (4 X 4) and Northern Dancer (5 X 5). A Coolmore champion, the colt’s most recent win came last month in the UAE Derby in Dubai and showed off his power and determination to advantage. Daddy LL came home ahead of a strong field that included Wrote (IRE), Helmet (AUS), Yang Tse Kiang (JPN) and the winner of the Epsom Oaks. Clearly, Daddy LL has inherited some of the brilliance of his grandsire, Johannesburg, who was easily the best 2 year-old in the world in 2001. Meadowlake, Daddy LL’s BM sire, is a useful sire whose best progeny was the champion, Meadow Star. Meadowlake’s offspring were often plagued by leg issues but this stellar son of Dreamy Maiden looks to be a sturdier type. Despite a rather average BM sire, Daddy LL’s tail female is solid, featuring individuals like Round Table, Moccassin, Raise A Native and Northern Dancer’s son, Viceregal within his first 4 generations. However, there is no doubt that it is his sire line that impresses most. Whether or not that is enough to overcome the possible disadvantages of shipping in from Ireland and running on dirt remains to be seen.

Creative Cause (Giant’s Causeway ex. Dream of Summer)

Creative Cause is inbred to Nearctic (5 X 5). The colt’s sire is none other Giant’s Causeway, one of the truly great Coolmore runners and a proven sire. His dam, Dream of Summer, retired a millionaire and remains far the best progeny of his BM sire, Siberian Summer. Dream of Summer’s own BM sire, Skywalker, earned over $2 million with victories in both the Santa Anita Derby and the Breeders Cup Classic. Rounding out CC’s tail female are Relaunch (by In Reality), Icecapade and Caro. In Creative Cause, who has never finished out of the money in all of his 8 starts, we have a colt who descends from very gifted parents and whose dam was a winner at 5 and 6. In fact, of all our Derby babies, only Creative Cause and Take Charge Indy boast dams who were very accomplished on the track. No question that this grey son of Giant’s Causeway has inherited some very powerful mitochondrial DNA….but are his best racing years still to come?

Creative Cause is one of 2 in the Derby field with a dam who retired as a millionaire.

Alpha (Bernardini ex. Munnaya)

Alpha is inbred to Northern Dancer ( 3 X 5). The beautiful bay is a son of the young sire, Bernardini, who is off to an impressive start. On top, Alpha has a pedigree studded with stardom: A. P. Indy, Quiet American, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Spectacular Bid. But is his tail female as strong? His dam, Munnaya, won the Oaks Trial Stakes in the UK and has produced several offspring, of which Alpha is without question the best. The colt’s BM sire is the last British Triple Crown winner, Nijinsky II, giving him a total of 3 Triple Crown winners on 2 continents within the first 4 generations of his pedigree, top and bottom. Nijinsky was a potent BM sire as well as a sire of sires. Munnaya’s own BM sire was the powerful Alydar, an individual whose great heart will always be legendary to North American racing fans. Like Nijinsky, Alydar was also an impressive BM sire, giving Alpha two very potent influences within the first 3 generations of his maternal line — and it is within these generations that such influences are most potent. However, if despite his deep tail female, the strongest influence in his bloodline comes from his sire, then Alpha may prove to be better over a shorter distance and more deadly in the Preakness than the Derby.

Alpha, Ramon Dominguez up, after winning the Withers, just like his daddy before him!

Take Charge Indy (A.P. Indy ex. Take Charge Lady)

The talented Take Charge Lady was a champion in her day, retiring with earnings of over $ 2 million dollars.

