It’s 50 years since Nijinsky won the British Triple Crown. He’s the last colt to do it, though few since have tried.
E. P. Taylor bred Nijinsky in Ontario, Canada, by the champion sire Northern Dancer out of Flaming Page, winner of the Queen’s Plate, Canadian Oaks and Kentucky Oaks. Vincent O’Brien bought the colt for $84,000 on behalf of American owner Charles Engelhard.
Unbeaten in four starts in Ireland when ridden by Liam Ward, Nijinsky finished his two-year-old career with an emphatic win in the Dewhurst Stakes, ridden for the first time by Lester Piggott. The Jockey Club Handicapper placed him top of the two-year-old Free Handicap.
Nijinsky lit up the 1970 season
Piggott and Nijinsky were the stars of the 1970 Flat racing year. They began in the Gladness Stakes at the Curragh, winning with ease. Then they won the English 2,000 Guineas with just as much ease at 7-4 on. They faced better rivals in the Derby but still won in a canter, sweeping past the top French horse Gyr to score by two and a half lengths.
Nijinsky and Piggott then won the Irish Derby by three lengths. They followed that by winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes by two lengths from Blakeney, the 1969 Derby winner.
The plan had been to go straight to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. However, the chance of a Triple Crown proved too much to resist, so Nijinsky went for the St Leger. He duly won it, seemingly without much effort, to become the first British Triple Crown winner since Bahram in 1935.
Two shock defeats
The Arc looked at Nijinsky’s mercy. However, the French Derby winner Sassafras beat him by a head. Critics blamed Piggott, saying he’d misjudged the pace and given his mount too much to do. But by then Nijinsky was no longer at his mid-summer peak. Thirteen days after the Arc, his career ended on a low note when beaten at odds-on for the Champion Stakes. He should have won with ease but could only finish second to Lorenzaccio, a horse never more than on the fringe of top class.
In 2012 Camelot started 5-2 on favourite to become the first British Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky. The 25-1 shot Encke beat him. However, a few months later, Encke was one of 22 of trainer Al Zarooni’s horses to test positive for anabolic steroids. We will never know if that robbed Camelot of his Triple Crown. It’s unlikely another will bid for it anytime soon. The St Leger is no longer an attractive option, even with a Triple Crown on the line.