Nijinsky's Sad Champion Farewell: Part Two

Image courtesy of National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art

(continued from part one)

A winning prize of £25,000 was on offer for the field of eight many of whom had spent their season running in France with Faraway Son, Locris and Dictus all trained across the channel.  The 6 year old Locris from the Marcel Boussac stable had been 2nd beaten two and half lengths by Sir Ivor in the 1968 race.  Meanwhile, the Maurice Zilber trained Faraway Son had been disqualified and placed 3rd after finishing 1st in the French 2,000 Guineas. Dictus had run consistently well in France coming into the Champion Stakes. However, the form of his victories in the Prix La Rochette and Prix du Lac suggested he was racing for place money.

The home defence

The home defence was mounted by Highest Hopes, Hotfoot and Lorenzaccio. The Dick Hern trained Highest Hopes who had won the Prix Vermeille in late September as well as being 2nd in the Prix Diane (French Oaks), where she was beaten by the Irish filly Sweet Mimosa.  Hotfoot, who was trained by Bruce Hobbs at Palace House stables, had earlier in the season finished 2nd in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot had won his last three races.

The Noel Murless trained 5 year old Lorenzaccio had won four French races in 1970, the latest the Prix Foy at Longchamp in early September.    Three of those victories, including the latter, where he beat the 1969 Irish Derby winner Prince Regent, had been with then stable jockey Lester Piggott.  Although just off top class the colt had been 4th as a two year old in the Observer Gold Cup, won by Vaguely Noble and 3rd in the 1969 Champion Stakes behind Park Top.

On edge

All seemed well in the parade ring but once Nijinsky set foot on the course it was apparent he was on edge.  So much so at one point he reared up on his hind legs, a trait from his formative two year old days.  Not that this display of nervousness affected the punters’ view, as Nijinsky’s price firmed up from 1/2 to 4/11 favourite.  Second favourite was Hotfoot at 8/1, followed by Highest Hopes at 9/1, Lorenzaccio at 100/7 with the rest of the field 40/1.

Geoff Lewis on Lorenzaccio set off in front and after three furlongs was two and a half lengths clear of Faraway Son and Highest Hopes with Hotfoot just behind in 4th.  By the time they passed the Bushes Lorenzaccio, Highest Hopes and Hotfoot were upsides with Lester now having moved Nijinsky up to 4th.  As they came into the dip Hotfoot with the sheepskin noseband was just ahead of Lorenzaccio and Nijinsky, who appeared poised to strike.   But nothing materialised as Lester remarked in his book “Lester’s Derbys”  “In the race he never gave me the old feeling and when I asked him to go on there was precious little response”.     Lorenzaccio drew away to win by one and half lengths ahead of Nijinsky with Hotfoot a neck away third and Dictus a further length back in 4th.

One of the sporting shocks of the year

The Rowley Mile crowd had witnessed one of the sporting shocks of the year; a legendary horse had been beaten. Interestingly, Alfie Westwood, who works in the museum’s practical gallery, and won the last race of the day, the Suffolk Nursery Handicap, on Regency Girl for Harvey Leader, still recalls the disbelief in the crowd when he arrived that Nijinsky had been defeated.

Charles Engelhard’s vision of a triumphant send off for his dashing bay had failed; Nijinsky’s spark had been extinguished and he was retired to stud.  More poignant for connections was the death of the owner less than five months later at the age of only 54.

Although in the space of two weeks his aura of invincibility had gone, Nijinsky was without doubt one of the greatest horses of the 20th century.  The ease with which he beat his own generation in the Derby and his elders in the King George VI will remain firmly in the memories of those fortunate to be there at Epsom and Ascot.

Originally published on the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art‘s Blog, and reproduced with their permission.

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