Remembering Nijinsky – 50 years on from Derby glory

Time has not diminished supreme achievements of Vincent O’Brien great.

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With the loss of the Derby at Epsom this weekend racing has had to postpone the chance to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest of all winners of the premier Classic – Nijinsky.

The Vincent O’Brien-trained colt won in such an imperious fashion on that early-June afternoon in 1970 that he was immediately hailed as one of the best racehorses of the 20th century. Nothing that happened subsequently changed that view.

The facts are simple enough, but not the story, which had its twists and turns. And of course the horse will forever be remembered for what he did later in the year, when he won the St Leger at Doncaster to complete the Triple Crown. It has not been done since.

On Derby day he arrived at Epsom as the unbeaten winner of the 2000 Guineas, a magnificent specimen whose racecourse appearances had produced seven victories from seven races. He was also the living embodiment of a new phenomenon in the breeding sheds – the advancement of the Northern Dancer line.

O’Brien, a man whose supreme talent embellished the sport throughout the second half of the 20th century, was the first trainer to mine the potential of the fledgling sire, a superior racehorse who had only just set out on his new career. Nijinsky was one of the first blossoms on the tree.

The Irishman had been asked to fly out to Toronto by super-rich American owner Charles Engelhard to cast his expert eye over a yearling by Ribot who was due to go to the sales. Having made the trip to eminent breeder EP Taylor’s farm to look at the horse, it can’t have been easy for the diffident O’Brien to give an adverse report, but he did.

Furthermore, he advised Engelhard to switch his attentions to one of Taylor’s other youngsters, a son of Northern Dancer he took a liking to. This was the future Nijinsky, for whom the owner then paid 84,000 dollars at the sales – a Canadian record.

There was never anything flashy about Nijinsky. The suspicions of a potentially flawed temperament were ironed out early on by patient work riders at Ballydoyle and his two-year-old appearances – four in Ireland when ridden by Liam Ward and one, the Dewhurst, in England under Lester Piggott – signalled a markedly superior ability.

The 2000 Guineas having been delivered with the usual grace and power, he was sent off the 11-8 favourite for the Derby, with the much-vaunted French challenger Gyr expected to provide the main opposition.

In fact a more formidable foe turned up the day before the race when Nijinsky was threatened by a bout of colic that caused him plenty of discomfort and did not do much for the nerves of his trainer, either. Anxious phone calls to vets both in England and Ireland ensued, and there was over an hour’s trepidation before the symptoms waned.

Come the contest, Nijinsky was his brilliant self and put the race to bed with complete authority when Piggott asked him to quicken in the final stages. He burst past Gyr to win by two and a half lengths in a very fast time, with another French challenger, Stintino, a further three lengths away in third. Here was a special racehorse, a paragon of the breed.

Nijinsky’s racing career did not end well as he lost his last two races, in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Champion Stakes. Before that, however, he landed the Irish Derby and swept aside top-class opponents in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in the most breathtaking fashion.

When racehorses are campaigned bravely, defeats do not diminish them, and overall Nijinsky’s performances earned him mighty accolades. In particular, he is still rated supreme among Derby winners.

It is not surprising, given the phenomenal quality of horse they were involved with, that in later years both Piggott and O’Brien were reluctant to be drawn on the subject of their best ever. But both narrowed it down to two – the other was Sir Ivor, the 1968 Derby winner.

And it was Piggott who said it all when he affirmed that, on “a few days in summertime”, no horse was ever better than Nijinsky.

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