The pantheon of great British race horses has to place the Canadian expatriate Nijinsky II near the top of the heap. Although he was foaled in Canada in 1967, out of the mare Flaming Page (who shared the bloodlines of the magnificent Gallant Fox, Omaha, and Man O’War) by the equally equine royalty Northern Dancer, he was the brightest star in British racing during his illustrious career.
While anyone who follows racing knows Northern Dancer as one of the premier studs of the 20th century, Nijinsky’s dam isn’t as world renowned (mares seldom are). But Flaming Page won not only the Canadian Oaks and the Queens Plate within eight days of each other, she came in second in the Kentucky Oaks. Nijinksy was bred to win, and win he did.
Movie Star Colt
The colt landed at Ireland’s Ballydoyle stable, the home of the great trainer Vincent O’Brien, as a yearling. He was a big chestnut colt with a heart-shaped star and three socks and had his dam’s conformation–a classic Thoroughbred head, a large, deep chest with plenty of scope, and an elegant body. The only fault in his conformation was a slight sickle to his hocks, and he was rather cow-hocked when viewed from behind.
He was a movie star of a colt, and had the temperament to match. Upon Nijinsky’s arrival at Ballydoyle be refused to eat at first, and he didn’t have many fans in the barn he was so difficult to manage. Later he would suffer such anxiety going into the starting gate that he would work himself int a full lather in the post parade.
The Terrible Twos
Nijinsky acted out his terrible twos when they finally would coax him out onto the turf as well–just getting him out of his box was on ordeal for the stable lads. He reared and bucked his way into the grooming and tacking stalls, but as one of the grooms noted, he had superb balance and never “toppled over”.
O’Brien put his flat racers through a training regimen that would give today’s trainers heart attacks. No coddling around the track in a breezy hand gallop for these charges; their day began with
……a walk in the Ballydoyle training ring, followed by “the gallops” out on the rugged terrain surrounding the stable. The gallops took place over the kind of area normally associated with (fox) hunting –acres of inclines, declines and flat going.
Tough Regimen Pays Off
With Nijinsky, as with most of O’Brien’s horses, the tough regimen paid off. The big bay won his first outing as a two year old, the Erne Stakes. He went on to win his four other starts that year, and ended the season as Champion Two Year Old in Ireland and England. Each race O’Brien had his jockey push him a little harder, but by the final race at Newmarket he admitted that the colt hadn’t really been challenged to run his fastest. Nijinsky was what trainers call a “fast stayer”–a horse who can accelerate and maintain speed as often as the race requires.
Lester Piggott and the Triple Crown
Nijinsky teamed up with the legendary jockey Lester Piggott for his three year old season, and won the British Triple Crown–the 2000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, and the St Leger. A bad bout of colic two days before the Derby would have taken a lesser colt out of the race, but O’Brien and his team spent hours walking the colt and treating him the with old-fashioned colic remedies (any medication would show up in post-race tests) until Nijinsky’s spasms stopped and things went back to normal. He responded with the win in what Piggott called “an easy canter”.
The run-up to the final race in the triple Crown, the St Leger, also challenged the colt and trainer when Nijinsky developed ringworm. A diet that included as eggs and Irish stout aided his recovery, although race watchers have speculated that O’Brien didn’t want to saddle him for the St Leger because his back was still so tender, his owner Charles Engelhard felt like it was a good start up for the Arc de Triomphe in France a few weeks later.
He won the race, but lost an alarming amount of weight (29 lbs) and his jockey said later the colt wasn’t ready to run and while he won the Triple Crown, the first horse in 35 years to do so, the race took the heart out of him and he never ran with his old joy and abandon again.
Photo-Finish at the Arc
He ran the Arc on October, and in a heartbreaking photo-finish run, finished second to Sassafras. They had drawn the outside post in a crowded field and analysts who reviewed the tapes later said that the outside position that day would have been impossible for any other colt to come close, much less come up to lose in such a close finish. The great colt went on to lose his last race, the Champion Stakes, and went on to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky after his retirement. He stood stud with the great American chestnut colt Secretariat at Claiborne–the first two to win their respective Triple Crowns in over a generation.
Nijinsky lived to the ripe old age of 25, when he was euthanized after suffering from laminitis. He was buried whole in the stud cemetery at Claiborne. Some of his notable progeny include Ile de Bourbon, Caerleon, Ferdinand, Shaded, and Sharastani.
So much of successful racetrack betting hinges on your knowledge of the bloodlines of the horses running today.