Another month, another personal landmark. The spotty-faced kid, obsessed with racing history, who daydreamed about one day visiting Newmarket and witnessing a Classic race, got to achieve his goal, and on May 3 will witness the 2,000 Guineas for the 50th time. This year’s renewal will be the 206th, and it’s a sobering thought that I’ve shared almost a quarter of the race’s history.
My sequence kicked off in 1965, when the clues I collected from the paddock included the fact that the Epsom-trained Niksar was totally awash with sweat. Returning to the stand I ran into an old school chum who was intending to back the colt until I passed on that information. If you’re still alive, Chicko, and happen to be reading this, I’m sorry I put you off the 100-8 winner.
The following year was memorable for the wonderfully judged ride that Jimmy Lindley gave Kashmir, who held on by a short head to thwart Great Nephew, the 66-1 supposed second-string from Jack Jarvis’s stable. The winning margin in 1967 was the same, and it was a costly result for me, as I had rashly laid Royal Palace to lose £100 in an alcohol-fuelled ‘debate’ with a colleague. As my take home pay was not much more than a tenner a week, it took me quite a while to settle the debt.
In 1968 most punters reduced the ten-runner field to a match between Ireland’s Sir Ivor and England’s Petingo, and that was exactly what we got. As Lester Piggott could have ridden either and had chosen the former, the Ballydoyle colt started a warm favourite, and he did the business in exemplary style.
Lester was trusted to bring home the bacon again in the following year with Ribofilio, but the Guineas became the first of four Classics in which the Ribot colt was beaten favourite; his lamentable showing on the Rowley Mile was a mystery to most, though apparently not to the prominent bookmaker who told me a few hours after the race that by laying him consistently he had raked in a huge profit. I could never have backed the winner, Right Tack, mindful that Classic heroes weren’t supposed to come via Alexandra Park, where I’d seen him win as a juvenile.
Nijinsky was a certainty in 1970; we attended to witness a coronation
Nijinsky was a certainty in 1970. We attended to witness a coronation, and that was what we saw, unlike the Classic of ’71 when the attraction was the anticipated duel between Mill Reef and My Swallow. To see both easily beaten by Brigadier Gerard was a shock, but there was no fluke about it, and we soon had to acknowledge that he was probably as good a miler as anyone had ever seen.
It was the favourite’s turn to oblige in 1972, when High Top resisted Roberto in driving rain, but there were three shocks to follow. Close inbreeding to a Gold Cup winner hardly advertised itself as a recipe for Guineas success, but Mon Fils confounded the pundits with a 50-1 triumph; Apalachee, hailed as a prospective Triple Crown hero after impressive performances at two, flopped as a 9-4 on shot behind Nonoalco; Bolkonski surprised Grundy in the race when striking stable lads disrupted the start but probably did not influence the result. The winner, trained in Italy as a juvenile, was better than anyone believed at the time, delivering later proofs of his miling talent at Ascot and Goodwood.
How good was Nureyev?
The ’70s ended with Tap On Wood’s victory over Kris, one of only two defeats in the latter’s 16-race career, the other coming as a four-year-old behind Known Fact, whose 1980 Classic win was registered only after the sensational disqualification of first-placed Nureyev. There can be little doubt that Nureyev was the best on show that day, but just how good he was we never learned, as he did not reappear. He may have been in the same class as the three outstanding ’80s Guineas heroes whose merits were in no doubt.
El Gran Senor is probably best remembered now for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the Derby, but he was imperious on the Rowley Mile, widely recognised as inferior only to Brigadier Gerard among Guineas winners of the previous quarter-century. Bred in partnership by Robert Sangster, El Gran Senor came to Ballydoyle straight from the farm, and Vincent O’Brien told me that if he had gone to auction he would never have bought him because of his parrot mouth. Curiously that was a physical defect he shared with Dancing Brave, who fairly trotted up in the Guineas two years later, suffered a controversial loss at Epsom, then rose to superstar status with victories in the Eclipse, the King George and the Arc.
Nashwan was a horse cast in a different mould, a big, imposing chesnut, remarkably light on his feet. He hadn’t attracted much attention until a week before the Classic when word about a sensational gallop at West Ilsley emerged. A massive plunge on the colt ensued, he was favourite on the day, and, having fallen in love with him at first sight in the paddock I was thrilled to see him dominate his rivals just as completely in the race. He went one better than El Gran Senor and Dancing Brave at Epsom, and to my mind was wrongly assessed as inferior to Old Vic, who won the Derbys at Chantilly and the Curragh. Old Vic was a one-dimensional galloper; Nashwan had gears.
The Press Stand on Guineas day was usually an area when one had to fight for a decent vantage point, but it was not like that in 1992. A veritable army of hacks had persuaded their sports editors that they needed to be at Churchill Downs to see the latest incarnation of Pegasus contest the Kentucky Derby, so while they were engaged in witnessing Arazi’s flop, there were just a few of us to see history made on the Rowley Mile. Rodrigo de Triano gave Lester his 30th Classic triumph, a feat that will never be equalled.
Who was the best 2,000 Guineas winner of the 1990s? The ratings compilers will tell you that it was Mark Of Esteem, but it was much later in the 1996 campaign that he found his best form; scrambling home in a three-way photo from Even Top and Bijou d’Inde made him only an average Classic winner at best. For me, the one who gave the most striking display in the Guineas itself was Zafonic, who fairly trounced Barathea by three and a half lengths in 1993. Remarkably, that was the widest winning margin since Nearula came back with four lengths to spare 40 years earlier.
King’s Best seemed to set a good standard in the first year of the next decade, but he turned out to be fragile, whereas his runner-up on the Rowley Mile, Giant’s Causeway, progressed to deliver several stellar performances in the months that followed. We saw a more thrilling contest in 2008, when Henrythenavigator triumphed by a nose over New Approach, both colts super-game at the death, but we probably did not give enough credit to Sea The Stars for his victory in 2009. We appreciated him better after he had proved his exceptional ability over middle distances, when we could recognise his versatility and reflect on his merit as a miler.
As a kid, one of the performances which captured my imagination and stood out as positively awe-inspiring was that of Tudor Minstrel in the 2,000 Guineas of 1947, when he blitzed his field, having them all stone cold at halfway and coming home alone. That was the year in which he and I, bearing the same initials, both turned three, so my absence from the Rowley Mile that day was perhaps understandable. It was one of those races that I could only wish I had seen.
Of course, it never crossed my mind that a carbon copy of that event would one day be presented in the same race over the same course and that I would be on hand to witness it, awestruck and so grateful for having been granted that privilege.
As I write these words, my 50th 2,000 Guineas seems to be shaping up to rank as one of the best. I can cope with the knowledge that it won’t reveal another Frankel.