Between the first of May and the last of June, a horse follower with a firm resolve, a high purpose and a willingness to suffer in the saddle of the world's airlines can have an invigorating and illuminating time. I know, because I have. During this eight-week period I saw four Derbys, two Oaks, one Grand Prix, one Grand Steeplechase and innumerable lesser stakes and claiming events in the four countries that have longest revered both the horse and the wager. I began with our own Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, then journeyed to England for the Epsom Derby and Epsom Oaks, went on to Chantilly for the Prix du Jockey Club and the French Oaks, backtracked to the Curragh near Dublin for the Irish Sweeps Derby and returned to France the next day in time to see them off at Longchamp in the Grand Prix de Paris. On the basis of this extensive—and somewhat exhaustive—research, I am compelled to report that for beauty of surroundings and quality of racing the French outclass the world, with the English next best and after them the Irish and ourselves. With respect to more mundane considerations, however, like punctuality and visibility, the U.S. moves up in the rankings.
The best horse I saw was Noblesse, a 3-year-old chestnut filly by Mossborough out of Duke's Delight, bred in England and owned by Mrs. John M. Olin, an American. Handled in Ireland by Paddy Prendergast, the leading Irish trainer, Noblesse has been ridden by Garnet Bougoure, an Australian who is rapidly giving Yves Saint-Martin, Scobie Breasley, Lester Piggott and Braulio Baeza a contest for world champion jockey honors. Noblesse won the 185th Epsom Oaks by 10 lengths, and
Bougoure said afterward that the filly could have won by 20. Some English racing writers, aided by hindsight, maintain she might have beaten the French horse Relko if she had run in the Epsom Derby instead of the Oaks.
Of all the big races I saw, the mile-and-a-half Epsom Derby is clearly the most punishing test for 3-year-olds. Although the distance is the same as our Belmont, the Irish Derby and the French Derby, the uphill-downdale course, further complicated by sharp turns, takes more out of a horse than any other race in the world today.
The start of the Derby at Epsom was appalling. A horse, aptly named Hullabaloo, refused to get up to the web-barrier start that European tracks use instead of a starting gate. The race was delayed 14 minutes, and then Hullabaloo was left at the post, after all. None of the 225,000 packing Epsom that day knew what caused the trouble, as no announcement was vouchsafed the general public, who had either paid ¬£3 to get into the grandstand and paddock or nothing to get into the infield—that intriguing locale where gypsies tell a bettor his fortune and hawkers sell such English delicacies as jellied eels.
But once the race began Relko turned in a performance calculated to please any eel eater who knew as much about horses as food. Yves Saint-Martin, leading jockey in France at the age of 21, waited until just the right moment on this gray, damp English Wednesday to turn his long-striding mount loose. Given his head just after the famed Tattenham Corner, Relko moved out like a diesel to win by six lengths.
Relko's victory made him an odds-on favorite for the ¬£66,000 Irish Derby, in which, you recall, he eventually did not run at all. He seemed restive in the paddock but went to the post apparently fit. Again there was a delay at the start, as Yves Saint-Martin marched Relko slowly around in the neighborhood of the barrier. Suddenly we could see Saint-Martin dismounting. About one minute before the horses were off, it was announced that Relko had been withdrawn at the request of his trainer, Francois Mathet. Then, the moment the horses rushed from the barrier, the public address system failed, further confusing the situation for the spectators. But it was soon plain that Ragusa, who had finished third in the Epsom Derby, was getting an expert ride from Noblesse's jockey, Bougoure. Ragusa took the lead in the last two furlongs, and despite the fact that he had a shoe wrenched off when he was pushed out from the rail and was hit firmly from behind by another horse, he won by an impressive two and a half lengths on the soggy track.
In the weigh-in room afterward, Mathet's face was the color of old burgundy, and the handsome, young Saint-Martin was as stunned as if his Christmas presents had been stolen from under the tree. All Saint-Martin could say was that Relko suddenly went lame and could hardly walk. He thought it might have been a sudden spasm caused by a pulled muscle in a hind leg or by a cold in the kidneys. Mathet and Saint-Martin were both questioned by the stewards, and then they left by plane for Paris where they had another favorite, Beau Persan, running at Longchamp in the Grand Prix the next day.
There was much talk at Longchamp on Sunday about whether Relko might have been doped in Ireland. It was considered suspicious that within a few hours the horse was sound again. He was able to work out on Monday and was shipped back to France by Wednesday with no remaining traces of lameness. But the three veterinarians who examined Relko were unanimous in their verdict that the horse was not doped. A slight muscle spasm caused the trouble.
Sanctus, a strapping 3-year-old colt by Fine Top out of Sanelta who had come off the pace to take the $136,000 French Derby, repeated his good showing in the Grand Prix de Paris to win by a neck from Signor, thus earning $132,000 more. Since he has won two of the biggest races in Europe, he might well be rated ahead of Relko. It will be interesting to see how he does against both Relko and Noblesse if they meet in the fall, either at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe or at Laurel in the Washington International. This will be so interesting, in fact, that a man who has spent May and June traveling with horses cannot help but look happily forward to the joys of autumn racing.