Take Charge Indy is inbred to Secretariat (3 X 4) and Bold Ruler (4 X 5 X 5) and his sire, the great A. P. Indy, clearly needs no introduction. His dam, the fabulous Take Charge Lady, ran against Azeri, You and Sightseek and acquitted herself with distinction, starting 22 times with 11 wins and 2 places. She will always be remembered as a gutsy, take-no-hostages runner whose heart never quit. TC Indy’s broodmare sire, Dehere, was a champion 2 year-old in 1993 and has also sired the millionaires Graeme Hall, Natural Blitz and Keiai Guard. Dehere is still another product of the highly successful Secretariat-Northern Dancer cross. Even though TC Indy is by far his dam’s best progeny to date, Take Charge Lady is a double copy mare for the large heart X, tracing back to both Blue Larkspur and Princequillo. This means that her son has double the chance of receiving this trait from her. But whether or not this is the case, there is simply no question that Take Charge Indy didn’t receive a very powerful dose of mitochondrial DNA from his talented mother. Another intriguing dimension of this Derby baby is that he shares the same DI as Secretariat, who shows up in his pedigree in both the 3rd and 4th generations.

Take Charge Indy (inside) coming to win the Florida Derby. If he draws a decent post position, will he be the "dark horse" in the Derby field ?

Sabercat (Bluegrass Cat ex. Miner’s Blessing)

The magnificent Sabercat is inbred to Mr. Prospector ( 3 X 4), Secretariat (4 X 5), Tom Rolfe ( 4 X 5), Northern Dancer (4 X 5) and Bold Ruler ( 5 X 5). So it’s easy to see that this colt’s 4th generation ( top and bottom) are enough to rattle anyone’s sabre! Of his dam’s 8 foals to date, 6 have hit the board in terms of earnings although Sabercat is by far the most impressive. The colt’s BM sire is Forty-Niner, a son of the prepotent Mr. Prospector who sired Distorted Humor; Forty-Niner’s own BM sire was the impressive Tom Rolfe. Besides those individuals already mentioned, Sabercat’s female family also features Halo, Raise A Native, Hoist the Flag and Hail to Reason — all very sound sires. This adds up to a good tail female, giving Sabercat no excuses as far as maternal bloodlines go on the first Saturday in May.

Is Sabercat ready to bring his best game to the Derby?

I’ll Have Another (Flower Alley ex. Arch’s Gal Edith)

I’ll Have Another is the only horse in the field inbred to the outstanding Danzig (4 X 4), together with Mr. Prospector ( 4 X 4); Northern Dancer ( 5 X 5 X 5) is the third influence. Flower Alley, the sire of I’ll Have Another, retired with earnings of over 2 million and is a son of proven sire, Distorted Humor, whose Funny Cide took the Derby and Preakness in 2003. I’ll Have Another’s BM sire is Arch, the popular sire of ArchArchArch, Blame and the 2006 Canadian HOTY, Arravale, among others. Arch’s sire, Kris S., is the sire of Zenyatta’s dam, Vertigeneux. But that’s just the tip of the (proverbial) iceberg: his other offspring include champions like Action This Day, Rock Hard Ten, Brocco, Hollywood Wildcat, Kicken Kris, Kissen Kris, Kudos, Prized and Soaring Softly. Add the likes of Pleasant Tap (by Pleasant Colony, who won both the Derby and Preakness), Roberto and Alydar’s winning daughter, Althea, within the first 4 generations and it would be fair to say that this colt’s female family is brimming with the kind of potential that makes I’ll Have Another a really exciting Derby prospect.

The tail female of I'll Have Another just screams " Winner!"

Daddy Nose Best (Scat Daddy ex. Follow Your Bliss)

Still another son of Scat Daddy shows up for the Run For The Roses and this colt is heavily inbred to Mr. Prospector ( 3 X 4 X 5 ) , Raise A Native ( 4 X 5 X 5) and Northern Dancer ( 5 X 5 X 5), with a more modest dose of Storm Bird ( 4 X 5) thrown into the mix. In 10 starts, this Daddy has finished in the money 6 times and he’s getting much better as time goes on. Daddy Nose Best’s dam only has 2 foals, of which her Derby baby is by far the best, but Follow Your Bliss’ sire is Thunder Gulch, himself a Derby and Belmont winner and the BM sire of Daddy Nose Best. Pine Bluff a very very good 3 year-old by Danzig who took the Arkansas Derby, the Preakness and the Rebel is Follow Your Bliss’ own BM sire; as a sire, Pine Bluff has 29 stakes winners with combined earnings of over 26 million. So this baby has what it takes from his female family. The problem is that he’s only raced twice as a 3 year-old and in the kind of races you never hear about unless you are devoted to the sport.

