Not to be confused with The Queen’s Drum Horse of the same name, the fabled Roman lawyer, Cicero, who railed against the excesses of the Roman republic, was once famously quoted on his take on treason: “A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist”.
As precarious as things might look right now, there’s comfort in remembering the “holes” South Africans have rescued themselves from over the centuries: the Mfecane, the Bambatha Rebellion, the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars, the Civil Rebellion of 1914, the enactment of apartheid and its appalling consequences, and now Guptagate, Nkandlagate and State Capture.
At times like these, there’s no balm like a worthwhile story, and for this we need look no further than a stallion whose name found its voice in an Islington Theatre that reaches back to 1683. For a son of Northern Dancer, Sadler’s Wells was anointed thus in honour of one of the world’s leading dance venues, which in turn earned its appellation from its original founder, Richard Sadler and the rediscovery of a monastic spring on the property, the waters of which were said to have strong medicinal powers. While we revel in the appropriateness of his association with the world of dance, just as we can in the case of his paternal half-brothers, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Lyphard and The Minstrel, there’s little doubt either about the “powers” of the stallion Sadler’s Wells, who, both as a sire and a sire of sires, was destined to become the most remarkable of all Northern Dancer’s sons. In his former capacity, he sired an astonishing 294 Stakes winners, while in the latter he had only the colossus Hyperion to eclipse with the number of times he headed the British and Irish stallion log. There were many who thought mid-way through the last century that only a “superman” could top Hyperion’s record of six championships in what was then the most competitive breeding jurisdiction in the world, yet by the time Sadler’s Wells had run his course, his record stood at fourteen, which to this day, is still some way ahead of his spectacular son, Galileo, reckoned by those closest to both of them as being superior even to Sadler’s Wells himself.
There is one department however in which Galileo has still to prove himself the equal of his father, and that is in the number of sons he’s left behind whose marks on the breed are as deep-etched as any dynasty in history. Besides Galileo, his star sons at stud include Montjeu, the world’s pre-eminent Classic sire of his era; champion American stallion, El Prado, in turn sire of another champion in Kitten’s Joy, South Africa’s own Fort Wood and the ill-fated High Chaparral, who not only excelled in the northern hemisphere, but left a raft of outstanding runners in the southern hemisphere, including two Australian Horses of the Year, So You Think and It’s A Dundeel. That’s a hell of a long list, but that’s what the great ones do, they churn them out in reams.
As we’ve said, there will be those of an earlier generation (much earlier!!) who might’ve harboured a vague feeling of heresy in the suggestion that any stallion could approach the greatness of Hyperion, but that undoubtedly has to do with one’s age and the number of years the earlier horse resided in the mental pantheon of their thoroughbred heroes. But then they might remember the feeling themselves, when older types in the 1950s bristled at the first suggestion that Hyperion was nearing the St.Simon class!
In the era of Galileo, ultimate comparisons are premature, as the latter has not had the opportunity to stand the test of time as far as his prowess as a sire of sires is concerned, one of the keys to both Hyperion and Sadler’s Wells’ lasting renown. In the stand-off between the latter two though, given that Sadler’s Wells spent most of his career in an era of stallion books of 150 or more against those of Hyperion in the thirties, separating the two in their legacies through their sons, means that the final outcome turns as much on the size of the cavalry unit they each populated as anything. While the names of Galileo, Montjeu, High Chaparral, El Prado and Fort Wood alone might justify the belief that Sadler’s Wells’ principal strength rested in his elite sons, the list is far from complete, and does little justice to a total of 84 Group One winners. Besides his great sire sons, he was the progenitor of, among many, Yeats, Kayf Tara, In The Wings, Opera House, Carnegie, Old Vic, Barathea and longtime Summerhill resident, Braashee, while his fillies were not to be outdone in the likes of Salsabil, Islington, Intrepidity, Alexandrova, Imagine, Gossamer, Ebadiyla and Dance Design. None of us will be surprised to know that this splendid smorgasboard of distaffers has dished up a world record 16 broodmare sires’ titles, thus ensuring that his legacy will be as lasting through the “ladies club” as it’s bound to be in his brigade of “chefs de race”.
