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Nijinsky, naturally. His win for Charles Engelhard, the clan O'Brien and Jockey Liam Ward was about as predictable as the fall of soft rain which had been gathering on the hill all morning and which finally discharged itself gently onto the Irish Sweeps Derby at The Curragh. Vincent O'Brien had been studying those clouds. He knows what Irish clouds can do, and he said after the race that he had had some bad moments, fearing a quagmire for Nijinsky.
The bookies, just before the race, seemingly shared O'Brien's fears. They had to be appealed to over the loudspeakers to furl their umbrellas and let people get a look at the race. Since The Curragh meeting is far different from Ascot and even very unlike Dublin's Horseshow Week, the number of women with lovely hats that might have been damaged by the drizzle was minimal. The Sweeps Derby is a popular national festival; more people drink Guinness than champagne.
In the late afternoon the redoubtable Vincent O'Brien was on his way south to his home in Cashel with his brothers Phonsie and Dermot and his brilliant Australian wife Jacqueline. The clan. For the O'Brien operation is a team operation. Dermot, for a start, is said to know more about the proper feeding of horses than any man in the hemisphere. Phonsie can operate as Vincent's stand-in and has run the stable with highest efficiency.
And Jacqueline? Well, a great trainer like Vincent has need from time to time of someone who can keep other people out of his hair. He needs someone who knows nearly as much about dealing with humans as he knows about dealing with horses. He needs, in fact, some public relations. That is part of Jacqueline's indispensable role.
And then there is Ned. Ned is a donkey. And Ned is a built-in part of the O'Brien thinking about how to train horses. O'Brien is of the opinion that, first, any trainer who says, "I do this and that with my horses, or never do this or that with my horses," does not truly understand horses.
In O'Brien's view, every horse is an individual creature, with special individual needs. Second, O'Brien has a belief, perhaps instinctive, perhaps acquired, that within the limits of what is possible, a horse—even a horse in training for a major classic race—should get a little bit of "normal" life even if it is for only a quarter of an hour a day.
"I like to let them have a bite of grass and a roll every day," says O'Brien, in a remark that some might think plain heretical.
This is where Ned the donkey comes in. Obviously, the horses cannot be let out for their bite and roll at the same time. They could start biting one another or rolling on one another or kicking one another in the temperamental way of such creatures. So each in turn is sent into the field in the sedative company of Ned. The bite of grass and roll are enjoyed without bickering.
There are many reasons why nobody who was there is going to forget this year's Irish Sweeps Derby. First, the triumph of Nijinsky. But there was a moment when people had their hearts in their mouths, wondering whether Liam Ward was too late. With two furlongs to go, he was so far behind that even the most faithful felt their faith quivering. And everyone could see that the tiniest of accidents could have blocked his final, beautiful run on the inside.
Nijinsky became the second horse in history to win both the Irish Derby and Epsom Derby. In 1964 both races were won by Santa Claus. This was the third Irish Derby victory for Engelhard, who won with Ribocco in 1967 and Ribero in 1968. Nijinsky is the best of the lot.