Nijinsky is a name that holds such importance within the world of thoroughbred horse racing.
A Canadian-bred, he was trained in Ireland and as well as being the top-rated juvenile of 1969 in Europe, he was also the champion racehorse in 1970 after winning the Triple Crown in England.
The first horse to win the Triple Crown of the 2000 Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger for 35 years, as of 2023 he is also the last male to have done so which makes him one of the best of his, or any other generation.
As we’ve mentioned on these pages elsewhere, his sire Northern Dancer was simply crucial to the racing industry and his reputation internationally was formed mainly by Nijinsky.
Nijinsky himself went on to be the leading sire in Britain and Ireland as well as the top sire of broodmares in North America.
The great Nijinsky was foaled on February 21st, 1967.
A bay colt with three white feet, he was bred at Windsfields Farm in Ontario in Canada, the farm of EP Taylor.
Nijinsky was part of hugely important sire Northern Dancer’s second crop. By therefore a Kentucky Derby champion, Nijinsky was out of top racing mare Flaming Page who would also go on to produce Derby winner The Minstrel among others.
|Sire/Dam||Grand Sire/Dam||Great Grand Sire/Dam|
|Flaming Page||Bull Page||Bull Lea|
Nijinsky proved to be rather large and powerful in stature. He tended to also pass on those traits of his dam to his own progeny.
Nijinsky’s Stud Career
Registered after racing as Nijinsky II in the USA to begin stallion duties, the horse proved to be a real hit as expected.
Nijinsky produced 155 Group/Grade winners which represents more than 18% over his 862 foals. They produced 519 individual winners over the diverse range of distances which made him famous – six furlongs to one and three-quarter miles.
He is known as the only stallion to have sired the winners of both the Kentucky Derby and the Derby at Epsom in the same year, which he managed in 1986 with Ferdinand and Shahrastani respectively.
After a stud career as remarkable as his racing life, Nijinsky was euthanised in April 1992 with simple old age and its effects being to blame. He is buried at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.
After being bred in Canada, Nijinsky was offered at the annual yearling auction at Windsfields Farm.
He was bought for what was then a very hefty sum of $84,000 by Charles W. Engelhard Jr. and sent to be trained at Ballydoyle in Ireland by Vincent O’Brien. Engelhard’s wife Jane indeed decided on the name in honour of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.
He began racing in 1969 with a six-furlong maiden win in June. He moved up quickly in grade and took in the Anglesey Stakes and the Railway Stakes, before moving up in trip in the Beresford. Those first four victories were all at the Curragh.
By now it was obvious he was the best juvenile in Ireland. He was sent across to Newmarket to contest the Dewhurst Stakes with his smooth win there under Lester Piggott also making him top-rated in Britain.
Nijinsky began his second season by going straight up against the older horses in the Gladness Stakes, beating four-year-old Deep Run in April.
Now fully ready for a tilt at the 2000 Guineas over a mile, he went off 4/7 favourite for the Classic at Newmarket. Having hit the front two furlongs from home, he was simply eased home by Lester Piggott to beat a top-class field.
His next start was in the Derby, moving up to a mile and a half at Epsom. He was up against a strong field and was sent off at odds of 11/8, bigger than normal for him.
Held up by Lester Piggott, Nijinsky made steady progress down the straight with the whip not being drawn until the pair were around 300 yards from home. The response from the horse was instant and they landed the Blue Riband event by 2½ lengths.
The form of his comfortable Derby win was franked in Group 1 company, while his time was the fastest in the race since 1936. In fact, his last two furlongs were run at a speed which compared to Group 1 standard sprinters which is quite extraordinary.
Nijinsky doubled up with an easy win at 4/11 in the Irish Derby before he was sent up against the older horses at Ascot in a tough renewal of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
There, he was pitched in against the 1969 Derby winner, the French Oaks winner and the Coronation Cup winner. Not hassled at all however, he scored in canter under Piggott once again.
Nijinsky had colic right before the Derby and in August, ringworm struck the horse. He lost much of his hair and his training was affected but nevertheless he was sent to contest then St Leger at Doncaster in an attempt to win the Triple Crown.
Going up to 1¾ miles was quite a test, though he did go off as the 2/7 favourite. In winning a fast Derby and having scored over six furlongs as a juvenile his stamina was in some doubt, but he landed the race easily in Yorkshire to instantly be known as one of the greatest ever.
With some big autumn races still to come, Nijinsky was kept going and he was sent to Paris for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
He suffered a bad trip throughout although he did take a narrow lead before running away from the whip and losing out at the line.
Trainer Vincent O’Brien and the general public seemed to agree that Lester Piggott had given the horse too much to do, though the experienced rider refuted this and said that the horse was simply over the top and had done enough for the year.
Despite that feedback from Piggott, O’Brien entered Nijinsky in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket before which he was seen to get very anxious and unruly. Though second, his defeat at 4/11 was a disappointment and this time O’Brien agreed that the horse had had enough and was quickly retired.
The Triple Crown
Unlike in the States where the Triple Crown is contested between 1¼ and 1½ miles, the Triple Crown in England is extremely difficult.
Horses are tasked with using speed over a mile in the 2000 Guineas, they need a mixture of so many things in the Derby over a mile and a half and then need outright stamina over a mile and six furlongs after a tough season in the St Leger at Doncaster in September.
Nijinsky, who’d had the speed for six furlongs as a two-year-old, was the first winner of the Triple Crown for 35 years and as of the 2022 season, is the last.
Only Reference Point in 1970, Nashwan in 1989, Sea The Stars in 2009 and Camelot in 2012 have won two of the three races and very few attempt the feat.
It should be mentioned of course however that Oh So Sharp did win the fillies’ version of the Triple Crown, the 1000 Guineas, the Oaks and the St Leger, in 1985.
Nijinsky’s biggest wins:
|1969||Railway Stakes, Curragh|
|1969||Anglesey Stakes, Curragh|
|1969||Beresford Stakes, Curragh|
|1969||Dewhurst Stakes, Newmarket|
|1970||Gladness Stakes, Curragh|
|1970||2000 Guineas, Newmarket|
|1970||The Derby, Epsom|
|1970||Irish Derby, Curragh|
|1970||King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Ascot|
|1970||St Leger, Doncaster|
Over the course of his short racing career, Nijinsky won more than $677,000. That’s the equivalent of $8.5 million in 2022, or approximately £7 million.
That figure, especially having raced in Britain and Ireland, is befitting of his greatness.
It was EP Taylor, who has a Grade One named in his honour in Canada, owned Windsfields Farm (which was closed in 2009 after many years) who bred Nijinsky.
He was bought at auction at the farm by industrialist Charles Engelhard who sent him to be trained by Vincent O’Brien.
In his major races in England, Nijinsky was ridden by the late Lester Piggott.