At this point, to understand where we’re taking you, you should rewind 25 years to the staging of the English Oaks at Epsom racecourse. To put it into its broader context, we must remember that a quarter of a century ago the hegemony of the Maktoum family over the international racing world had yet to materialize, and Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Maktoum himself had yet to taste the glory of Classic success. Understand, to break your “duck” in one of the most famous races on the planet by a growing 5 lengths with the longest-priced runner in history, and to have the world’s press glowing with accolades like “bring on the colts”, is one of those rare moments which sticks in the memory bank forever; in this case, the story has endured to last Saturday.
It’s appropriate that we should be writing about The Oaks today, as several of our good friends will be attending the 2016 renewal of the event on Friday as guests of Investec, the sponsors, so before we proceed with this story, perhaps we should revisit the origins of the race.
The event was named after The Oaks, an estate located to the east of Epsom which was leased to the 12th Earl of Derby in the 18th century. He and his guests devised the race during a party at the estate in 1778. It was first run as the “Oakes Stakes” in 1779, one year before the introduction of the Derby Stakes. The inaugural winner, Bridget, was owned by Lord Derby himself.
The Oaks subsequently became one of Britain's leading events for three-year-olds, and is traditionally staged on the first Friday in June. By the mid-1860s, the five leading events for this age group were referred to as “Classics”. The concept was later adopted in many other countries; European variations of the Oaks include the Irish Oaks, the Preis der Diana, the Prix de Diane and the Oaks d'Italia. Other national equivalents include the South African and Gold Circle Oaks, the AJC Oaks, the New Zealand Oaks and the Yushun Himba.
There is a prelude to the naming of the Derby, too. The principal protagonists of the occasion were the Lords Derby and Bunbury, and it was resolved that the flip of a coin would settle it. Mercifully, the toss favoured “Derby”, otherwise come Saturday next, the colts would be contesting the “Bunbury”.
Those who are familiar with Summerhill’s Hall Of Fame theatre at the Maktoum School Of Management Excellence, will know that in one of the trophy cabinets, there is a voluminous leather-bound book devoted to the career of a single filly by the name of Jet Ski Lady, a daughter of Nelson Bunker Hunt’s celebrated stallion, Vaguely Noble, from the immediate family of a one-time resident of our stallion barn, Desert Team. Which brings us back to our story and the passing of Jet Ski Lady at 28 years old on Saturday morning.
Given that most horsemen attribute four years to the life of a racehorse for every one human year, this would’ve made Jet Ski Lady around 112, yet she was in extraordinarily good shape till Saturday, living out with our weanlings and educating them in the respectable ways of the world. In the end, time just caught up with her, the fate of all of us, human and animal alike.
As you might expect from the heroine of the oldest fillies’ race in the world, she went down with the quiet dignity of one who knew she’d brought home the bacon 25 years back as the first Classic winner for the ruler of a country which at the time was riding a wave of glorious pre-eminence.
Events like these remind those of us who are in the game, how lucky we are that our lives have been touched by these regal creatures. That the world still takes notice of the passing of an animal of such aged origins, is what sets our sport apart. We remember with fondness, when the Belmont ace, Coastal (who shattered the Triple Crown aspirations of one of the “greats”, Spectacular Bid), still graced our stallion paddocks; America’s leading racing publication of the era, The Bloodhorse, dispatched a journalist all the way to South Africa to recall the fact that with the death of Genuine Risk, at 30 Coastal had become the oldest surviving winner of an American classic. That’s what a Classic winner means to real racing people.