Daddy Nose Best was brilliant in the Sunland Derby. Have a look (below) at his performance in that race.

El Padrino ((Pulpit ex. Enchanted Rock)

The striking chestnut with the wide, white blaze is inbred to Mr. Prospector (3 X 3), Secretariat (4 X 5) and Blushing Groom (4 X 5).  Remember Blushing Groom? He was not only an impressive runner in France for the Aga Khan IV, but then went on to be an absolutely model BM sire and sire, most famously producing Blushing John, Nashwan and the wonderful Sky Beauty, who took the Filly Triple Crown in 1993. As if that weren’t enough, Blushing Groom also sired Snow Bride, who became the dam of the enigmatic UK champion, Lammtarra. His influence within the first 4 generations of El Padrino’s sire line is well-worth noting, simply because he had such a huge influence on the modern thoroughbred. El Padrino’s BM sire is Giant’s Causeway and his potency through a daughter like Enchanted Rock, who only started once and was unplaced, is not to be ignored. Her dam, Chic Shrine, a daughter of Mr. Prospector, started 16 times and finished in the money 50% of the time, suggesting a rather more solid female influence than seems readily apparent. Too, the combination of Storm Bird, Rahy, Raise A Native and the aforementioned Blushing Groom in El Padrino’s 4th generation only adds to his potential. This is another colt getting a Derby boost from a very good female family, which, at least in part, accounts for his consistent performance on the track thus far. And that kind of determination should never be under-estimated in a 20-horse field where almost anything can happen.

The Pletcher-trained El Padrino is not to be overlooked because he's always been a colt you could count on to do his best.

Went The Day Well (Proud Citizen ex Tiz Maie’s Day)

The only inbreeding in this Derby baby’s pedigree is to Nashua ( 5 X 5) even though his pedigree is be-speckled with thoroughbred jewels, top and bottom. His sire, Proud Citizen, is by Gone West and finished third to War Emblem and Magic Weisner in the Preakness. Proud Citizen’s best offspring to date is millionaire Proud Spell, although he’s a consistent sire of horses with modest earnings and a few who made over $200 K. On the other hand, Went The Day Well’s (WDW) BM sire is the mighty Tiznow and his dam’s BM sire is the outstanding Roberto, giving the colt a very impressive tail female. He is only Tiz Maie’s Day’s first foal, so we need to look beyond her to other influences like these within the first 4 generations of WDW’s female family. Other than the obvious pluses of Tiznow and Roberto, in WDW’s 4th generation we find Hail To Reason and the extremely talented son of Majestic Prince, Majestic Light. All of which adds up to a very strong tail female and one that might well propel the Graham-Motion-trained colt to a win come Derby Day.

Went The Day Well goes to the post in the Spiral Stakes. Watch his performance below. Photo and copyright, Amber Chaflin.

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Nijinsky (Nijinsky II in North America) entered the British pantheon of flat racing long before he earned the British Triple Crown. Nijinsky’s fans fell in love with him when he was a two year-old and and, like other legendary British thoroughbreds, that love shines as brightly today as it did 42 years ago. 

This article is dedicated to Steve Haskin, on the occasion of his birthday. You are the world’s greatest sportswriter, Steve. Thank you from THE VAULT and its readers for bringing us smiles, tasty tidbits and stories that make us all feel like racing “insiders”!!!!!

PLEASE NOTE: The filmed footage that appears below is very old and the quality is not always the best for that reason. Please allow the footage to load — it might take a few minutes! The first four videos depict in order: Nijinsky’s first start, the Epsom Derby, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the St. Leger. 

