From rags to riches - this blog tells the story of Hyperion and what we have learned from his skeleton that is on display here at the Heritage Centre, on loan from the Animal Health Trust
Within the Maktoum Gallery of the Thoroughbred stands the skeleton of Hyperion, one of the most influential sires of the 20th century, with over seven hundred victories attributed to his offspring. Born on 18 April 1930, Hyperion’s future fame was far from evident from his early life. As a foal and a yearling, he seemed to be weaker than most other thoroughbreds, and discussions were held as to his worth. It was debated that he should be put out as a hack, and even at one point he was seen as so frail as to require euthanisation, but it was decided that Hyperion should continue his early training with George Lambton at the 17th Lord Derby’s Stanley House stable in Newmarket. The decision proved to be a fortuitous one.
As a two year old Hyperion, a chestnut, made his debut at the end of May in the £162 Zetland maiden plate at Doncaster, where he came a creditable 4th of 18 runners. Subsequent victories in the New Stakes (now Norfolk Stakes) and Dewhurst Stakes meant he finished the season as one of the leading three year olds in the Free Handicap weights.
In his classic year he warmed up for the Derby with a comfortable win in the Chester Vase. On Derby Day Tommy Weston, riding Hyperion had the race won a furlong from home, eventually winning by an easy four lengths. Lord Derby’s colt had become the smallest winner of the race since The Little Wonder in 1840. It was around this time that he dislocated his patella bone which required resetting, and just in time for the St Leger on the 13 September. Despite the lack of a prep run the diminutive colt was still sent off as the hot favourite (6/4) at Doncaster where he stormed clear to win by three lengths without any serious challenge.
After a brief career as a four year old the dual classic winner with the four distinctive white socks was retired after he failed to win the Ascot Gold Cup. His stellar career as a stallion led him to become the leading sire on six occasions (1940, 1941, 1942, 1945, 1946 and 1954).
Amongst his famous progeny were the fillies Triple Crown winner Sun Chariot, Kentucky Derby winner, Pensive and Aureole, probably Her Majesty the Queen’s finest horse.
A study of Hyperion’s preserved skeleton can tell you a great deal of his life. At 15.1 ½ hands high Hyperion was regarded as small for a thoroughbred, and may have contributed to previous diagnoses of frailty in his younger life. If one regards the posterior plane of the femurs, you can see a series of long vertical striations, or ridges, closer to the proximal end of the bones. These are signs of muscular stress, no doubt a result of the repeated strain placed upon the bones by the Biceps femoris muscles. We can also see a degree of porosity around the maxilla of the skull, a sign of mild anaemia for which many causes could be postulated. Most glaring of the pathologies, however, can be found on the lower thoracic vertebrae of the spinal column. We can see how the spinous processes, the vertical extensions of bone that protrude from the posterior side of the spinal column, have been forced to shift in morphology and even partially fuse in some places. It is a textbook example of ‘kissing spine’, a painful condition that can occur in racehorses that have gone through the strenuous process of training. It is highly possible that, early in his training, Hyperion was given a rider that was slightly too heavy for his skeleton to fully bear. Stories of his frailty as a yearling would support this theory, and may have set in motion a series of processes that eventually led to developing the condition during his life at stud.
Hyperion lived to his 30th year, a venerable age for a thoroughbred racehorse, and it is said that he showed no sign of pain or discomfort during his final years prior to his death. He was still covering some mares, albeit a small number at the age of 29. The kissing spine was only discovered during the work required to preserve his skeleton, and it was confirmed during this work that his heart was twice the expected size for a racehorse. Through the preservation afforded him by the Animal Health Trust, we have discovered the inner biology that made him a famous name in racing, and we can also see the effects that the racing life has on a horse.
Chris Watts & Stephen Wallis