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 Fran√ßois 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.
At the off, a dull roar echoed across the hills around Epsom, and immediately Cry Baby and Long Till took to the lead. At the top of the long hill they were still in front, while Piggott had Nijinsky in sixth place and Williamson on Gyr was back in eighth. Starting the long left-hand descent, Gyr moved up outside Nijinsky, but both were running easily behind four or five other colts. Rounding Tattenham Corner the lead was still held by Long Till, but suddenly Great Wall, who had saved ground on the inside, shot to the front. In a matter of seconds, however, Gyr took over.
The crowd was now in full voice and straining to see, far down to the left of the stands, as Gyr opened up a clear lead. Stintino, who had been a little too far back for his own good during the early running, came flying up on the far outside to challenge Gyr. Behind them and still sitting steadily with admirable discipline was Piggott on Nijinsky. He was aware that his waiting game could prove disastrous if the two leaders came together and forced him to alter course to the inside or out. But he waited and waited.
Approaching the furlong marker and that last agonizing uphill stretch of green grass, Lester finally gave Nijinsky his head. In three fantastic strides the son of Northern Dancer charged ahead, splitting Stintino and Gyr perfectly. He had half a furlong to go, but it was all over; he glided the rest of the way in a perfect display of action and balance to whip Gyr by 2½ lengths, with Stintino another three lengths back. So easily had Nijinsky made it seem that it was difficult to believe his final time of 2 minutes 34.68 seconds was but .88 of a second off Mahmoud's 1936 record. Actually, this may have been the fastest Derby of all, because in Mahmoud's day, before adoption of the starting gate, horses could take advantage of a faster getaway from a walkup start.
Lord Derby, whose ancestors started it all nearly 200 years ago, joined Winston Guest's post-race party and lifted his glass to Guest. "In 19 of the last 20 Derbies Gyr would have won," he said. "Nijinsky just might be the best horse we've seen since Ribot."
There is no question about the fact that the best horse since Ribot was not in the 102nd Belmont Stakes last Saturday. Indeed, it is a bit difficult to make a very strong case for High Echelon as the best of anything after he struggled in the slop to achieve his first win in 10 races this season. His time, 2 minutes 34 seconds on an absolutely flat though tricky surface, was only .68 of a second faster than that turned in by Nijinsky running up and down those hills.
The Belmont lost much of its appeal several weeks ago when Kentucky Derby winner Dust Commander ran in the Preakness in subpar condition and subsequently suffered an injury that will keep him out of action for a considerable time. Then the Preakness winner, Personality, took over center stage. He won again in the Jersey Derby at Garden State and probably would have continued his streak in the Belmont had it not been for the illness that developed on the day before the race.
John Jacobs wisely decided to scratch the colt, and that left him High Echelon, the son of Native Charger and the Princequillo mare Luquillo, who had run third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness and Jersey Derby. What with one minor ailment or another, John has had a tough time keeping High Echelon together. As his father did, however, once he gets his horses fit he prefers running them to training them, and in this instance it certainly paid off—to the tune of $115,000 of the gross purse of $158,750.
Away at the start of the Belmont went Brookmeade Stable's Climber, and for an awfully long time in the slow race it looked as if this 17-to-1 shot might sneak away with the prize. Naskra trailed him all the way, while High Echelon got away slowly as usual and was 10 to 15 lengths behind Climber up the backstretch. Behind him, then, was Thomas Fleming Jr.'s Needles N Pens. Leaving the half-mile pole, favorite My Dad George started to move but quickly flattened out. He ultimately finished fifth.
Johnny Rotz took High Echelon wide into the stretch turn, sacrificing ground, as he put it, to keep him in the clear. "I could tell he was moving on his own this time, instead of being forced," Rotz said later. At the eighth pole there was Climber still a head in front of Naskra, but both were weakening ever so slightly. As they continued to, Rotz and High Echelon moved up outside of them and drew off. But outside of High Echelon, Needles N Pens shot by the two early leaders as well, and although he was beaten by three-quarters of a length he managed to lead Naskra by a neck for second, while Climber hung in for fourth. The other six were spread out back to the Long Island Railroad tracks.
Even the radiant sunshine of Derby Day at Epsom would not have made this a Belmont Stakes of superior quality. Still, the complexion of racing in this country is ever changing. Too many of our potentially good 3-year-olds are missing before the season is half over, but, on the other hand, North American-bred colts have given U.S. owners a one-two finish in England's top classic.
As the last of Conductor George Seuffert's offering faded away into the dampness of Beautiful Belmont last week and it became time once again to fight the weekend traffic, a visitor's mind was suddenly brought back to Epsom Downs three days earlier. The Welsh Guards were between numbers. The Elegant Ones were hot but happy. Then the calm, unhurried voice of the track announcer came on to say, "May we remind you that dogs confined in a hot car can become distressed." Ah, England.