Special in name and special in gifts
In the course of our comparison between Sadler's Wells and Hyperion on the one hand, and between Sadler's Wells and Galileo on the other, the dominance of the modern tribe in recent decades erodes to some extent the memory of Northern Dancer, and the phenomenon that something approaching 85% of the world’s thoroughbred population has the blood of the grand-daddy of them all coursing through their veins. Besides his Canadian father, Sadler’s Wells was out of the American-bred Fairy Bridge, who turned out one of the more astute purchases in modern history, and was something of a “giveback” by the American industry to the Anglo-Irish.
Fairy Bridge was a daughter of Special, who was from Thong, a full sister to Moccasin, Ridan and Lt. Stephens, and a daughter of the imported mare, Rough Shod II. In his dip into the trove of thoroughbred treasures, Claiborne Farm’s Bull Hancock mined no greater gem than Rough Shod II, a moderate runner who won once from seven starts. The story of descent to Fairy Bridge was one of those equine fairytales that warms the coals of our hearts on cold wintery nights.
Special herself was unplaced in her only start, another illustration of the belief we’ve so often postulated in the past, that they don’t always have to be special” racehorses to make “Blue Hens” as broodmares. Retired presumably for a lack of apparent talent, Special then embarked on one of the breed’s most storied trails of exceptionalism.
In addition to being the second dam of Sadler’s Wells (and his distinguished brother, Fairy King), she was the mother of the world class stallion, Nureyev (see our earlier posting “Another Dancer”) and for that reason alone, she’s entitled to be ranked alongside the unmatchable likes of Plucky Liege, Selene and La Troienne, (and in this country, Dhrosky and Preston Pan) among the maternal well-springs of the 20th century. Like A.B. de Villiers of the present age, she was not one to do things in “singles” however: to the grand Northern Dancer stallion, Nijinsky II, Special left a brood which included Number and Bound, who in their own rights have spawned dynasties of lasting impact.
In 1976, however, when Sadler’s Wells’ dam appeared as a yearling in the Keeneland sales ring, most of the modern aspects of her heritage were unknown. Nureyev was in utero, for instance: nevertheless, in the context of her time, Special was already known to be a sister to the champion sprinter-miler Thatch, and to the Royal Ascot Group One heroine, Lisadell, besides being a half-sister to King Pellinore. Of all the people on the Keeneland sales grounds with a knowledge of the family jewels that year, none had quite as intimate a view as the British Bloodstock Agency’s buying team representing the football pools magnate, Robert Sangster, who scooped up Special’s yearling daughter for just $40 000. She was by Bold Reason, and yet while from the vantage point of history it might have been assumed that this fact kept a lid on her price, at the time Bold Reason was a young former winner of the American version of the mid-summer Derby, the Travers Stakes, out of the dam of the splendid Never Bend, so the gloss was not yet off his C.V.
Fairy Bridge won her only two races at 2, and if Billy Macdonald, our old mate who never let us forget he pointed her out to the “BBA” team, could be believed, she was sent to stud without further trial, notwithstanding she’d revealed more than a modicum of ability at the races. Her 1981 foal was a son of Northern Dancer with a bit of the white flashes so familiar in the line. His longish pasterns might have been cause for some concern, more so to South African horsemen who have a peculiar aversion to such a feature in a horse’s makeup, but the white socks behind would not have been. As we’ve already alluded to, Sadler’s Wells took his name from the historic London dance, opera and lyric theatre, and was on the cusp of a bit of history himself.
Although he won both his races at 2, he was something of a “second-stringer” in the legendary trainer, Vincent O’Brien’s menu of Northern Dancers that year. They included Northern Guest’s brother El Gran Senor, who defeated Sadler's Wells in the Gladness Stakes in April of their three year old season, and went on to smash the aspirations of the subsequent “Arc” ace, Rainbow Quest and the champion miler Chief Singer, in the Two Thousand Guineas. This after being proclaimed champion two year old of Europe for his resounding victory in the previous year’s Dewhurst. While a clumsy ride cost El Gran Senor the Epsom Derby by the shortest of short heads at the hands of another Northern Dancer, Secreto, his clean sweep of the Irish Sweeps Derby proved that the assigned pecking order had solid foundations. Not to be outdone, Sadler’s Wells staked his own claim to a Classic in the Irish version of the 2000 Guineas, but even then, he was seldom the stable’s obvious hope: champion jockey Pat Eddery had chosen to ride another O’Brien candidate instead. One thing we do know though, is that if ever there were any lingering doubts about Northern Dancer’s supremacy as the “Emperor” stallion of all time, by the end of that season, they’d been finally vanquished.