Nijinsky was born at Windfields Farm in Ontario, Canada in 1967, the product of a mating between two E.P. Taylor champions — Northern Dancer and Flaming Page.

Northern Dancer

Flaming Page, being led in by Mrs. E. P. Taylor after beating another Windfields’ entry, the colt Choperion, ridden by Bill Hartack, to take the 1962 Queen’s Plate. 

No need to say much more about Northern Dancer — he would go on to become the most influential sire of the twentieth century. But in 1967, the tiny son of Nearctic was anything but an established name in the breeding industry.

Flaming Page, Nijinsky’s dam, was as regally bred as his sire. The tall, leggy mare was the daughter of Bull Page, a son of Bull Lea who derived from the Teddy sire line. Bull Page’s dam was a daughter of Blue Larkspur, thought today to carry the potential of the large heart X factor. From Flaring Top, her dam, Flaming Page carried the Phalaris sire line together with that of France’s Sir Gallahad, the sire of Gallant Fox and grandsire of Omaha, as well as the influence of Fair Play and his greatest son, the beloved Man O’ War.

On the track, Flaming Page was a monster, taking the Canadian Oaks and The Queen’s Plate over a period of 8 days. That same year, she also ran second in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.

Nijinsky really could not help but be anything but phenomenal, right from the very start.

Nijinsky, with his regular jockey, the accomplished Lester Piggott, comes onto the track with his lad at his head. In this shot, we can see the heart-shaped blaze on his brow clearly.

Other than his 3 white-stockinged feet, the bay colt wore an almost perfectly-shaped heart on his brow. That heart was to become the outward metaphor for a British racing legend whose exploits stirred fans, press and sportsman alike. Even Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, would confess her delight at standing in Nijinsky’s aura.

By the time he was a yearling, Nijinsky was already a big colt. In overall confirmation, he took after his dam. He had Flaming Page’s classic head and elegant build, together with a powerful chest that suggested great lung capacity and a generous heart. And by the time he was purchased for a mere $ 84,000 CAD by American tycoon and racing magnate Charles Engelhard — based on the recommendation of his British trainer, the great Vincent O’Brien — Nijinsky was a strong, handsome colt brimming with the kind of bloodline that sets horse people to dreaming.

At 2, Nijinsky was already a big, powerful colt. Shown here on his way to the start of the Dewhurst, Lester Piggott in the irons.

The colt was shipped to O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stable and was subsequently named after the great Russian dancer who, on his deathbed, had declared that he would return one day as a horse. Perhaps their was some truth to the dancer’s prediction because his equine namesake would prove to be as mysterious and mercurial a character. Lester Piggott, the great British jockey, said of Nijinsky, whom he rated with Sir Ivor as one of the two best horses he ever rode, “He wouldn’t talk to me. He never talked to me. Nijinsky had that far-off look in his eye from the first time I saw him….it was like he was looking right through you.”

Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the greatest ballet dancers ever, died in the belief that he would return in the form of a horse.

Newly arrived at Ballydoyle, the colt refused to eat. After days of anxiety, O’Brien called Windfields to learn that they fed nuts to their horses. O’Brien requested that the special Windfields’ mix be shipped immediately to Ballydoyle, but by the time it arrived, Nijinsky had switched to oats, the Irish way of doing things. Once asked to join the other yearlings on the turf, the colt proved to be extremely difficult. O’Brien’s training involved what was considered at the time to be the toughest regimen in the business, consisting of a walk in the Ballydoyle training ring, followed by “the gallops” out on the rugged terrain surrounding the stable. The gallops took place over the kind of area normally associated with (fox) hunting –acres of inclines, declines and flat going.

