The concept took a hit when speed replaced stamina in European pedigrees but its recent resurgence is welcomed
For some with memories stretching back to 1953 the events that stand out will always be the Coronation and the conquest of Everest. I have ready recollections of both, particularly everyone in my street piling into the sitting room of the one house that boasted the wonder of the age, a television set.
But I remember that year better for introducing me to sport, which had previously passed me by. I don’t suppose I was the only impressionable young kid who became hooked for life over those wonderful few months in which Stanley Matthews finally earned an FA Cup winner’s medal, Pinza ended Gordon Richards’s long quest for a Derby victory, and England at last reclaimed the Ashes.
Those events turned me into the sport-obsessed person I have remained. I began to play games, particularly soccer and cricket, and had the excuse of being a weedy asthmatic for never playing them well. When I wasn’t playing games I was reading about them, becoming immersed in all manner of what many would regard as trivia but what seemed frightfully important to me.
I haunted second-hand bookshops and once I’d acquired a paper round my new-found riches were invested in items generally decades out of date – Jimmy Wilde on boxing was one I remember. I depended on birthdays and Christmas to bring me recently published sporting material.
Of all the football facts I assimilated at the time, the one that struck me as most peculiar was that no team had won both the First Division and FA Cup in the same season since Aston Villa in 1896-97. Why wouldn’t the best team over a whole campaign not also triumph in the Cup? It hadn’t happened for so long it seemed there had to be an Act of Parliament preventing it.
That Nijinsky lost both his starts after the St Leger meant, however illogically, that running in it had harmed him
Of course, what, in defiance of all logic, had come to seem impossible subsequently became anything but. Spurs ended the barren sequence in 1960-61, and the feat has been achieved eight times since then, including three each by Arsenal and Manchester United.
When I came to make a serious study of racing, from the age of 11, I found it had its own counterpart of a ‘holy grail’ in the Triple Crown – one about as elusive as football’s League-Cup double.
Between 1853 and 1903 ten colts – West Australian, Gladiateur, Lord Lyon, Ormonde, Common, Isinglass, Galtee More, Flying Fox, Diamond Jubilee and Rock Sand – had achieved the treble. On average, it was something that happened every five years.
During World War One, a period of restricted racing, Pommern, Gay Crusader and Gainsborough all won the three substitute events staged on Newmarket’s July Course, but only Bahram, in 1935, had notched the treble that displayed his dominance over his generation on the traditional – and very different – Rowley Mile, Epsom and Doncaster courses. Why had the feat become so much more difficult?
Okay, so there were reasons that became clearly identifiable many years later, but they were not applicable in the 1950s when nothing much had changed for a century in terms of how the Triple Crown was perceived. Entries for the Classic were made at the yearling stage, and most colts would be engaged in all three events open to them. It seemed reasonable, as it always had, that a three-year-old would develop more strength and stamina as the season progressed, allowing hopes he would be competitive over all three distances.
No cause for concern
There were no reasons why the Triple Crown should have become unattainable, and the long hiatus since Bahram did not appear especially significant, given nobody doubted that Blue Peter would have completed the treble in 1939 but for the cancellation of the St Leger on the outbreak of World War Two.
Similarly, Crepello would surely have joined the elite group if he had remained sound enough to contest the St Leger – won by his immediate Derby victim Ballymoss – in 1957.
And so it continued throughout the 1960s. The Triple Crown remained a reasonable aspiration, and there would have been a winner in 1967 if Royal Palace had not emulated Crepello by being unfit to take his chance at Doncaster. In a carbon copy of the final Classic from a decade earlier, Derby runner-up Ribocco profited from the absence of the Warren Place-trained Guineas and Derby hero.
In 1968 the Newmarket and Epsom Classics both fell to Sir Ivor, who had a St Leger entry, but there was never much chance he would turn up. A mile and a half was patently the upper limit of his stamina, and his trainer always felt ten furlongs represented his optimum distance.
Two years later we finally found a colt to emulate Bahram, and it was not something we expected after the first two jewels in the crown had been secured. Like Sir Ivor, Nijinsky was by a horse with stamina limitations, and Sir Ivor’s trainer seemed highly unlikely to submit his new star performer to the Doncaster test. The Irish Derby and King George provided Nijinsky with two more simple victories, and then it was all about finding a suitable race as his prep for the Arc, his main objective. A severe bout of ringworm, contracted in August, meant plans needed to be revised, and when that problem was cleared up the St Leger appeared to be the most timely target.
On all known form the unbeaten Nijinsky, already hailed in some quarters as the Horse of the Century, was a class above anything that would oppose him at Doncaster. If he stayed – which couldn’t be guaranteed – he’d win.
Nijinsky stayed, and he won, not with the authority he had shown in some of his earlier races, but he had done what a true champion three-year-old was supposed to do, dominating his contemporaries in the historic series of demanding tests over different courses and distances. He proved the feat was still achievable, but his success came at a time when pedigrees were changing, and before long we were calling Nijinsky the last, rather than the latest, Triple Crown hero.
The ranks of British owner/breeders were becoming depleted, and horses from American – largely non-staying – backgrounds were achieving remarkable success here.
The wholly European pedigrees that had previously delivered champions on a regular basis were proving inadequate. That Nijinsky lost both his starts after the St Leger meant, however illogically, that running in it had harmed him. The breeding industry took against the Leger. Its standing, and therefore that of the Triple Crown, suffered what appeared a fatal blow.
By 1989, when Nashwan’s connections declined the opportunity of a third Classic victory, it seemed to represent not just an insult to the St Leger but the end of the Triple Crown as a viable concept. The game had changed and it seemed that what for well over a century had stood for almost a definition of true greatness no longer mattered.
It was the history and the traditions of the sport that drew me into a fascination with racing nearly 60 years ago, the Triple Crown very much a major factor in the appeal. Nijinsky’s success as a sire on both sides of the Atlantic should have meant that victory in the St Leger did not have to represent a drawback to a horse’s prospects at stud.
I may be an old fogey now but rejoice in the fact that the concept of the Triple Crown has been revived. The Ballydoyle/Coolmore team wanted it with Camelot two years ago, coming up agonisingly short, but they don’t give up easily and have undoubtedly embraced the traditional concept.
Word has it that one of the team has already struck substantial wagers on the impeccably-bred – Galileo ex Ouija Board – Australia, and if that colt succeeds at Newmarket and Epsom we won’t have to wonder where he will be on September 13.