My chaperone for the trip was the organisation’s chairman, the late Wilfred Koster, (breeder among many other fine horses, of National Emblem and London News, the former a multiple champion sire of juveniles during his time at Summerhill, the latter the first horse to fly the flag for South Africa in the east once the political shackles had been lifted). Together with our wives, Cheryl and Shirley, we grabbed the opportunity to pass through the self-styled “horse capital” of the world, Kentucky. One of the highlights of our trip was an invitation to attend Walmac International’s stallion parade, courtesy of its founder, Johnnie Jones Jnr. While the word “legend” is over-used in our sport these days, John T.L. Jones was the full embodiment of the word. And just a 100 metres from his house, was the home of another, the racehorse “factory”, Nureyev. Before we get carried away with the superlatives, a word about the man behind the Nureyev throne.
The late Stavros Niarchos’ name in Thoroughbred publications was almost invariably preceded, or followed, by the phrase “Greek shipping magnate”. There was good reason. Turf writers were not familiar with the nomenclature of Niarchos’ professional career, and Greek shipping magnate got across a sense of what he was: he was a gentleman of Greece, was in the business of transportation via ocean, and was very good at it. Why tamper: tanker tycoon? Agent of the Aegean?
With the passage of time, Niarchos became an astronomically successful breeder and owner, but he also had to prove very game on the way there. In 1956, he paid a record price for a broodmare when he went to $126,000 to acquire Segula at Keeneland, she the dam of Horse of the Year, Nashua, though she never approached that kind of success for Niarchos. In the 1970s however, Niarchos came back “big” at the American sales, investing at the highest level. As a young professional, I was in America during the Keeneland July Sale of 1978, where the cream of the world’s elite breeders offered its wares.
Niarchos’ representatives hooked up against those of Robert Sangster, then the most prominent international buyer of the moment. Both were circling one of the archetypal jewels of the era, a tidy little Northern Dancer colt from an already famous Claiborne Farm family, though no one knew at that time just how famous it was on the cusp of becoming. Niarchos won a titanic bidding duel, going to $1.3million, at the time the second highest price ever paid for a yearling. Our old pal, Joss Collins of the British Bloodstock Agency, and his colleague Sir Philip Paine-Galway once related after a “boozy” dinner at Byculla, the social headquarters of their business, that “there was a lot of concern about buying such a small, backward horse for a man who’d been out of the business and was only just getting back in”, they admitted.
“But Nureyev had such a presence about him, he was hard to resist”. A couple of weeks later in the summer of Saratoga, the same team was searching for another Northern Dancer for the shipping tycoon. One they liked was lame. “It wasn’t just splints. He was lame. So, we did not buy Danzig”. Of course, no-one knew then that their reservations about Danzig’s soundness would prove prophetic, and that his racing career would be curtailed to just three starts. Nobody could imagine either, that those three starts would be sensational enough to confer upon Danzig the opportunity of standing at the world’s leading stallion station of the time, Claiborne, nor that his destiny would be one of the world’s pre-eminent stallions of his era.
The first of the Northern Dancers raced in Europe had been named for the historic ballet-dancing supremo, Nijinsky: Niarchos’ colt would be named for a contemporary ballet classicist, Nureyev. Few namesakes of horses have been so lucky as those two fellows.
Around the same time, our Greek gentleman bought the old Marcel Boussac stud farm amidst the leafy glades of Normandy. This was, and remains, as perfect a spot on the French earth as any, more so than if your response is, like ours, to horses, staunch old stables, manorial homes, flower gardens and peaceful patrols of swans gliding across Monet ponds. From the perspective of someone whose one regret in life is that I never learnt French, about the only tweaking the scene could stand in my eyes, was tidying up the name, Haras de Fresnay-le-Buffard. I was in awe of the farm on my first visit in the 80s, and no less so on my visit in 2014, by which time the farm had reached the zenith of its international acclaim, counting the lasting legends of Miesque, Machiavellian and Kingmambo among its most famous children.