Nijinsky refused every step of the way, from being tacked up to walking single file with other juveniles to galloping along with his peers. Indeed, between 1 and 2 years of age, the “ornery Canadian” spent more time rearing and trying to toss his riders than he did learning his trade. The Ballydoyle staff were certainly not in love with him: ” Some mornings it would take ages to get him out of his box…then, he’d go straight up on his hindlegs!” In a reflection, however, coloured by their respect for their champion, they would add, “…but he was, of course, very balanced. He never toppled over…”

The gallops at Ballydoyle features a terrain designed to develop stamina in young horses.

In “A Horse Named Nijinsky,” a brilliant documentary about the horse who was the Secretariat of his day in Great Britain, Vincent O’Brien confessed that the path from stable to turf was arduous enough to prompt him to write to Charles Engelhard to say that the 2 year-old Nijinsky might not start racing until much later on in the season, if at all.

Johnny Brabston, one of Nijinsky’s lads, works the colt at Epsom in 1970, prior to his run in the Derby.

Vincent O’Brien was already a legend among peers, sportsmen and racing fans, having won an unprecedented 3 Grand Nationals, the Irish and Epsom Derbies, the Epsom Oaks and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with thoroughbreds like Ballymoss, Cottage Rake, Chamier, Gladness, Larkspur, Cottage Rake, Royal Tan, Glad Rags, Long Look, Quare Times and Sir Ivor. When O’Brien expressed reservations about a thoroughbred, this was not to be taken lightly. But despite the toughness of the Ballydoyle regimen — designed to prepare youngsters for the toughness of campaigning in Great Britain and Europe — O’Brien was known most for the fact that the horse always came first. So keeping Nijinsky out of competition longer than he might have liked was what was best for the colt.

Happily, two things changed the course of Nijinsky’s woeful start: the fact he was precocious (once he decided to work) and the excellence of the lads who rode him that year. In the latter instance, O’Brien was always quick to point out, the lads showed great patience and respect for the unruly colt, ” If it were not for two very capable work riders, Johnny Brabston and Danny O’Sullivan, Nijinsky could easily have been spoiled. They had the strength to handle him and the patience not to knock him about.” Finally, as the trainer observed, Nijinsky learned “what he was bred to do” and having made up his mind to more or less cooperate, O’Brien looked for a suitable venue for the big colt. Nijinsky made his very first start in the 6f. Erne Stakes at The Curragh under jockey Liam Ward, cruising home to what would be the first of 5 races the colt won at 2.

Nijinsky canters down to the start.

O’ Brien was a trainer who thought of his horses as any good teacher does. Put simply, he brought each horse along as far as they could go, and he did it one race at a time. In subsequent interviews, the great trainer would say that he was concentrating on just that during Nijinsky’s 2 year-old season — by which he meant that he hadn’t really formed an opinion that the big bay was a “super horse.” In fact, after the final race of the season at Newmarket in the Dewhurst Stakes, O’Brien noted that he was satisfied with his colt’s performance since he had won comfortably under restraint, but that the win didn’t really tell him how far Nijinsky could comfortably run. It seemed possible that the colt was a “fast stayer” though — which is the best thoroughbred type one can have.

Despite a perfect 2 year-old campaign, Vincent O’ Brien’s chief concern was to develop Nijinsky in a slow, consistent fashion, concentrating on what the colt seemed able to do.

For his part, Nijinsky was learning the ropes quickly. His first jockey, Liam Ward, noted that the colt could be difficult on the trip to the starting gate, but once the race was on, he was easy to manage. Nijinsky showed that he could run in front or rate off the pace, manoeuvre around horses with agility despite his size and he had a great determination to win. His acceleration was blinding. Even though his races as a juvenile were chosen carefully to “stretch him out” over time, Nijinsky ended his season undefeated. His chances at the Guineas and the Derby seemed fortuitous, provided that he re-emerged at 3 as good, or better, than he had been at 2.

