By the time of the 1975 Keeneland yearling sales, the top racing stables were on the prowl for sons and daughters of Northern Dancer. At this particular sale was a small flashy chestnut which Vincent O’Brien took a liking to and purchased along with Robert Sangster and John Magnier and their syndicate for $200,000. The colt was out of Fleur by Victoria Park, a half sister to Nijinsky the Triple Crown winner O’Brien had trained. However this chestnut colt with a white blaze and four white socks looked nothing like his famous relative as he was more or less built like their sire. The syndicate would name him The Minstrel.
O’Brien had seen something in this colt but his colour, as was his size, drew some concern. There is an old saying in turf lore when looking at young horses for sale; “One white foot, buy a horse; two white feet, try a horse; three white feet, look well about him; four white feet, do without him”. This is born of an old folklore of a thoroughbred having too much white leg markings to be not of sound bone. The experienced O’Brien however could not get past his gut feeling that this youngster could be something special.
The Minstrel began his training at Ballydoyle throughout the summer of 1976, finally making his racing début at the Curragh in the six furlong Moy Stakes, winning handily. He added the Larkspur Stakes and the Dewhurst Stakes to complete his undefeated juvenile season.
He began his three year old campaign with a victory in the 2000 Guineas Trial at Ascot making him the 6/5 favourite for the 2000 Guineas. However he would taste defeat for the first time finishing third and then followed that with another non-winning outing in the Irish 2000 Guineas, finishing second. Lester Piggott rode him in both races but his faith in the colt was confirmed when he informed O’Brien that he wanted the mount if they decide to run The Minstrel in the Epsom Derby.
The Derby Stakes at Epsom is one of the most attended races in the world. The excitement and carnival like atmosphere is loud and boisterous which can be rather intimidating to the high strung steeds that everyone has come to watch race. O’Brien remembering how Nijinsky would fret and sweat from all the hoopla that surrounded such events was taking no chances with The Minstrel. He stuffed cotton in the horse’s ears to block out the noise of the crowd, instructing his stable hand to remove the ear plugs once the colt was farther away from the larger part of the throng.
The race was one of the most exciting in years as The Minstrel and Hot Grove duelled for most of the stretch drive with The Minstrel prevailing by a short head. The Minstrel had demonstrated the same courage and iron will as his sire had done in the Kentucky Derby thirteen years before. The turf writers, while singing the praises of the new Derby champion, also doubted as to whether he had anything left for the Irish Derby in three weeks time.
O’Brien was not as concerned as The Minstrel seemed as fresh and full of himself as ever leading up to the race. As it turned out, this race was to be his most comfortable victory of the year as he won by one and a half lengths. The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot was next and another classic hard fought duel ensued, this time with the good four year old Orange Bay. The field also included Exceller and Crystal Palace, two very talented horses. The Minstrel stubbornly stayed in the lead of the hard charging Orange Bay to win by a very short head. O’Brien said later that The Minstrel won this race on sheer courage.
Syndicated for $9 million he was sent to Windfields in Maryland to begin his stud career. He did not become one of the elite sire of sires by Northern Dancer but he would be very successful getting 14% stakes winners from foals. The Minstrel sired five hundred and eleven named foals, of which fifty-eight became stakes winners, in a thirteen year career as a sire.
The Minstrel sired many grade/group one winners including Opening Verse, winner of the Breeder’s Cup Mile and the Oaklawn Handicap. L’Emigrant won the classic Poules d’Essai des Poulains as well as the Prix Lupin. Bakharoff was the 1985 Champion two year old in Europe after winning the William Hill Futurity. Silver Voice was victorious in the Manhattan Handicap, Savinio and Peterhof were both multi group stakes winners, while Palace Music won the Champion Stakes in England and the John Henry Handicap in the U.S.
Palace Music had a good career at stud siring multi grade/group one winners such as Anthems. Naturalism was the winner of the AJC Derby, Rosehill Guineas and Caulfield Stakes. Palace Line won the Premier’s Champion Stakes and the Nursery Stakes in South Africa. Ready To Explode scored in the VATC Toorak Handicap. However the one horse Palace Music will be forever famous for siring is the mighty Cigar.
Cigar became a national treasure in the U.S. after his historic sixteen consecutive race winning streak. The list of career wins by this super horse included such prestigious races as the Breeder’s Cup Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Donn Handicap (twice), Pimlico Special, Hollywood Gold Cup, Dubai World Cup, Woodward Stakes (twice), NYRA Mile Handicap, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Pacific Classic and the Oaklawn Handicap. Every one of the above races are grade/group one events.
