Nijinsky: Triple Crown Champion
Northern Dancer’s first crop of foals were exciting, containing ten stakes winners from only twenty-one foals. His second crop would establish him as an emerging sire of worldwide significance. Northern Dancer was bred to champion Flaming Page, a daughter of Windfields stallion Bull Page, in his first year at stud but the mare was a good full hand taller. Northern Dancer could not reach Flaming Page who was becoming impatient and kicked Northern Dancer squarely in the ribs. A pit was dug out in the breeding arena to place Flaming Page into in order for the shorter Northern Dancer to perform his task. Unfortunately the mating would result in dead twins. His second “meeting” with Flaming Page during the next breeding season went very smoothly as The Dancer was now an experienced stallion. This mating produced on February 21, 1967 a colt destined to be heralded as one of the all time greatest horses ever seen in European racing.
Vincent O’Brien was sent the following year to Windfields by his client Charles Engelhard to inspect a yearling sired by Ribot that was to be entered into the CTHS yearling sale. Engelhard was keen on Ribot offspring and was eager to acquire this youngster that was bred by his friend E.P.Taylor. O’Brien was not impressed by the Ribot colt but was very impressed by a big robust bay sired by the new young stallion named Northern Dancer. So upon his discovery, he subsequently advised Charles Engelhard to purchase this colt at the CTHS sale in 1968. Engelhard cleverly named the son of Flaming Page in honour of the famous Russian ballet dancer, who had once stated that he would be re-incarnated as a horse.
Upon arrival at O’Brien’s Ballydoyle training facility, Nijinsky proved to be just as wilful and head strong as his sire line ancestors. He refused to eat the oats that were fed to him by O’Brien’s staff as he had never eaten such meals before. Exasperated, O’Brien then called the Windfields management and asked for a shipment of the feed which the colt was used to eating, and on the day of arrival, Nijinsky had decided that oats were OK now and began to gobble down his Irish cuisine.
As a two year old, Nijinsky won his first four starts in Ireland with absolute ease. In order the Erne, the Railway, the Anglesey and the Beresford Stakes were his Irish wins as a two year old. O’Brien brought him to Newmarket for the Dewhurst Stakes. The emerging star colt captured this race on cruise control, displaying his talent and class to the English turf hierarchy. Voted champion two year old in Ireland and England, Nijinsky was the winter book favourite for the upcoming 1970 classics.
Nijinsky had his detractors however as many would point to his sire’s loss in the twelve furlong Belmont Stakes as a reason that Nijinsky could not do the Derby distance. What many people did not know at the time was that Northern Dancer had run the Belmont under tight wraps, a strong hold by his jockey Bill Hartack who was under orders to hold him back from the pace. Northern Dancer had wanted to go on early but was fighting his rider so much that he expended too much energy during the race, leaving him with nothing left in the tank for the stretch drive. Nijinsky had the great Lester Piggott as a partner in many of his races, a superior horseman if there ever was one.
The seven furlong Gladness Stakes at the Curragh was Nijinsky’s first race in his three year old campaign. Barely off the bridle, the big bay colt again won with ease. On to the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket for his next race and a shot at victory in a classic to add to his growing resume. Nijinsky swept all comers as he did in all his prior races, taking the fabled race on the Rowley Mile course with a performance that appeared to be no more than a training session to him.
It was looking as if the Derby was all his before the race had even taken place. Many times a “lead pipe cinch” would fail in a big race when the event is run, but not in this case. Nijinsky won the Derby Stakes at Epsom facing the strongest field he had seen to date. Lester Piggott positioned him in a stalking position and asked his mount for his run two furlongs from the winning post. Nijinsky simply cruised past and drew clear, winning by two and one half lengths. The highly regarded Gyr was clearly second best to the Canadian bred winner.
Nijinsky proceeded to go on to win the Irish Derby, thus becoming a rare dual Derby winner. In the race Liam Ward was his pilot. O’Brien had the jockey as his first call rider in all Irish races. Lester Piggott rode the very capable Meadowville to finish second, and even though he knew of Nijinsky’s high cruising speed and devastating finishing kick the master jockey could not finish any closer than three lengths behind with his mount.
The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes was up next, and was Nijinsky’s first race against older horses. Nijinsky handily defeated the previous year’s Derby winner Blakeney, the previous year’s French Oaks winner Crepellana, the reigning Washington D.C. winner Karabas, Coronation Cup winner Calibran and the Italian Derby winner Hogarth. Taking the lead a furlong from the finish post, Nijinsky won impressively thus demonstrating his superior ability against many of the top horses in training at Ascot that day.
Through out his three year old season Nijinsky had issues with the large gatherings of race fans wanting to get a closer look while in the paddock before his starts. On many occasions the star of the show would sweat profusely and lather up. O’Brien was becoming increasingly concerned about this, and was trying to keep the colt as calm as possible. The nervousness Nijinsky was exhibiting was sapping his energy, before the race took place.
Engelhard sportingly wanted Nijinsky to enter the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster, and complete the British Triple Crown. Nijinsky was the hot topic of debate in the papers and pubs across England. The connections were feeling the pressure as well with the endless interviews. The press articles weighing the pros and cons of attempting the Triple Crown or rush him off to stud and cash in, was the foremost conversational piece in the racing world.