As I briefly mentioned earlier in this piece, Nureyev was bred by Seth Hancock at Claiborne Farm. Like his father and grandfather before him, Hancock had an impressive stallion roster of his own to choose from at a time when his barns were decorated by the likes of Mr. Prospector, Nijinsky, Secretariat, Round Table, the former South African champion Hawaii and Forli, but also like his ancestors, he acknowledged a good horse on another farm’s roster. Nureyev’s mother, Special, who was bred to Northern Dancer in 1976, the fourth year on his own following the death of his father, “Bull” Hancock, was a daughter of the Argentinean-bred Forli. Special’s dam was Thong, a full sister to the stunning triumvirate of Moccasin, Ridan and Lt. Stevens. All of them were sired by the Claiborne stallion Nantullah, from one of Bull Hancock’s “pin-up” bits of mining, the mare Rough Shod II, whose mother Dalmary spawned another branch of celebrities in the champion European sprinter, Thatching, top sire, Ahonoora, former South African champion freshman sire Fard, a one-time inmate of the Summerhill barn; and the multiple leading sire of juveniles in this country, Golden Thatch.
Nureyev was one in that crop of Northern Dancers that took strongly after his sire in his diminutive size but sturdy stature. He was turned over to the French trainer, Francois Boutin, who set him loose on his first racecourse appearance in Stakes company without a “prep”. On debut, he won the Group 3 Prix Thomas Bryon at Saint-Cloud.
It was already November, so he ran no more at two, but that one performance was enough to place him only one colt off the top of the French Free Handicap for two-year-olds. When he reappeared the following April to win the Prix Djebel by six lengths, he was immediately installed as favourite for the first English classic, the Two Thousand Guineas. Boutin had won the Guineas classic six years before with Nonoalco, and by the spring of 1980 he was out to impress his new mega-patron with another attempt. The fabled racing publication, Timeform, commented in its Racehorses of 1980: “We came away from Maison-Laffiette convinced that Nureyev would win the Guineas; we hadn’t seen a more impressive classic trial for many a long year”.
In the event, what happened that Saturday in May was catastrophic; jockey Phillipe Paquet took a storm of criticism in the same publication for his ride which by that account, saw his confidence in the horse crossing the border from mere disdain to complete contempt for his rivals. So far back was he in the early stages that when it came to his rush for the front, he faced a wall of horses with nowhere to go but through them. In the course of bashing the door down, he impeded Posse (eventually 3rd) and once in the clear, he turned on the after-burners to pull down the excellent colt, Known Fact. There was no doubt about the best horse in the race.
While the little fellow earned the amazement of the crowd with his acceleration, his courage and his grit, the final say was left in the hands of the stewards. No Guineas winner had ever been disqualified since the race’s inception in 1809, but after 45 minutes of debate, like Pontius Pilate, they washed their hands of it and placed Nureyev last.
While the modernised rules of the sport of racing might’ve spared Nureyev today, he lost no cast in his demotion, and was in fact made favourite for the Epsom Derby, but was prevented from taking his place with a viral bout. He never started again. Nureyev had never been beaten to the wire, his official record was two wins from three starts, with earnings of just $40,500. As galling as the disqualification was for Niarchos and Boutin, it nonetheless had little impact on his future at stud. While it may well have served as a boost for Known Fact, it was no deterrent to the admirers of Nureyev. In hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine that Nureyev could’ve accomplished more in his second career with the “okay” sign above his Guineas performance, than he did.
I guess we can all reflect on game-changing moments in our respective lives, and as a thoroughbred breeder, I’ve always thought that one of mine came along at an especially felicitous time. In my travels, I was lucky to know the Northern Dancer stallions, Lyphard, Nureyev and Sadler’s Wells when they first went to stud, and I was fortunate in my friends to know how often little horses like Northern Dancer, Blushing Groom or in an earlier era, Hyperion, was able to get you “any kind of horse”.