Nijinsky wintered well. He had taken to works and, as the Ballydoyle crew were to learn, he didn’t much like “hanging about” and particularly when he saw other horses going out to work. Too, unlike O’Brien’s champion Sir Ivor, Nijinsky was a hard worker. He adored the gallops and would prick up his ears and roll by the other horses, even though he knew that this was not a “real” race at all.

Over that first winter before his 3 year-old campaign, O’Brien didn’t want him worked too hard. The solution was to send him off to the walking ring with the other horses, but then to separate him out with another colt to keep him company and send him to the indoor arena for a jog about. After a victory in the Gladness Stakes at The Curragh (IRE), Nijinsky was sent out to face the best 3 year-olds in both Europe as well as Great Britain in the 1970 2,000 Guineas:

It was, as the narrator in the film excerpt above was to say, “a baptism of fire” for the O’Brien colt. And, with his impressive victory, Nijinsky became the darling of the British media. The Guineas was his first step towards the Epsom Derby and, as it turned out, the British Triple Crown.

Nijinsky and Lester Piggott gallop out following the colt’s impressive victory in the 2000 Guineas in 1970. It was after this race that Piggott decided he had his Derby mount!

O’Brien’s plan for his 3 year-old was the Derby, the King George and, finally, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. But things didn’t work out that year according to plan — both Nijinsky and his team would face the heights of joy and despair before 1970 was over.

Of his Derby victory, the following was inscribed: ” Nijinsky proved himself one of the great horses of the century when winning the Derby yesterday at Epsom with the greatest of ease… The 1970 Derby will be remembered as one of the greatest races in the history of the race, and certainly Nijinsky is one of the greatest winners.” Lester Piggott added, “We were always cantering. A great ride. A great horse.”

NIJINSKY and Lester Piggot just following their win in the 1970 Epsom Derby.

NIJINSKY and Lester Piggot just following their win in the 1970 Epsom Derby.

It all seemed a perfect story. What would only be known several months later was that the colt appeared to suffer a bought of colic a mere 29 hours before the Derby, making it impossible to relieve his pain with the traditional injection if he was to run. For a good 90 minutes, O’Brien and his team waited to see if Nijinsky would come out of whatever was troubling him on that hot, hot day. At the end of their wait, the colt seemed easier and he was no longer sweating. He was offered grass, mixed with a little bran and bicarbonate of soda, which he ate. By evening, Nijinsky was back to his old self, but O’Brien decided that the colt would not travel again without his regular vet, Demi O’Byrne, accompanying him.

” A great ride. A great horse.” Nijinsky, ears pricked, cruises to victory in the 1970 Epsom Derby.

Next came victory in the Irish Sweeps Derby, which Nijinsky won by a solid 3 lengths with Liam Ward in the irons. Piggott had chosen to ride Meadowville, who came in second. It was a sweet victory for Ward, who had lost the race the year before on Sir Ivor to Piggott, who rode Ribero. Nijinsky was now undefeated in all of his nine starts.

And although he won the Irish Derby with ease, Nijinsky had been very upset in the paddock, working himself into a full lather by the start. This was a new — and undesirable — development, and one that would plague him until his retirement.

A beautiful shot of the great horse, Piggott up, prior to one of his 3 year-old races.

Winning the Irish Sweeps Derby (1970).

Nijinsky’s next start, his 5th race in a mere 16 weeks, was at Royal Ascot, in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. That July, the undefeated colt was compared to mighty Ribot and Sea-Bird II — two of the most brilliant thoroughbreds of the twentieth century. And this despite the fact that he was the only 3 year-old in a field that included two previous Epsom Derby champions,  as well as winners of the Coronation Cup, the French Oaks and the Washington International. Piggott gave Nijinsky a very confident ride, holding him back until near the finish with breathtaking results.

Vincent O’Brien, a shy man who seldom showed himself in the winner’s circle, leads in Nijinsky after his tenth consecutive win, in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Royal Ascot in July 1970.

Returning to Ballydoyle, the plan was now to rest Nijinsky until the Arc.

