The London Olympics had our little nation over-dosing on the feelgood factor, revelling in the sterling achievements of Team GB.
Many of our representatives covered themselves with glory, but for me it was the accomplishments of our horsemen and women that gave most pleasure, while also reminding me of my status as a senior citizen. I don’t suppose I am the only one of my vintage who knew nothing of the horse and of horse sport until Foxhunter made an impression at the Helsinki Olympics. It’s frightening to think that was 60 years ago.
It is a rare season that features a horse of Frankel’s exceptional merit in addition to genuine Triple Crown aspirations of a star three-year-old colt
It wasn’t a long journey from recognising Foxhunter as an exceptional performer in the showjumping arena to finding another form of horse sport, so I suppose he had more influence on my future than I was able to acknowledge then. The bug had bitten and it has never crossed my mind to seek a cure for what I can hardly refer to as an ailment.
I can’t claim Tulyar made an impression on me in his unbeaten 1952 campaign, which included Derby and St Leger wins, but it would be good to think the distractions of this Olympic year have not blinded today’s youth to what has been happening on the racecourse. It is a rare season that features a horse of Frankel’s exceptional merit in addition to genuine Triple Crown aspirations of a star three-year-old colt in Camelot. If that pair can’t gain some converts to racing, it’s hard to imagine just what the game needs.
But, of course, times have changed and the era when racing was the sport of kings and king of sports has long gone. In the early 20th century the horse still provided the means of getting about for many; even the youngest generation grew up familiar with the horse. Everyone would have known about Diamond Jubilee and Rock Sand, the respective Triple Crown heroes of 1900 and 1903.
There were substitute Triple Crown winners in 1915, 1917 and 1918, but for Pommern, Gay Crusader and Gainsborough there was no Epsom and no Doncaster to provide the usual variety to the series, all their victories being secured over the July course at Newmarket. Good though they were, those colts could not capture the imagination of the public while the Great War raged in Europe.
What most engaged the minds of horse-lovers then was not the fact that racing was able to continue on a reduced scale thanks to relatively few favoured thoroughbreds, but the knowledge that the equine death toll on the continent matched or may even have exceeded the horrendous human casualty list.
There was a 32-year hiatus between the Triple Crown triumph of Rock Sand and that of Bahram, the next to claim all three jewels at their natural homes of Newmarket, Epsom and Doncaster. Bahram’s achievement was rightly celebrated, as he had dominated his generation over all three distances. It was just how a three-year-old colt was supposed to establish himself as a true champion.
Bahram had also been the best of his year at two and was unbeaten in a nine-race career. Compare his record at three with those of Diamond Jubilee and Rock Sand, and there was no doubting who was best; Bahram was 7lb or more in front of those earlier champions But could he be called great?
A devil’s advocate would point out he never competed against horses of other generations, and in 1935 there was an outstanding four-year-old in Windsor Lad, who had improved since his Derby and St Leger triumphs of the previous season. It was a shame Bahram did not contest the Eclipse, the only race in which a clash might have occurred; Windsor Lad had won the Coronation Cup in a time almost three seconds quicker than Bahram’s Derby and he made virtually all in the Eclipse. But he came out of the race unsound and didn’t run again.
Whether or not Bahram deserved the epithet ‘great’, his name was to resonate down the years because he had achieved what proved beyond the powers of so many. He was acknowledged as a paragon and in a sense had greatness thrust upon him by countless racefans who had never seen him run. How was it none could emulate him?
It was not as though owners and breeders had ceased to want the time-honoured accolade. Entries for the Classics closed at the yearling stage and literally hundreds of colts were nominated for all three races open to them.
Blue Peter was going to complete the treble in 1939 because Marcel Boussac had decided not to mount a Doncaster challenge with his outstanding colt Pharis, but the declaration of war made racing an irrelevance and the St Leger did not take place. Ten years passed before another colt succeeded in adding the Derby to the Guineas victory and that was Nimbus, always regarded as a doubtful stayer and therefore not a Leger entry. But the Triple Crown remained a legitimate aspiration and few doubted it would have fallen to Murless-trained colts Crepello (1957) and Royal Palace (1967), both of whom secured Newmarket and Epsom honours but were not fit enough to line up for the third element when Doncaster came along.
Contrastingly, the St Leger was never on Sir Ivor’s agenda after his Guineas and Derby triumphs of 1968; the distance was always reckoned to be beyond his compass.
Nijinsky news surprising
Two years later we were led to expect a similar policy would be adopted with another Ballydoyle colt. Nijinsky was dominant up to 12 furlongs but a son of Northern Dancer might be pushing his luck at a mile and three-quarters, so it came as a surprise when the news came that he would go for the Leger. The distance might not be ideal but there was reason to believe his class would carry him through. It did. At last there was a colt to emulate Bahram and, like the champion from 35 years earlier, he completed the Triple Crown while still unbeaten.
The distance might not be ideal but there was reason to believe his class would carry him through
Unfortunately the similarity in their records ended there. Bahram did not run after the Leger; Nijinsky ran twice and was beaten twice, in the Arc and Champion Stakes. Many felt the excursion to Doncaster had taken the edge off him. Whether or not that was true, the St Leger soon began to fall out of favour. American pedigrees had come to dominate, speed came to be valued much more highly and breeders lost faith in Leger winners as prospective sires. It did not seem to matter that Nijinsky proved a huge success at stud; winning the St Leger was a drawback so far as a stallion career was concerned – unless the horse seemed acceptable to National Hunt breeders.
In 1989 we had to recognise that the Triple Crown was no longer an aspiration for every owner and breeder. Hamdan Al Maktoum shunned the opportunity that Nashwan had provided. And in 2009 the connections of Sea The Stars followed suit; there was a colt who, like Nijinsky, might well have won the Leger by dint of sheer superior class, but the Arc was always his priority, and his Longchamp victory supposedly justified his absence at Doncaster.
If the policy adopted with Sea The Stars seemed to indicate that the concept of the Triple Crown was dead, the Ballydoyle partners, by their acceptance of the challenge with Camelot, have resurrected it.
It is a bold, sporting decision and an acknowledgement traditional values can still count in an era when they seldom seem to matter. While we should not hope for anything less than a competitive final Classic on September 15, the sport needs Camelot to win it.
Defeat would come as a cruel and potentially fatal blow to a concept that for so long has epitomised the best that racing can offer.