SI Vault
 
Even the very best can blunder
Whitney Tower
October 26, 1970
Nijinsky's defeat after 11 straight victories raised questions about his English jockey and how he ranks with the world's best race riders
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 26, 1970

Even The Very Best Can Blunder

Nijinsky's defeat after 11 straight victories raised questions about his English jockey and how he ranks with the world's best race riders

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Race results elsewhere, including Fort Marcy's victory in the Man o' War at Belmont, meant relatively little last week compared to the second straight defeat suffered within a fortnight by Charles Engelhard's Canadian-bred English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky. Startling an enormous crowd at Newmarket, where he went off at 4 to 11, Nijinsky put on his customary finishing burst, but it wasn't enough to overtake Lorenzaccio (100 to 7), who won the mile-and-a-quarter Champion Stakes by 1� lengths. Nijinsky and England's longtime champion jockey, Lester Piggott, saved second by a neck from Hotfoot.

That Nijinsky—who will soon go to stud in Kentucky—is no superhorse in the same class as Ribot is now clearly evident. It might have been too much to expect that the Vincent O'Brien-trained son of Northern Dancer could extend his brilliance through 13 races (eight of them this year) against the best European sprinters and stayers without going off form en route. But two weeks ago, as Nijinsky went into the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp still unbeaten after 11 races, O'Brien was confident the colt would win again. And, no matter what reasons are given for his defeat last Saturday at Newmarket, my feeling persists that Piggott rode Nijinsky overconfidently in the Arc. The booing that greeted Piggott a week later at Longchamp after he finished third in the Prix de Royallieu aboard odds-on favorite Park Top should have convinced the darling of Ascot and Epsom that he is still something of a villain in the Bois de Boulogne.

Members of the British press have long treated Lester Piggott with reverence and few of them disputed his own post-Arc explanation that "Nijinsky just wasn't himself." Whereas Piggott had partially blamed himself for losing the 1969 Arc on Park Top, he elected not to discuss Nijinsky further. All this despite the fact that he chose to lag at least a dozen lengths off the pace during the early Arc running. He spent too much time tracking Gyr and neglecting, until it was too late, the proven stayer Sassafras. Then, when Nijinsky had finally caught Sassafras a sixteenth of a mile from the wire, Piggott drew his whip and used it—twice righthanded, which probably was the reason Nijinsky bore out noticeably during the last half a dozen strides. That may have been enough to let Sassafras and France's best jockey, Yves Saint-Martin, hang on for the victory by a head.

The result of the Arc points out once again that 29-year-old Saint-Martin ranks, along with Piggott and Bill Shoemaker, as one of the three best riders in the world. Because they ride under such vastly different conditions most of the time and rarely clash head on, it would be unfair to attempt a more precise ranking than that. Unless, of course, you happen to be French, English or American and enjoy watching men ride thoroughbred horses.

Great jockeys, as other mortals, are not incapable of horrendous blunders. Shoemaker has talked and written about misjudging the finish line aboard Gallant Man in the 1957 Kentucky Derby. Once, in a distance race, Eddie Arcaro pulled up with an entire lap still to go. And when he and Career Boy finished fourth to Ribot in Arcaro's only Arc de Triomphe appearance, Eddie was the first to blame himself for not being second. "Hell—nobody was going to beat that Ribot, but I could have beaten the next two if I'd known where I was going and if I hadn't been so scared riding full speed down that hill."

Lester Piggott is hardly likely to be so self-critical in public as either Arcaro or Shoemaker. In fact, he sounded much more like Bill Hartack when he recently told interviewer Kenneth Harris of the London Observer, "You ride a damn good race and get beaten a short head when you thought you'd be lucky to get within three lengths of the leader and you may get booed. You make a mistake in the race, get shut in or your horse does something silly or you're unlucky, and you win by a short head when you should have won by a length and a half—and they clap. It's not your riding. It's whether they win or lose."

Unquestionably, approval from the crowd is largely a matter of public relations. But true riding ability is another matter, and Piggott, Shoemaker and Saint-Martin have it to spare. Shoe's sit-still style, which can sometimes give the misleading impression that he is just along for the ride and is doing nothing to make his horse run, is in sharp contrast to the "busy" way of the European jocks. Piggott rides shorter than Saint-Martin and can be spotted across a mile and a half of open country with his tail higher in the air than that of any modern rider. ("Well, I've got to put it somewhere," he says.) What all three of these men have in common is the essence of race riding—the ability to make horses want to run for them. Instinctively, they have perfect balance and the ability to shift their own center of gravity so that it is in precise tune with the movement of the horse.

Piggott and Saint-Martin, like most Europeans, are probably better horsemen than the average American jock. That is, they know a good deal about the fundamentals of riding and horsemanship and are seldom guilty of treating a thoroughbred as just another running machine. From his early experience on a ranch, Shoemaker also has this basic understanding. Lester Piggott rode his first winner at 12, his first of five Derby winners at 18. Saint-Martin is winding up 15 years in the service of Trainer Fran�ois Mathet, to whom he reported as a scared little boy at the age of 14. Years of riding out on the gallops under the strict tutelage of master horsemen—and never with the assistance of a lead pony—taught Piggott and Saint-Martin how to get along with animals of varying and unpredictable temperaments. And also, presumably, to ride to orders.

Some years ago, when asked about his premier rider, Mathet replied, "I have often dreamed of being able to communicate with my jockey during a race. With Saint-Martin this isn't necessary because he's always in the right spot. He has a true feel for a horse, and a nervous one will settle down under him immediately. He is cool, has exceptionally quick reflexes and has grown into a strong finisher." Piggott himself denies that he is an enemy of Saint-Martin; in fact, he considers Yves and Shoe as the two best riders around. "He does the right thing at the right time," Lester has said of Saint-Martin, "it sounds very obvious but that's all it's about, really: getting your horse to do the right thing everywhere. And knowing what's going on."

In his only Arc ride, in which he and Tom Rolfe lost to Sea-Bird, Shoemaker knew what was going on, all right, but Shoe had difficulty getting Tom Rolfe around the downhill right-hand turn. Then, too, Tom Rolfe may not have been a true mile-and-a-half horse, certainly not in the Sea-Bird class. This could be Nijinsky's problem. Or could it have been that the Longchamp course or the Arc itself is just a jinx race for Lester? Consider this slightly obscure testimony that he gave The Observer in June: "But in a way Longchamp, Paris, is the most difficult course I know. There's no theory of riding it. It's not the terrain. Nor the bends—there's only one. The mile-and-a-half, their equivalent of the Derby distance, is a very long, elongated u-shape. They go very fast in the Arc, the first few furlongs. So you've got to have a horse that can go with them. At Ascot you'd better be pretty well forward to have a chance. That usually goes for Epsom, too, and Sandown. But at Longchamp you can be last coming to the straight and still win. There's no recipe for riding that course."

Continue Story
1 2