This was true as much of Nureyev as any horse I’ve known, and those who are familiar with the passages from the Summerhill sires brochure last year, you’ll remember our acknowledgment of this phenomenon in the faith we’d found in our new prospect, Capetown Noir “A fine, athletic colt in the image of Western Winter, his balance and style betray the other side of his family”. Born, bred and built for a classic campaign, his bearing is of Sadler’s Wells, Nureyev and Lyphard; if the scenario is typical of the stories of this gigantic trio, maybe his future will be as well”. So while we’re distracted, it’s worth mentioning that to me, there was an uncanny resemblance between the Capetown Noir we inherited after his racing career, and the Nureyev I knew as he first entered the stud. It’s early days of course and too soon for predictions, but from what we’ve seen on the ground in the first of his foals, we’ve reason to hope that “Capetown” might at least one day bear some comparison in his versatility, with that of the “little horse” in whose record it is incarnate.
The inner will that had led Nureyev to knock Posse off his stride in the Two Thousand Guineas, was arguably the same will that got him through his greatest test at age 10 in Kentucky. On the eve of the Kentucky Derby, he was turned out in his paddock according to his daily routine: within minutes he’d done what horses somehow contrive to do sometimes, and found himself in serious trouble. He’d fractured his right hind leg just below the hock, which led to the resident veterinarian to describe the break “like (it was) on a swivel. It just flopped. I thought, “there’s no way”. Thinking the worst though, didn’t mean accepting the worst. Dr Howard and some of the finest veterinarians America’s known, proceeded to do their best to save an animal whose name by now was of the “household” variety. Knowing that the odds were no more than 10% in favour of survival, the veterinary team inserted four screws to stabilize the injury, and cast his leg from foot to stifle. Supported by a sling to keep the weight off his shattered leg, he grew so fatigued after several days, it seemed he was about to cave in. The only way they could keep him roused was to slap him on the flanks and make him mad. For the second time in his life, he faced an antagonistic “posse”, and once again he was up to it. This time, there were no stewards to second-guess him.
When we arrived at Johnnie Jones’ stallion party, we found a separate stall where once a hydraulic hoist had been assembled; here, under round-the-clock observation, Nureyev had somehow learned to live on three legs with the support of a sling mobilized by overhead rails.
Crisis had followed crisis: he broke some of the screws in his leg; he’d agonised after a replacement cast, a respiratory infection had intervened, he’d faced the deadly prospect of colitis, and so the weeks passed and so did the challenges. Finally, Dr. Howard made an intuitive decision: the sling had been a life-saver, but Nureyev, his inner strength tapped and sapped almost to its end, looked to be in his final throes. Not about to lie down however, Howard was not one to give in. He had the crew bring in a large mat, and they lowered the sling and laid the horse to rest, perchance to die.
Nureyev was off his feet for the first time in two months, and being the gentlemen he was, he took the lowering and raising as a matter of routine. With the help of new supports and a regime of electro-stimulus to combat the atrophy of his muscles, Nureyev gradually grew stronger. By the time of my second visit to Walmac, he’d not only lived, but he’d thrived, a tribute to the guts that was the hallmark of his abbreviated campaign at the races, and a trademark of the great horses he’d given breath at stud. For those of us on this farm, we’re always left wondering what life might’ve been like without his grandson Imbongi, with Paris Perfect the first of the real international horses to venture from these ancient pastures.
And while a record of 111 Stakes winners (a staggering 15% of his total production) is advert enough, no treatise on the career of the grand little fellow would be complete without recalling the names of Peintre Celebre, Stravinsky, Spinning World, Fasliyev, Miesque, Sonic Lady, Reams Of Verse, Zizal, Soviet Star, Theatrical, Polar Falcon, Wolfhound, Stately Don, Joyeux Danseur and Kitwood.
Feature Image: Northern Dancer (Kentucky Derby) / Globe And Mail (p)