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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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!