Just as I was getting ready to post the second part of my Australian and New Zealand thoroughbred article, the news came that Lammtarra had died. And the presses ground to a halt, here, and right around the world. The internet was alive with photos, dedications and memories. The racing world stopped betting, debating, reporting and analyzing, to mourn.
Unless you were following international racing in 1994-1995, Lammtarra is only a name to you, if that. It has become in vogue to talk about great thoroughbreds using metaphors like the one of a comet flashing through the firmament. But what Lammtarra represented was something more curious, something inexplicable, something even those who knew him best seemed at a loss to capture.
Lammtarra was a symbol — and symbols, by definition, are always greater than whatever they stand for. Symbols, like metaphors, are part of a secret and universal grammar. Each man, woman and child, wherever they are, understands this secret way of saying. And of thinking. Since a symbol, like a metaphor, is there to take the mind to higher ground.
Although we like to clarify them by saying that X is a “symbol of” something or other, the greatest symbols just are.
And Lammtarra just is — and will forever be.
For Laura Thompson, in her brilliant book, Quest For Greatness: A Celebration of Lammtarra and the Racing Season (ISBN: 0 7181 4159 8) — the kind of book that sets the standard for what a book about a thoroughbred and the sport itself should be — Lammtarra was the embodiment of greatness:
” … At the heart of flat racing, there is an almost painful dialectical pull: between the enduring memory of a horse, and the ephemerality from which that memory proceeds. This dialectic is of the essence, and stronger than in any other sport. In Lammtarra, it found its perfect expression. Never was a sporting career so etiolated and so resonant: it was as thin and fine as one of the horse’s own limbs.” (p. 4)
True to the landscape of symbol, listing the handsome chestnut’s endowments and accomplishments only dwarf the individual from which they flowed. Lammtarra was brilliant on the turf, coming back from an illness that almost killed him to start his 3 year-old season with the Derby, where he set a turf record that stood for 15 years (until Workforce took it down in 2010). In a short career of 4 starts/4 wins, including the 1995 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Stakes at Ascot and the Arc in the same year, Lammtarra did the impossible.
But merely saying it falls pitifully short of the mark. The video record of the 1995 Derby is a treasure, not the least for its obvious disregard of the Godolphin entry, and understandably so. After all, Lammtarra was making only the second start in his life as a racehorse, the first of which had been over a year before:
Walter Swinburn, who rode him to victory, remembers that after they crossed the finish line, Lammtarra wanted to keep running, just as he’d done in his first win as a two year-old. Today, Swinburn places Lammtarra in the triumvirate of thoroughbreds that he considers the best he ever rode. The other two are Shergar (1978) and the lesser-known, though gifted, Zilzal (1986).
Placing Frankie Dettori in the saddle for the last two races of his colt’s career, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was very likely as shocked as the rest of the European and British racing community to see what Lammtarra had in store. Only the incomparable Mill Reef (1968) had ever pulled off this triple in a single season. But, unlike Paul Mellon’s champion, Lammtarra was still learning the game:
And then he was gone.
Sent to the breeding shed, Lammtarra stood only one season at his owner’s Dalham Hall Stud before he was sold, for 30 million dollars, to take up stud duties in Japan. There, too, he failed to get anything even close to his own brilliance. In August 2006, upon learning that Arrow Stud was planning to sell Lammtarra to Korean interests, HH Sheikh Mohammed bought his champion back, and the stallion ended his days in the lush paddocks of Dalham Hall Stud near Newmarket. Even in retirement, Lammtarra had frequent visits from horse people of all kinds and when the Dalham Hall stallions were on parade, he was proudly brought out as well. It was eminently clear that HH Sheikh Mohammed and the Dalham Hall staff who cared for him would honour Lammtarra as the champion he was until the end of his days.
Although his breeding career was unsuccessful, Lammtarra’s daughters and their progeny are still prized, given his exceptional bloodlines. Here is Lammtarra’s grandson, Masterstroke (2009), running third behind the winner, Solemia, in the 2012 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, beating the likes of the 2012 Derby winner, Camelot (2009), and superstar, St. Nicholas Abbey (2007) to the wire.
Lammtarra means “invisible” in Arabic. It seems a strange name to give a colt of such royal lineage. But the name certainly carries a very ancient wisdom about what can be known versus what lies beyond. And in Lammtarra, that wisdom found an eternal home.
” … you are whatever a moon has always meant and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody
knows (here is the root of the root and the bud of the
bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows higher than soul can hope
or mind can hide) and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart) “
(from “i carry your heart” by e.e. cummings)
This article is respectfully dedicated to HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and to the the staff of Dalham Hall Stud.