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Up the final yards of three-inch grass on Epsom's famed stretch they came—not the horses, but the red-and-black-uniformed Regimental Band of the Welsh Guards, huffing and puffing to keep in line and in step as they wheezed out the military's version of When the Saints Go Marching In British traditionalists, never before having been exposed to formal orchestration in the history of the Derby, paused in mid-munch of watercress sandwiches and even, for a moment, put down their undersize glasses of iceless whiskey, Pimm's Cup or gin and tonic. They were observing only the first of the day's wondrous happenings.
Some 72 hours later, and more than 3,000 miles away at Long Island's Belmont Park, veteran Conductor George Seuffert raised his baton as a signal for his loyal band to tootle The Sidewalks of New York, which seems to have been adopted as lead-in music for the Belmont Stakes. The sidewalks of New York being what they are these days, maybe Belmont should opt for Pomp and Circumstance next June. In any case, just as Seuffert's lads were bending to the task, the sun came out for the only time all day to mark the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal afternoon.
The two classics run an ocean apart last week—the 191st Derby Stakes at Epsom and the 102nd Belmont Stakes—are supposed to be the authentic tests for 3-year-old thoroughbreds. Both are at a mile and a half with all runners carrying scale weight of 126 pounds, and traditionally bring together a field in which pure sprinters are quickly eliminated, and both are prizes widely sought by breeders. Racing's old-guard patrons on the two continents consider the Derby and the Belmont as the Dom Pérignon of the sport.
Last week the patrons were served up a marvelous vintage of Dom Pérignon at Epsom and a watered-down tumbler of mediocre whiskey at Belmont. In fact, there was no comparison. First, Charlie Engelhard's Nijinsky maintained his unbeaten status as he made the Derby his eighth straight victory, at the expense of Winston Guest's Gyr. Three days later, in the role of stand-in for stablemate Personality who had come down with a cough, Mrs. Ethel D. Jacobs' High Echelon won the Belmont. At Epsom the performance was brilliant in every way; at Belmont it was a sentimentally satisfactory show, John Jacobs winning his second Triple Crown event after taking over as family trainer for his late father. But High Echelon's fourth victory in 29 lifetime starts was hardly a match for what happened on the Downs at Epsom.
The Belmont and the Derby are basically tests of stamina for the horse and riding judgment for the jockey. But how vastly different the courses are. Although Epsom runs counterclockwise, as do U.S. tracks, most American horses, unaccustomed to undulating grass terrain, would probably find it about as easy to navigate as the course at Augusta National. Epsom is built along the lines of a horseshoe with the open end to the right. The field starts at the top right, and just for openers the horses are asked to run up a slight dogleg to the right for about half a mile. They climb 150 feet! After an all-too-brief stretch of straight and flat over turf that is not manicured like Augusta's fairways, they go into a long slow left-hand turn, at the end of which, three-quarters of a mile away—and 50 feet lower than the top of the hill—they dart around the sharp bend of Tattenham Corner. In the homestretch, with slightly more than three furlongs to go, the most severe jolt is that the last eighth of a mile once again is up; in fact, the course rises 35 feet from the last furlong marker to the winning post.
If this is a test of stamina for horses, it is equally as demanding on the riders, who must try for a good position on the first uphill portion of the course if they hope to be within challenging range down the hill and turning out of Tattenham Corner. In a big field, which the Derby usually has, the winner more often than not is at least sixth or seventh turning for home. To win from farther back he must be very lucky or beating bad horses.
Luckily for all, last week's Derby drew only 11 starters, making it the smallest field in more than half a century. It also may have been one of the best. And the best of all was the heralded Nijinsky, a dashingly handsome son of Northern Dancer and Flaming Page, who is a granddaughter of the great Calumet Farm stallion Bull Lea. There was some controversy about his stamina or, as British horsemen phrase it, "his ability to get the trip." Northern Dancer was the first Canadian-bred to win the Kentucky Derby when he carried E. P. Taylor's colors to victory in 1964. He repeated in the Preakness, but faltered in the Belmont to finish third, beaten six lengths by Quadrangle and four by Roman Brother. Flaming Page was one of the 14 E. P. Taylor-breds to win Canada's classic Queen's Plate.
The best insurance that Engelhard could take out on his bay colt was to turn him over to Irish Trainer Vincent O'Brien, the celebrated wizard of Cashel, whose training establishment at Ballydoyle House in County Tipperary includes a virtual replica of Epsom's upsy-downsy course. O'Brien had trained eight classic winners in his time, not to mention his record of three consecutive Grand National Steeplechase victories. With Nijinsky he was purposely cautious, giving him but five races as a 2-year-old and only two starts this year before the Derby. In winning at distances from six furlongs to the mile of the 2,000 Guineas, he looked a champion all the way. But could he get the trip?
Two French-trained invaders and England's own chief hopeful, Sir Humphrey de Trafford's Approval, were also scaring the opposition. From France came Guest's American-bred Gyr (pronounced "gear"), a son of Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Sea-Bird, and Stintino, Gerry Oldham's undefeated son of Sheshoon. Gyr, trained by Etienne Pollet, had lost only one of four starts and had already won at the Derby's mile-and-a-half distance. He had the disadvantage, however, of inheriting his sire's trait of being occasionally headstrong. "He was nervous, true, in most of his races," said Guest on the morning of Gyr's final light gallop, "but he's been learning all the time and now he's stronger and fitter." Stintino, trained by 30-year-old François Boutin, was four for four, but not quite against this sort of opposition. He was to be ridden by Gerard Thiboeuf, with Bill Williamson on Gyr. On Nijinsky the incomparable Lester Piggott was shooting for his third classic victory of the year.
Derby Day at Epsom is often rainy and dreary, the way Belmont Day was in New York. Instead, it turned up 75° with a blue cloudless sky, as some 150,000 wound their way to the Downs, 15 miles from London, to be entertained in the sprawling infield by gypsies, touts and hustlers or to bask in the elegance of the Epsom Club Stand lawn, where morning coat and toppers are still de rigueur and where the ladies obviously had not reached agreement on the matter of mini versus midi versus maxi. The huge crowd was elbow to elbow all day and there were very few private boxes and even fewer reserved seats, but nobody on this delightful afternoon complained about anything.