Nijinsky unbeaten in five races

  • bay horse by Northern Dancer – Flaming Page ( Bull Page )
  • Foaled: 1967
  • Trainer: Vincent O’Brien
  • Owner: Charles Englehard

Nijinsky Canadian-bred, Irish-trained Thoroughbred Racehorse and Sire

In the year 1967 The great Vincent O’Brien purchased a colt having an unusual scar on his coat, 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 ‘Jesus Christ ‘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.

Nijinsky’s sire Northern Dancer, won the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby, but was unable to stay in the Belmont Stakes. Nijinsky inherited speed as well as his father’s bold intelligent head. From his dam Flaming Page he inherited his long width and Limbs as well as fiery temper.

He stood 15ft. 2in. high. 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. 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.

Continue reading about Nijinsky

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 7to4. 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 superheroes 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 Lupine 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 Gyre 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 fastest time since Mahmoud in 1936. 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. 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 astride. 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. 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. 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 pushed his mount on the outside. Nijinsky now came with a devastating run on the outside passing Gyr and Miss Dan and heading French Derby winner Sassafras who had taken a marginal lead. 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 after Lester hit Nijinsky. To this day trainer O’Brien blames Lester for giving him too much to do. 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. 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 $5 and a half million, a 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), Shahrastani (dual Derby winner), Golden Fleece (1982 Epsom Derby winner), Shadeed (1985 Irish 2000 Guineas winner), Ile de Bourbon (1978King George winner) and Ferdinand. (1986 Kentucky Derby winner) Lester Piggotbelieved 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 Sea Bird, Ribot and Mill Reef or Brigadier Gerard. (His achievements have been considered only as a miler) Even those horses did not achieve the feat of winning the triple crown, the Irish Derby and the King George or 11 consecutive wins. His versatility was unparalleled. (Winning from a mile to a mile and 6 furlongs) However Nijinsky has generally been considered inferior to Ribot, Sea Bird and Mill Reef as a middle -distance horse. Racing Experts generally feel that those colts not only faced better opposition but also asserted their superiority with greater authority.

The horses he beat like French Derby winner Reliance and Diatome were great horses in their own right His Derby win was also gained in a more meritorious fashion. Ribot’s 2 consecutive Arc wins (particularly his second Arc win) and his remaining unbeaten despite having had to travel 3 times out of his native country, Italy places him ahead. (That too winning races like the King George and the Arc) In those days travelling was considered almost impossible. His second Arc victory by 6 lengths eclipsed any of Nijinsky’s performances .

Nijinsky also never displayed his ability to act on soft ground. (Winning all his races on firm going) Brigadier Gerard had a better racing record of 17 wins from 18starts,including 15 race wins (A British racing record) in a row. However Brigadier was the greatest horse over the distance of a mile so it is unfair to compare him with Nijinsky. Timeform gave Nijinsky a rating of 138, below even VaguelyNoble, Shergar and Dancing Brave. (All awarded rating of 140) However many racing experts deny he was inferior to them. Sea Bird, Ribot and Mill Reef were given ratings of 145,142 and 141 respectively. Vaguely Noble had given only one truly super performance as a three year old in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe where he beat Sir Ivor. To place him better than Nijinsky he had to be tested in the English classics. Although Shergar had won the Epsom Derby by 10 lengths he was unable to win the Leger in addition to his other victories. Either Shergar had not been able to stay the gruelling leger distance or he was simply past his peak for the season.

Nijinsky won the Leger after an attack of ringworm and came within a head of winning the Arc. That placed Nijinsky’s achievements ahead of Shergar. However I think racing historians are correct in rating Dancing Brave superior as a middle distance horse. The horses he beat like Bering and Shahrastani had not been faced by Nijinsky. (Although I believe Nijinsky would have outstayed him in the Leger). In the end to be rated only below Sea Bird, Ribot, Mill Reef and Dancing Brave amongst the great middle-distance horses (Very marginally behind) can never deny Nijinsky the title of a superhorse. 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.