But disaster struck in the form of a particularly virulent bout with ringworm, in which so much of Nijinsky’s hair fell out that he was virtually bald over a large part of his body. Since any attempt to work him under saddle was out of the question, the champion was relegated to long walks and some mild lunging during his recovery. But the colt had really been very ill and the parasite had taken a lot out of him. He would need time to recuperate and toughen up before the Arc.

Charles Engelhard’s racing manager, David McCall, phoned O’Brien to say that Nijinsky’s owner would like to see his colt take a stab at the British Triple Crown by running in the St. Leger. Despite its illustrious past, O’Brien knew that the St. Leger might have been a prep race for the Arc with a healthy colt, but Nijinsky still couldn’t be saddled without bleeding. The dialogue that took place between trainer, racing manager and owner has never really been divulged, but it would be hard to believe that O’Brien was thrilled at the prospect of running Nijinsky in the Leger, which is also a quarter of a mile longer than the Arc and run only 4 weeks before it. However the decision was made to run and the great horse won it stylishly, to become the first British Triple Crown winner since Bahram, in 1935.

There were 36 years between Bahram (above) and Nijinsky’s winning of the British Triple Crown.

Nijinsky shown winning the last leg of the British Triple Crown.

The win came at a terrible price: Nijinsky lost 29 lb. coming out of the race, and fit horses don’t lose weight like that. Decades later, some of those closest to the champion would acknowledge that the spark that had driven him to this, his 11th straight win in as many starts, began to sputter after the St. Leger……that, in fact, he was never the same after that rousing victory. Lester Piggott would observe that the so-called “prep” race was too long for the colt, that he only won it handily because the competition was rather ordinary….

Nijinsky is greeted by adoring fans after completing the Triple Crown by winning the St. Leger.

Home to Ballydoyle the champion went, to prepare for the biggest race of his career: the Arc, like the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Epsom Derby, were races recognized internationally. Since Nijinsky was to stand in the USA, winning the Arc would be pivotal to his success at stud. Negotiations had been completed with Bull Hancock of Claiborne Farm, even as racing fans wrote passionately to Engelhard to keep Nijinsky in competition for another year. Hancock suggested that, rather than the Arc, the colt should be shipped to Belmont to run in the Man O’ War Stakes, following which, he would be retired. However, Engelhard, David McCall and O’Brien thought the Man O’ War was too soon after Nijinsky’s St. Leger and decided to stick to their original plan and run the champion in the Arc in October, 1970.

Now comes the most painful event in the Nijinsky racing narrative. For sheer drama, it was a heartbreaker.

Nijinsky’s loss to Sassafras in the 1970 Arc would go down in the record books as a defeat as spectacular as his other wins.  But it was also a loss of shorter than a head, from a horse who was arguably in less than top form both mentally and physically and whom, perhaps due to an over-confident Lester Piggott, was asked for too much too late. As is often pointed out, racing spectators have the advantage of hindsight, which is always 20/20.

But for those most closely connected to a champion, decisions must be made before the outcome is known.

Nijinsky gained back the weight he had lost once he was back at home and O’Brien was confident, from what he could see, that the colt was fit. Before the St. Leger, the colt had been calm and relaxed in the walking ring, giving everyone the impression that he was maturing out of the anxiety he had shown in previous races that year. Too, the Nijinsky that went into the Arc was not only undefeated but had carved out a remarkable career against the best of his generation in other ways: he was the first Canadian-bred to win the Epsom Derby, the first Epsom Derby winner to beat another Epsom Derby winner in the King George VI &  Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and only the second horse in history (Santa Claus was the first) to sweep both the English and Irish Derbies.

In a stroke of bad luck, Nijinsky drew the most outside post in the Arc. Then, prior to the race, the colt was so mobbed by the press — who were given free access in the Longchamp paddock — that it seemed there was only one horse going to post. The attention, the popping flash bulbs and all the noise upset the champion, although O’Brien always maintained that had Nijinsky been in his very best form, all the uproar would have only been a nuisance.

