‘The like of Nijinsky may never be seen again’

PUBLISHED: 11:25 10 September 2018 | UPDATED: 11:25 10 September 2018

Lester Piggott and Nijinsky winning 1970 Derby.  Nijinsky had already won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket and went on to win the Triple Crown with victory in the St Leger in September that year.
Picture: Mirror Syndication International

Lester Piggott and Nijinsky winning 1970 Derby. Nijinsky had already won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket and went on to win the Triple Crown with victory in the St Leger in September that year. Picture: Mirror Syndication International

The 2018 St Leger, the last of the five classic races of the season, is run this week. But which ever horse wins, they have no chance of matching the achievements of the 1970 winner, Nijinsky. Sheena Grant looks back at his historic victory.

It’s 38 years ago this week that the legendary Nijinsky and his jockey Lester Piggott stormed to victory in the 1970 St Leger, becoming the first racehorse in 35 years to win the English Triple Crown and securing his place in history.

It’s a feat that hasn’t been repeated since and some - including Piggott - have questioned whether it will be ever again.

Nijinsky’s victory in the St Leger on September 13, 1970 - coming after wins earlier that season in the other two classic races that make up English racing’s Triple Crown, the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket and the Epsom Derby, has been described as “an electrifying display”.

Nijinsky finished half a length in front of his nearest rival, Meadowville, easing up towards the finish and galloping with his ears pricked.

“The like of Nijinsky may never be seen again,” wrote Richard Baerlein in the Observer the day after the race, which was Nijinsky’s 11th victory.

At one mile, six furlongs and 127 yards, the St Leger, run at Doncaster, is the longest of the Triple Crown races. The Guineas is over a mile and the Derby a mile and a half.

The Canadian-bred, Irish-trained Nijinsky was sired by Northern Dancer, winner of the 1964 Derby, and went on to become one of the most influential stallions of the 20th century.

How many horses have won the English Triple Crown?

Nijinsky was the 15th - and so far the last - horse to win the Triple Crown, considered the greatest achievement in thoroughbred racing, since the 2000 Guineas was first run in 1809.

What was notable about Nijinsky’s win?

September 13 1970 was a day of high drama before the St Leger even began. Lester Piggott fell from his mount in an earlier race after the saddle slipped but came back unharmed to partner Nijinsky. Piggott’s victory that day was his fifth in the St Leger.

How did the race go?

According to Richard Baerlein, who went on to write a book about Nijinsky, the horse won without “ever appearing to be called upon to get into top gear”. At the start of the race, the champion was last but one in the field but once in line for home, “could be seen making his way through the field with his rider sitting perfectly still and the horse not galloping at full stretch”. Nijinsky went two lengths clear as the end approached before Piggott, assured of victory, began to ease up,

What was Lester Piggott’s verdict?

The jockey was obviously delighted with Nijinsky’s performance and has said he thinks the horse, on his day, was the most brilliant he ever rode. Piggott has also said he doubts there will ever be another Triple Crown winner. “People have too many other races now,” he added. “There is no need to go for it.”

What happened after the race?

Despite his brilliance, Nijinsky never won again after the St Leger and his Triple Crown victory. He lost by a head to Sassafras in Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp three weeks later, and finished second again in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket two weeks after his Arc defeat. He was retired to stud shortly afterwards.

How is Nijinsky remembered?

In 2018, he was rated the greatest ever Epsom Derby winner by a panel of experts. His trainer Vincent O’Brien named Nijinsky, along with Sir Ivor, as the best horse he trained, placing Nijinsky first “for brilliance.” In 1970, a film was made about his racing career. ‘A Horse Called Nijinsky’ was narrated by Orson Welles. Bronze statues of the horse stand at Ballydoyle and at The Curragh racecourse in Ireland.

What’s his legacy

At the end of 1970 Nijinsky was syndicated for a then world-record price and retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. He sired 155 Stakes/Group winners and in 1986 became the only horse in history to sire a winner of both the Kentucky Derby (Ferdninand) and the Epsom Derby (Shahrastani) in the same year. He died in 1992, aged 25, and was buried at Claiborne Farm.

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