Triple Crown Winner – Nijinsky – 50 Years On

Nijinsky – some thought he was the best horse ever in 20th century

Fifty years ago this year was the last time that a colt won the Triple Crown in the UK, Nijinsky. The horse was trained by the legendary Vincent O’Brien from Ballydoyle stables in Ireland. (No relation to Aidan O’Brien, the current incumbent at that address.) Nijinsky won all three classics in the UK, The Two Thousand Guineas at Newmarket, the Epsom Derby and the St Ledger at Doncaster. No horse has achieved this feat since. There are many who believe that the horse was the best ever to race in the 20th century!

Nijinsky was born on 21st February 1967. He was by Northern Dancer, whose name appears in so many of the thoroughbreds of today and who was such a prolific sire.

Flaming Page – Nijinsky’s dam

He was out of Flaming Page by Bull Page and was bred in Canada by E.P. Taylor of Windfields Farm in Ontario. Nijinsky’s mother, Flaming Page was a champion in her own right. She won twice at two, The Shady Wells Stakes at Woodbine and an allowance race at Aqueduct in the USA. She was also placed in The Princess Elizabeth Stakes and the Futurity Stakes against the colts. At three, she came to her own, she won the Canadian Oaks, (now the Woodbine Oaks) the most prestigious race for fillies in Canada and just one week later won the Queens Plate. She was also second in the Kentucky Oaks, and ended her three year old career as Canadian Champion Filly. Unfortunately, she sustained an injury when returning to the USA to take part in the Coaching Club American Oaks which finished her racing career. She was a huge mare – so big in fact that when she visited Northern Dancer, a neat smallish horse, a trench had to be dug so the two could actually get together. She only had three foals, one of course was Nijinsky, her second foal, which was preceded by a filly Fleur. Fleur was also a stakes winner but as a broodmare herself produced another Epsom Derby hero, The Minstral. The third of her foals was Minsky, who became Ireland’s Champion two year old in 1970, coincidentally, the same her that his full brother was busy winning the Triple Crown.

Nijinsky’s sire Northern Dancer

Nijinsky was the first major son of many by the great Northern Dancer. We are not going to look at all the famous off-spring of Northern Dancer in this article, but some people may of heard of is of course the Coolmore stalwart Saddlers Wells. Northern Dancer was the first Canadian bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby in a new record time. He then went onto win The Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby and vied for the USA Triple Crown with a win in the Belmont Stakes, in which he in fact came third. He ran once more, winning the Queens Plate; after which he developed a bowed tendon which refused to heal correctly. At stud, as well as Saddlers Wells, Northern Dancer was the sire of champions, Lyphard, The Minstral, Try My Best, Nureyev, Shareef Dancer, Storm Bird, Tate Gallery, and Secreto, just to mention a few!!Northern Dancer produced no less than twenty five champions. From 645 foals, he sired 411 winners with 127 of those winners winning stakes races worldwide. He started his career at stud for a fee of just $10,000 (Can) but ended up commanding a fee of $500,000 (US) per covering.

Nijinsky – The big powerful machine?

Unlike his father, Nijinsky was a big horse, something he inherited from his mother. Vincent O’Brien loved this horse as a yearling when he saw him I his native Canada and persuaded the owner to offer him for sale at the annual Windfields farm Yearling sales where Vincent brought him for a mere $84,000 in today’s money, roughly $620,000. The horse was then exported to Ireland and the Ballydoyle racing yard.

At two, the big horse with three white socks and a star on the head was unbeaten in five starts. The first four were at the Curragh, where he easily won his maiden, followed by the stakes races Anglesey Stakes, The Beresford Stakes and the Railway Stakes. He was then sent to Newmarket for the Dewhurst Stakes and was ridden for the first time by Lester Piggott, where he duly obliged once again. Piggott held the horse up at the back of the field of six runners until the final furlong when the pair just simply trashed the rest of the field.

“Nijinsky’, winner of the 2, 000 Guineas, The Derby and The St Ledger

At three, Nijinsky had a little warm up race at the Curragh in the Gladness Stakes before teaming up with Lester Piggott once again for the Two Thousand Guineas at Newmarket. There were 13 runners and the pair won easily by 2 ½ lengths from Yellow God. The next stop for the pair was The Epsom Derby, which was a stronger contest including the French trained Gyr (by Sea Bird). Gyr was in the lead a furlong from home and maybe for the first time, Nijinsky had to work for his supper. However, Lester Piggott used the whip on him and ended up winning the race by 2 ½  lengths in  the fastest running of the Derby since  1936. The horse’s next outing was in the Irish Derby, but this time ridden by Liam Ward and this pairing were equally as good, taking the race easily. Finally in July, Piggott and Nijinsky were reunited for The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot where needless to stay they won beating Blakeney (the 1969 Derby winner and several other top Group 1 winners including Crepellana (French Oaks winner of 1969 In fact, he won so well that Piggott slowed him to a canter over the finish line. Nijinsky’s Triple Crown ambitions looked in doubt at the end of July, when the horse got a bad case of ringworm. Vincent O’Brien, it is said fed him on Irish Stout and raw eggs which seemed to do the job.

Being led in – Nijinsky with his trainer Vincent O’Brien and Lester Piggott

In September, Nijinsky was setting out to be the first horse since Bagram 35 years earlier to win the British Triple Crown. He achieved this with some ease beating Meadowville. No horse has won the colts Triple Crown in the UK now for fifty years, although a few have tried. In his final two races, The Arc de Triomphe in Paris and The Champion Stakes in Newmarket, Nijinsky came second. In the Arc, Piggott took the lead but the horse shied away from the whip and Sassafras took the honours, ridden by Piggott’s old rival Yves St Martin. Piggott was blamed for loosing the race by both Vincent O’Brien and the general media, who slated him for giving the horse too much to do in the final straight. Piggott refuted this by saying that he thought the horse had fallen out of love with the game. The Champions Stakes was Nijinsky’s last race, and again he came second, beaten by Lorenzaccio. However it was noticed that Nijinsky had sweated up hard before the race and seemed nervous. He did not run to his form in any way, and Vincent O’Brien had to agree with Piggott that he was right and the horse had fallen out of love with the game.

And finally to Stud

Nijinsky was syndicated to go to stud in the USA at Claiborne Farms for a small sum of $5,440,000. At stud, he may not have been quite the sire of his father, but he still produced some huge successes including eleven classic winners. Among others, he was the sire of: Caerleon, Golden Fleece, Ile de Bourbon, Kings Lake, Lammtarra, Niniski, Shadeed,  Shahrastani and one of my favourite horses of all time Royal Academy. Royal Academy was running in the Breeder’s Cup Mile in New York after Lester Piggott was released from an unfortunate time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Before the race, Lester was told he had no chance of winning, but in his own inimitable was, Lester just said “watch and learn” As the runners came into the straight, Lester and Royal Academy were at the back. The jockey pressed the button and the pair came on the outside to take a momentous victory. It was one of the most exciting races this author has ever witnessed.

Nijinsky died in April 1992 at the age of 25 following years of laminitis and old age.

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