Enduring greatness of Grundy v Bustino

Even after twenty-five years the memories are vivid of the race of the last century

In an age of spin and hype, there is one claim which requires neither. Twenty-five years ago this week, Grundy and Bustino went head-to-head up the straight at Ascot in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, in what was instantly - and enduringly - acclaimed as the race of the century, and if even half of the racegoers who claim to have been there to see it actually were, it is a wonder that they were not standing four deep on the track itself.

In an age of spin and hype, there is one claim which requires neither. Twenty-five years ago this week, Grundy and Bustino went head-to-head up the straight at Ascot in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, in what was instantly - and enduringly - acclaimed as the race of the century, and if even half of the racegoers who claim to have been there to see it actually were, it is a wonder that they were not standing four deep on the track itself.

The actual result, as it happens, was thoroughly predictable, with Grundy, the Derby winner and 4-5 favourite, beating Bustino, a 4-1 chance, by half a length. The manner of it, though, was extraordinary. Bustino and Joe Mercer were four lengths clear at the head of the straight, and only Grundy, ridden by Pat Eddery, had enough still in reserve to set off after him. It was not until the furlong pole, though, that Grundy got upsides, and as soon as he poked his nose in front, Bustino roused himself for one final effort. They were locked together until the final 100 yards, when at last Bustino seemed to falter, and Grundy snatched a decisive advantage. Afterwards, as racegoers rushed to the winners' enclosure to acclaim them, both horses appeared close to collapse.

Some memories fade as time goes by, but not memories as powerful as that, and certainly not in this of all weeks. "It gets fresher as the days go on, what with the race coming up on Saturday," Mercer said yesterday. "At the time, it was very exciting, although of course, in the end we got beat. My horse never ran again, because he broke down in the race, and without that I think we probably would have won it. Until Grundy got to us well inside the distance, I think he had the race won, but then he changed his legs, lost a bit of momentum, and Grundy got up to wear him down. But it was a great race; the viewers and spectators loved it, and they were two great horses."

Unusually perhaps for such a tight finish, Mercer recalls using his whip only once, and when it quickly became clear that Bustino was already giving his all, one of riding's great stylists had the good sense to put it down. Grundy, on the other hand, received several cracks from Eddery as he wore down the leader, although he responded to each one. These days, he might have found himself referred to Portman Square to offer an explanation, so it is slightly ironic that Eddery, who is still a potential champion jockey 25 years later, is unavailable for Saturday's race as a result of a whip offence in another Group One race, the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown earlier this month. Mercer, meanwhile, has an interest in the King George in his role as racing manager to Saeed Suhail, the owner of the 25-1 chance Beat All.

"Both horses were responding all the way up the straight," Peter Walwyn, who trained Grundy, recalled yesterday. "It was wonderful, a thrilling race, and I was numb by the end of it.

"These days, it's very difficult, the trouble is that you're trying to please so many people. We've got all the bunny-huggers going about, and then the commentators say: 'look at that, there he is giving it one more smack'. It's difficult, but if the horse is running on, it's fine."

It is part of the folklore of the 1975 King George that Grundy's efforts crushed him as a racehorse. On his next outing, in what is now the International Stakes at York three weeks later, he finished fourth, beaten by three horses who had been distant spectators at Ascot.

Walwyn, though, believes that his colt may have been "over the top" anyway by the time of the race on the Knavesmire.

"He appeared to have come out of it very well," he said, "but then Shergar appeared to be all right before the St Leger, and Troy appeared to be all right before the Arc. When horses go over the top, it can be very hard to judge it. The last person who knows is the trainer, because you're watching them every day and you think they're all right. When you give a horse a Classic preparation, you need to be doing swinging canters by the middle of March, and it's very hard to keep them going throughout the season."

Walwyn is keeping typically busy in retirement, writing his memoirs and serving on bodies including the Animal Health Trust, Lambourn Trainers' Association and Lambourn Housing Trust, not to mention several Jockey Club committees. He will be back at Ascot on Saturday for what he feels is "for me, the highlight of the racing season", when Montjeu, who like Grundy is likely to start at odds-on, will be the horse to beat.

Even the wildest optimists will not expect another race like that of 1975. The memory of the race of the 20th century, however, will still seem fresh in the minds of many thousands of racegoers as they head for Ascot, just in case.

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