It wasn't a horse
race—Nijinsky's St. Leger. It was a demonstration of sauntering nonchalance on
the part of one horse and one jockey, who scoffed at the laboring efforts of
the best that England and Ireland could produce for the final classic race of
the English season. But it had a 30,000 crowd roaring approval over the last
half furlong and thousands rushing to jam all approaches to the winners'
enclosure, so that Owner Charles Engelhard of New Jersey found his way there
with difficulty almost five minutes after Nijinsky had held court for an army
Making his eight
rivals appear like so many grandfathers competing against a laughing Olympic
gold medalist, Nijinsky became England's first Triple Crown winner since
Bahrain in 1935, adding to his victories in the first two legs of this elusive
prize—the Two Thousand Guineas at Newmarket and the Derby on Epsom's undulating
course—with a win that brought his earnings to $572,915, just a few thousand
short of Sea-Bird's alltime European record.
Yet that great old
English joke, the weather, could so easily have robbed Nijinsky's admirers of
what was probably their last chance to see him in action on an English course.
The Canadian-bred colt had won 10 straight coming up to the St. Leger, and
Vincent O'Brien, the masterly ex-trainer of jumping horses who now polishes
flat-race champions, did not want to tarnish the record of a horse who had just
been syndicated for stud duties for a world record of $5.4 million.
definitely not run in the St. Leger, he said, if the Doncaster turf course (one
mile and 6� furlongs) were saturated by rain. There was plenty of that about in
the British Isles in the fortnight before the race and, had the track become
heavy, O'Brien was prepared to withdraw the colt. Nijinsky's stamina might have
been exposed to too severe a test after a preparation that had been handicapped
by an outbreak of the equine disease of ringworm.
While an airplane
waited in Ireland for a final decision, O'Brien kept Nijinsky entered in a
lesser race 24 hours later than the St. Leger, at Longchamp, where the ground
was reported perfect. But the rain that fell heavily in many parts of England
skirted Doncaster, and 48 hours before the St. Leger Nijinsky was flown across
the Irish Sea. He was stabled near Doncaster, the grim industrial town about
200 miles north of London, where racing has been taking place on the flat
expanse of town moor for some 250 years.
St. Leger day
started anything but well for Jockey Lester Piggott, who was bidding for his
17th win in an English classic with Nijinsky. By the time the main event came
around, anyone who believed in winning and losing streaks would have run a mile
rather than bet the 2-to-7 odds that the bookmakers offered on Engelhard's
colt. In the first race the lean, pale-faced Piggott, who fights a continuous
battle against weight, was beaten a short head. In the second Leander, one of
five Engelhard runners during the day, decided 50 yards after the start that he
had done enough, gave an enormous buck and landed his jockey on the turf at a
speed of about 35 miles an hour. Somewhat shaken, Piggott walked to the
weighing room through ironic clapping and ribald remarks. Leander was a heavily
backed favorite and the fact that Piggott was shortly going to be astride
probably the best horse in the world did not prevent a few of the locals from
adding biting comment to his long stroll.
The biggest problem
now was that Leander was still galloping loose on the town moor's expanse,
wearing the saddle that Piggott regarded as lucky, certainly when attached to
Nijinsky's broad back. While all the St. Leger runners paced the preliminary
parade ring and the stewards, bowler-hatted and with red carnations in their
buttonholes, looked anxiously at their watches, Nijinsky walked about
saddleless for nearly 25 minutes until Leander was recaptured, the saddle
retrieved and Lester Piggott weighed out by the clerk of the scales.
Nijinsky, who had
sweated alarmingly before winning the Irish Sweeps Derby, and to a lesser
extent before the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, took all
this in stride. Apart from a little dampness on his shoulder, he looked calm
and collected—and magnificent.
A standout in the
paddock, he was a dropout when the race started, however. Piggott happily
relinquished a good break from the gate to allow Nijinsky to lope along at the
rear of the field as the unconsidered Whindamus cracked along in front at a
good pace. From Doncaster's last bend to the winning post is a flat,
unrelenting 4� furlongs. A furlong before the field turned into the straight,
Piggott was still content to lie back in eighth place, with only Meadowville,
who had been second to Nijinsky in the Irish Sweeps Derby, behind him and some
10 lengths separating him from the pace horse.
A furlong in the
straight, Whindamus collapsed like a pricked balloon, and the American-bred
Politico, owned by Mrs. Ogden Phipps, went on, chased by Charlton, carrying the
colors of Queen Elizabeth. But suddenly and effortlessly there was Nijinsky
breathing down the necks of the leaders, with Piggott coolly looking round at
the other runners and assessing the situation. It looked good.