Sent to emulate a previous O’Brien winner of the French Derby, Caerleon, Sadler’s Wells failed to hold off another future stallion influence in Darshaan, among a quartet of magnificent stallions from that generation: Sadler’s Wells, El Gran Senor, Rainbow Quest and the French Derby laureate. In the light of his subsequent stud career and his vast influence for stamina, it’s interesting to remember that the French Derby was the first alleviation of a lurking concern in the O’Brien stable that Sadler’s Wells might’ve been deficient in the staying power required for a mile and a half. Reinforced by this effort, O’Brien set Sadler’s Wells against older horses for the ten furlongs of Sandown’s Eclipse Stakes, in which he proved too much for the Group One winners Time Charter and Morcon. With another furlong lopped on, a gallant Sadler’s Wells showed no signs of letting up behind the prior year’s Derby winner Teenoso, in the “King George” at Ascot; both Darshaan and Time Charter trailing. With a victory in the Irish Champion Stakes under his belt against a lesser field, he was sent on a failed mission for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, where his 8th place might’ve given rise to a denigration of his stamina once again. Looking a bit closer though, and remembering how often horses are thrashed in the final furlongs of the “Arc”, he was not disgraced. After featuring well into the home straight in a field of 22, and with the next year’s Arc winner Rainbow Quest and two Oaks winners behind him, he retired a good but not spectacular racehorse, whose six victories advertised what was by then one of the “sexiest” lineages in the international stud book. By now his mother’s half-brother, Nureyev, had emerged not only as the brilliant racehorse he’d revealed himself to be, but as one of the world’s most eligible young bachelors. The high-headed Sadler’s Wells (another trait not entirely admired by our horsemen,) had raced in the Sangster colours before being sent to stud at Coolmore, Ireland, where Sangster was a visible partner alongside a man who has modernly assumed the unofficial title of “Ruler of the Racing World”, John Magnier.
In what has since become the greatest train of succession in thoroughbred breeding history, eclipsing even the legacies of Lord Derby, the Italian Federico Tesio, Frenchman Marcel Boussac and America’s Bull Hancock and Calumet Farm, the Coolmore fable has not only been sustained but immortalized by an unbroken strand of outstanding sires of racehorses on three different continents: in Europe, through Sadler’s Wells, Danehill, Caerleon, Be My Guest, Danehill Dancer, Galileo, Montjeu and High Chaparral: in the United States through Giant’s Causeway, Uncle Mo and to a slightly diminished extent on account of his early demise, Scat Daddy; and in Australia, through Danehill, Encosta Da Lago and High Chaparral, and the jewel of the present era, Fastnet Rock. Predictions in this game are often made only to be broken, but it’s doubtful there’s a prism through which we can envision the money, the enterprise, the intuition and the good luck it will take for any one individual or organisation to emulate the Coolmore story, whether in this life or any other. And you can book that down pretty much to the origins of a single horse.
P.S. On our first visit to the land of our forebears, Ireland, brother Pat and I felt compelled to make the pilgrimage to Vincent O’Brien’s stronghold, Ballydoyle. Our mission included the acquisition of a young “invalided” stallion, which we’d clinched, and as we entered the Ballydoyle precinct, we came across three yearling sons of Northern Dancer in a paddock alongside, one of them with a noticeable “parrot” mouth. The stallion we’d bought was the multiple champion sire, Northern Guest, and two of the “Northern Dancers” were his own younger brother, El Gran Senor (with the “overshot” jaw) and Sadler’s Wells. Seldom has greatness been so concentrated!