Nijinsky's sad Champion Farewell

13th October 2015

The 1970 Flat racing season was all about one horse, Nijinsky.  The incomparable Irish superstar, who had become the first horse since Bahram in 1935 to win the Triple Crown.  The fact that no horse since has accomplished the feat emphasises the colt’s achievement.

The museum’s Stephen Wallis traces the story from his early season successes to a sad anti climax in front of a packed crowd at the Home of Racing.

In May, Nijinsky had sprinted clear of a 13 runner field to win the 2,000 Guineas by two lengths; June saw him ease to success over 2 and half lengths in the fastest Derby time since 1936; while in September he clinched the treble by a length in the St Leger. 

Three very different challenges for the brilliant son of Northern Dancer (winner of the 1964 Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby) under the tutelage of the legendary trainer and jockey combination of Vincent O’Brien and Lester Piggott.  The straight mile challenge at Newmarket, the undulations of Epsom and the stamina test of Town Moor. Nijinsky had also enhanced his stature as a racing great in mid-summer when he cantered to success against older horses, including the 1969 Derby winner Blakeney, in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

However, after the Ascot success Nijinsky had been struck down by ringworm which seriously interrupted his training regimeHe lost all his hair on one flank and he had raw patches on his skin.  Despite recovering sufficiently to win the third leg of the Triple Crown, the team planned to end his career with victory in the Longchamp showpiece, the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe.

A quality field of 15 runners including including Prix du Jockey Club winner Sassafras; the second and third in the Derby, Gyr and Stintino; and Blakeney lined up for the prestigious autumn prize. 

Drawn high in stall 15 Lester played a waiting game on the colt with only four behind him as they turned into the short straight.  He was therefore forced to take a wider route to get a decent run in pursuit of the leaders, Blakeney and Sassafras.   Despite this as the Geoff Lewis ridden Blakeney weakened, Nijinsky drew up alongside Yves St Martin on the French Derby winner with 150 yards to go. 

The large British contingent within the crowd now expected the usual winning surge to the line but although he managed to snatch the lead with 100 yards to go, they were to be sadly disappointed. 

Even the introduction of the whip by Lester failed to transform the Irish wonder horse, who dived to the left leaving the battling Sassafras clear by a head as they crossed the line.    

Nijinsky’s unbeaten record had gone and the recriminations began.  On reflection the exertions of the St Leger, hardly the best trial for the Arc, in addition to the ringworm had taken affect.  On the go since winning the Gladness Stakes in early April at the Curragh, the horse should have been retired.  His owner, Charles Engelhard had syndicated the horse to stand at stud in Kentucky for $5.44 million which made him the most valuable stallion in the world.  There was nothing left to prove, but within 13 days Nijinsky was back on the Rowley Mile where his owner hoped he would end his racing career in a blaze of glory.

Nijinsky was attempting to repeat the success of O’Brien’s 1968 Derby winner Sir Ivor who had won the Champion Stakes after defeat at Longchamp.  What was remarkable about Saturday 17th October 1970 was the massive crowd of 20,000 which descended upon Newmarket.

A winning prize of £25,000 was on offer for the field of eight many of whom had spent their season running in France with Faraway Son, Locris and Dictus all trained across the channel.  The 6 year old Locris from the Marcel Boussac stable had been 2nd beaten two and half lengths by Sir Ivor in the 1968 race.  Meanwhile, the Maurice Zilber trained Faraway Son had been disqualified and placed 3rd after finishing 1st in the French 2,000 Guineas. Dictus had run consistently well in France coming into the Champion Stakes. However, the form of his victories in the Prix La Rochette and Prix du Lac suggested he was racing for place money.

The home defence was mounted by Highest Hopes, Hotfoot and Lorenzaccio. The Dick Hern trained Highest Hopes who had won the Prix Vermeille in late September as well as being 2nd in the Prix Diane (French Oaks), where she was beaten by the Irish filly Sweet Mimosa.  Hotfoot, who was trained by Bruce Hobbs at Palace House stables, had earlier in the season finished 2nd in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot had won his last three races.

The Noel Murless trained 5 year old Lorenzaccio had won four French races in 1970, the latest the Prix Foy at Longchamp in early September.    Three of those victories, including the latter, where he beat the 1969 Irish Derby winner Prince Regent, had been with then stable jockey Lester Piggott.  Although just off top class the colt had been 4th as a two year old in the Observer Gold Cup, won by Vaguely Noble and 3rd in the 1969 Champion Stakes behind Park Top.

All seemed well in the parade ring but once Nijinsky set foot on the course it was apparent he was on edge.  So much so at one point he reared up on his hind legs, a trait from his formative two year old days.  Not that this display of nervousness affected the punters’ view, as Nijinsky’s price firmed up from 1/2 to 4/11 favourite.  Second favourite was Hotfoot at 8/1, followed by Highest Hopes at 9/1, Lorenzaccio at 100/7 with the rest of the field 40/1.

Geoff Lewis on Lorenzaccio set off in front and after three furlongs was two and a half lengths clear of Faraway Son and Highest Hopes with Hotfoot just behind in 4th.  By the time they passed the Bushes Lorenzaccio, Highest Hopes and Hotfoot were upsides with Lester now having moved Nijinsky up to 4th.  As they came into the dip Hotfoot with the sheepskin noseband was just ahead of Lorenzaccio and Nijinsky, who appeared poised to strike.   But nothing materialised as Lester remarked in his book “Lester’s Derbys”  “In the race he never gave me the old feeling and when I asked him to go on there was precious little response”.     Lorenzaccio drew away to win by one and half lengths ahead of Nijinsky with Hotfoot a neck away third and Dictus a further length back in 4th

The Rowley Mile crowd had witnessed one of the sporting shocks of the year; a legendary horse had been beaten. Interestingly, Alfie Westwood, who works in the museum's practical gallery, and won the last race of the day, the Suffolk Nursery Handicap, on Regency Girl for Harvey Leader, still recalls the disbelief in the crowd when he arrived that Nijinsky had been defeated.

Charles Engelhard’s vision of a triumphant send off for his dashing bay had failed; Nijinsky’s spark had been extinguished and he was retired to stud.  More poignant for connections was the death of the owner less than five months later at the age of only 54.

Although in the space of two weeks his aura of invincibility had gone, Nijinsky was without doubt one of the greatest horses of the 20th century.  The ease with which he beat his own generation in the Derby and his elders in the King George VI will remain firmly in the memories of those fortunate to be there at Epsom and Ascot.