Nijinsky became the first Triple Crown winner since Bahram in 1935, a thirty-five year drought. No other horse has achieved the Triple Crown since, a drought which at the time of writing has extended to forty-five years, and counting.
Before his St. Leger victory Nijinsky had suffered a bout of ringworm, a very nasty skin disease, and had lost valuable training due to the pain of having to wear a saddle. His victory had come at a price as he was extended, likely for the first time, in a race which Piggott believed was a bit too far for him. Nijinsky was “knackered” as the English would say. He had lost thirty pounds in the race. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was coming up and time was short for O’Brien to get his star fully fit for the big race.
Sassafras handed the previously unbeaten Nijinsky his first lost in the Arc. Sassafras was no slouch as he had won the French Derby earlier in the year. Nijinsky was all out to catch his conqueror but the lack of fitness had caught up to him and he just did not have enough to get by the winner. He lost by a head to Sassafras. Disappointment was etched on the faces of all of Nijinsky’s connections. The decision was made to run him one more time in order to have the champion retire with a victory. Nijinsky had already been syndicated for $5.4 million and was to start his stud career at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky the following year.
A well intended idea that unfortunately did not materialise as Nijinsky was beaten again, this time by Lorenzaccio in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket. In the parade ring Nijinsky had become anxious due to the overwhelming attention and he was a sweaty mess, expending a great deal of valuable energy before the race began. His owner Charles Englehard would say that Nijinsky did not let them down, the horse’s connections had let Nijinsky down.
Nijinsky began his career as a sire in 1971 at Claiborne Farm and became a major success. He was known as Nijinsky II while as a sire in the U.S. due to name duplication. He sired three Epsom Derby winners, Lammtarra, Golden Fleece and Shahrastani, Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand and winners of major stakes races around the world. Nijinsky is the first of many great sires sired by Northern Dancer and is the first stallion to sire winners of the Epsom Derby and Kentucky Derby in the same year.
Nijinsky II did his part to continue the line himself with sons who became successful sires. Caerleon became a leading sire in England/Ireland. Green Dancer in France, Royal Academy, Sky Classic, Lammtarra, Golden Fleece, Shadeed, Ile De Bourbon, Niniski, Caucasus, Dance Of Life, King’s Lake, undefeated Maruzensky in Japan, Baldski, Upper Nile, Nagurski, Nijinsky’s Secret, Quiet Fling, and Dancing Spree are all major grade/group one stakes winners and/or sires.
Nijinsky II’s daughters have also have a big say in major stakes races and in future breeding of major winners as well. Champion turf filly De La Rose, Dancing Slippers, Maplejinsky winner of the Alabama Stakes and Monmouth Oaks, Cherry Hinton the 1977 Champion two year old filly in England, Number won the Firenze Handicap, Princess Lida won the Prix Morny and Prix de la Salamander, Folk Art won the Oak Leaf Stakes, Banker’s Lady won eight of ten starts including three grade one events, Terpsichorist won the Long Island Handicap, as well as other grade/group one winners Jeanne Jones, Likeable Style, and Bemissed.
While broodmares sired by Nijinsky II have produced the likes of Sky Beauty (1993 Filly Triple Crown), champion La Lorgnette (Queen’s Plate, Canadian Hall of Fame), Cherokee Colony (Flamingo Stakes), Broken Vow (a current top twenty-five sire), and Archipenko (Queen Elizabeth II Cup) a new emerging sire of high class stakes winners, to name just a few.
Nijinsky was one of the best horses to ever grace the turf, Lester Piggott always maintained that Nijinsky was the most naturally talented horse he ever rode. Piggott has ridden many champions in his illustrious career, including nine Epsom Derby winners and the likes of Sir Ivor, Petite Etoile, The Minstrel, Crepello, Dahlia, Alleged, El Prado, Roberto and Petingo. Nijinsky’s son Royal Academy would provide Piggott with a story book win in the 1990 Breeder’s Cup Mile run at Belmont Park in the twilight of his illustrious career.
With the racing success of Nijinsky, Northern Dancer became the hottest sire in the world. Vincent O’Brien would tap this well successfully for many years at the yearling sales, along with his partners Robert Sangster, John Magnier et all and became a major benefactor in the promotion of Northern Dancer as the world’s leading sire. The O’Brien team also raced many of Nijinsky’s top sons and daughters as well, with great success. Royal Academy, Golden Fleece, Caerleon, Solford and King’s Lake all being examples of superior sons of Nijinsky to race from the Ballydoyle stable.
Nijinsky sired one-hundred and fifty-five stakes winners in his stud career from eight hundred and fifty-one named foals. This represents an outstanding 18% strike rate. Such numbers are not attained by recent stallions. He suffered from laminitis for much of his later life and would finally succumb to the disease in 1992 at the age of twenty-five. Nijinsky is buried in honour at the Claiborne cemetery. His spirit and athletic ability is carried on through the excellence of his descendants, an excellence that is still prevalent today.
Nijinsky is one finest and most accomplished Thoroughbreds in the long history of the turf. In this writer’s opinion, Nijinsky is the crowning achievement from the breeding program of E.P.Taylor’s Windfields Farm.
(Photo courtesy of The Keeneland Association Library/ Thoroughbred Times Collection)