The Arc is the most prestigious race in Europe, but it is also the most difficult to win. The terrain of the course and the habitually large field made a tactical ride an absolute necessity — and Nijinsky was already hampered by a post position on the extreme outside. Breaking from the furthest post, or running on the far outside for too long, spelled potential disaster at Longchamp. O’Brien advised Piggott to get the colt well up in the pack as fast as he could, since history had shown that horses’ laying too far back never had much of a chance of winning. To which Piggott responded that there could be 100 horses ahead of him — Nijinsky would still win.

With half a mile left to run, the great horse was fourth from last. To get to the leaders, the jockey wove in and out, finally resorting to the far outside. Yves St. Martin, on Sassafras, had been well-placed throughout and mostly hugged the rail on the extreme inside. It was a distance-saving strategy that would give Sassafras the chance he needed to win.

Through most of the last of the race, Piggott needed to take the colt further and further out. Nijinsky came on gamely, although Piggott would later confess that the sparkling acceleration he usually mustered was just not there. And when Piggott went for his whip, right near the wire, the valiant Nijinsky — who was still coming to win and from an impossible distance — reacted by lunging still further out. The loss of ground may well have cost him the race.

Still, it was a photo finish. Had he won under those circumstances — from the poor post position, to the distance he travelled to reach Sassafras –Nijinsky would have gone down as THE thoroughbred of the century. But such was not to be.

It was this close — Nijinsky, on the outside.

In defeat, Nijinsky had run the most impressive race of his career. He beat Gyr further than he had beaten him in the Derby, and doubled the margin over which he had defeated the Derby winner, Blakeney, in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes earlier that season.

The Triple Crown winner did not run below form in the Arc, but rather improved on it.

Despite that, Nijinsky’s entire team were inconsolable and his great trainer, Vincent O’Brien, never got over the tragedy of it. Even the winning jockey, Yves St. Martin for whom the Arc win was his first said, ” Today is not about who won, but about the fact that Nijinsky lost.”

Blame was assigned in hindsight to Piggott in particular, and to Nijinsky’s bloodlines in general. But for the journalists who studied the footage from various angles, notably Richard Baerlin, the reason for the loss was singular: Nijinsky’s post position. As Baerlin pointed out in his exceptional book, Nijinsky, running at Longchamp in the Arc is akin to Olympic swimming — you need to stay in your lane to save ground. But Lester Piggott and the courageous Nijinsky didn’t have that option.

After a second loss in the Champion Stakes at The Curragh, Nijinsky was retired and sent to Claiborne Farm. There, he would become a brilliant sire and broodmare sire, as well as a sire of sires, giving us the likes of Ferdinand, Golden Fleece and Lammtarra, as well as Caerleon, Isle de Bourbon, Cherry Hinton, Maplejinsky, Royal Academy and a score of other remarkable individuals. Too, he remains the only sire to have a winner of the Kentucky (Ferdinand) and Epsom (Lammtarra) Derbies in the same year.

Ile De Bourbon (rail) winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (1978).

Nijinsky’s magnificent son, Caerleon, pictured above, went on to sire of Generous who, like his grandsire, won both the Irish and Epsom Derbies.

Royal Academy looked very much like Nijinsky, his sire.

Lammtarra (green silks), who had already won the Epsom Derby, redeems his sire by going on to win the Arc that same year.

The great horse succumbed to laminitis in 1992 and was laid to rest in his entirety at Claiborne Farm. The world of racing will never know another quite like him.

But on that first Saturday in May, a heart will bless several Derby babies, all of whom carry Nijinsky in their blood: Alpha, Union Rags, I’ll Have Another, Take Charge Indy, El Padrino, Bodemeister and Daddy Nose Best!

Nijinsky gallops in his paddock at Claiborne. Photo and copyright, Dell Hancock.

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