He also won the grade two Massachusetts Handicap twice. He finished his racing career at the age of six with lifetime earnings of $9,999,815, just $185 short of the ten million mark. He was voted as the Eclipse Horse of the Year twice, named the race horse of the decade (the 1990’s) and is a member of the Racing Hall of Fame. Unfortunately for breeders and the fans of Cigar, he would prove to be sterile and did not breed.
The Minstrel also had many notable daughters who were not only good on the track but also became excellent broodmares as well. Vers La Caisse won nine of nineteen races of which six were graded stakes. Silver Fling won the group one Prix de l’Abbaye as well as four other group stakes wins. Melodist took the Irish Oaks and the Italian Oaks. Musicale won six of eight races including four group stakes. Musical Bliss was the winner of the 1000 Guineas.
Minstrella was named the champion two year old in Ireland after winning the Phoenix Stakes, Cheveley Park Stakes and the Moyglare Stud Stakes, all group one races. Her daughter Colonella is the dam of multi stakes winner Pleasant Strike, while another daughter of Minstrella is Minidar, dam of multi graded stakes winner A Little Warm.
Stakes winner Mrs. Jenney produced only two foals, both of them stakes winners. The first was Unaccounted For, winner of the Whitney Handicap and Jim Dandy Stakes, and the other was French stakes winner A Votre Sante.
So Sedulous by The Minstrel is the dam of German Horse of the Year Shirocco. This world traveller would win grade/group one races in four different countries. As a three year old, Shirocco won the Gran Premio del Jockey Club in Italy and the Deutsches Derby in Germany. At four he captured the Breeder’s Cup Turf in the U.S. and at five Shirocco won the Coronation Cup in England. Shirocco is by leading sire Monsun and began his sire career at Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket. He is now a resident at Glenview Stud in County Cork. He has sired thirty-two stakes winners so far including recent group one winner Brown Panther, winner of the Dubai Gold Cup.
The Minstrel’s daughter Zaizafon is the dam of two exceptional sons sired by Gone West. The first of which is Zafonic, the 1992 champion two year old colt in Europe after he won the Prix Morny, Prix de la Salamandre and the Dewhurst Stakes. He followed up the next year by winning the 2000 Guineas for his owner/breeder Prince Khalid Abdullah. He began his stud career at Banstead Manor in East Cambridge. Tragically, Zafonic died at the age of twelve in a paddock accident in Australia. He was to begin his first season as a shuttle sire, but died shortly after leaving his mandatory quarantine. He left us champion Xaar, Trade Fair, Count Dubois, Iffraaj and Zafeen among the twenty-six stakes winners he sired.
Zaizafon produced a full brother to Zafonic in 1994 to be named Zamindar. While not as accomplished on the track as his brother, Zamindar also became an outstanding sire, especially of fillies. His pride of place is the wonderful undefeated Zarkava, winner of the Prix Marcel Boussac at two, and the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Prix Vermeille, and the Prix de Diane, all group one races, as a three year old. Zarkava was named the European Horse of the Year in 2008.
Other group one winners sired by Zamindar include Darjina (Poule d’Essai des Pouliches, Prix du Moulin and Prix d ‘Astarte), Zenda (Poule d’Essai des Pouliches), Coquerelle (Prix Saint-Alary), and Timepiece (Falmouth Stakes). Zamindar was retired from breeding in 2013 due to declining fertility and is currently living the life of an honoured pensioner at Banstead Manor Stud.
Another daughter of The Minstrel that has produced a champion is Style Of Life. She was the broodmare of the year in Ireland when her son Grey Swallow won the 2004 Irish Derby, as well as the Tattersalls Gold Cup and the Irish 2000 Guineas Trial. He was third in the Irish 2000 guineas. Grey Swallow had previously won the Killavullan Stakes as a two year old and then at four repeated his Tattersalls Gold Cup triumph. He raced in the U.S. at five and won the Jim Murray Memorial.
The Minstrel stood at Windfields Maryland until the 1989 breeding season when he was moved to Overbrook farm in Kentucky. The move was made due to the closing of the fabled Maryland farm in 1988. He would live for two years at Overbrook until September 9, 1990 when he died from the dreaded disease laminitis. He was sixteen years old.
The Minstrel was one of O’Brien’s favourite horses he ever had the pleasure to train and develop. The Minstrel was a playful honest horse, with an attitude in keeping with his sire line. I spent some time with him at Windfields Maryland and found him to be very entertaining and fun to be around as I fed him carrots for a snack, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He would muzzle me looking for more. The Minstrel was like a big kid and very outgoing, a real delight to be around.
The Minstrel was a kind and engaging horse when at leisure, but under tack and ready to race he was tough, game and gave everything of himself. He was a class act and a true champion. He was my favourite thoroughbred horse I ever had the pleasure to be with. I miss him.
(Photo courtesy of Overbrook Farm)