x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The King of flat racing

The Triple Crown, Nijinsky won in 1970, puts the thoroughbred in a class of his own.


Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Geoffrey Riddle looks at the horse Nijinsky II.

Greatness comes in so many forms. There are few, however, who hold a place in the pantheon of sporting achievement that can display so many aspects of it as Nijinsky did. The imposing bay had a nervous temperament that blended dramatically with raw ability. In 1970, Nijinsky completed the British Triple Crown, winning the 2,000 Guineas over a mile at Newmarket, the Derby over a mile and a half at Epsom and the St Leger over an extended 14 furlongs at Doncaster. It was a triumph that no horse had managed for 35 years, and is something which has eluded every other thoroughbred to follow in Nijinsky's hoofprints.

To win over three different distances on three idiosyncratic courses highlights what a unique animal Nijinsky was. To put it in to perspective, Michael Johnson, one of the greatest track and field athletes of all time, excelled only at two distances, 200m and 400m. Olympic running tracks do not differ in camber or gradient either. Greatness was also something that Nijinsky was born into, and was surround by. His story is no rag to riches tale like Seabiscuit's.

Nijinsky was sired by Northern Dancer, the most successful stallion of the 20th century. Named after Vaslav, the most gifted dancer of his generation, Nijinsky also had distinct markings that set him aside from the rest - three white socks. But an acorn needs to be nurtured if it is to become a mighty oak, and Nijinsky's path to prominence was mapped out when he was sent to Ireland to be trained by Vincent O'Brien at Ballydoyle. O'Brien was the master trainer of his age, so much so that in 2003, readers of the Racing Post newspaper voted him the greatest figure in racing history.

Given such handling, and the fact that Nijinsky was paired with Lester Piggott, the finest jockey of his day, it was no surprise that the pair started as the odds-on favourite for the Railway Stakes - their first assignment. It was a facile victory, and one which acted as a springboard to further success. Nijinsky finished 1969 as champion two-year-old. After a winter of strengthening up, Nijinsky was unleashed, and promptly won the Gladness Stakes and the 2,000 Guineas with ease. Not even a bout of colic 24 hours before the Derby could stop him.

Where Nijinsky really proved himself, though, was in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. Prior to that contest he had only pitted his courage, stamina and speed against horses of his own age group. Although just five horses lined up against the rising superstar, it was a field boasting two Derby winners, a Washington International winner and the holders of the Coronation Cup and French Oaks. Nijinksy left them trailing in his wake in a display of brilliance that saw Piggott ease up half a furlong from the line.

That performance confirmed him as a colt of the highest order, but his ability was never to exude such finesse again. Although he won the St Leger after suffering ringworm, it was on his next start in France, in the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe, where he showed what an exceptional competitor he could be in defeat. He gave the French Derby winner, Sassafras, around 10 lengths but made up around six lengths in a single furlong and went into the final 100 metres neck and neck.

For a moment it looked like Piggott had done it, but the French stayer nodded them on the line. Nijinsky was an extraordinary racehorse, winning 11 of his 13 starts, but what sets aside the great is the legacy that they leave behind. As a stallion, Nijinsky sired 155 Group winners before his death in 1992. A perfect illustration of Nijinsky's value came in 1985 when Seattle Dancer, a progeny of Nijinsky, sold at public auction for a record $US13.1million (Dh47.7m).

It was a record price that was to stand for 22 years. Nijinsky's greatness will last much longer. griddle@thenational.ae Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Nijinsky is the all-time best, text G44 to 2337. Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday May 15.