Racing: Ouija Board's glorious run is the stuff of genes

The Oaks
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The Independent Online

Ouija Board, winner of the 226th Oaks on Friday by a margin unexceeded in more than a century, could hardly have been named with more prescience. For her owner Lord Derby's ancestor, the 17th Earl, must have had a hotline to the other side when, in 1956, he spared the life of a foal after an horrific accident. The little filly's dam Gradisca had for some reason spooked and panicked and crashed through a set of paddock rails. She was unhurt but her foal's optic nerves were crushed, rendering her blind.

Ouija Board, winner of the 226th Oaks on Friday by a margin unexceeded in more than a century, could hardly have been named with more prescience. For her owner Lord Derby's ancestor, the 17th Earl, must have had a hotline to the other side when, in 1956, he spared the life of a foal after an horrific accident. The little filly's dam Gradisca had for some reason spooked and panicked and crashed through a set of paddock rails. She was unhurt but her foal's optic nerves were crushed, rendering her blind.

Otherwise, though, the foal was unharmed and allowed to take her chance in life. She was named Samanda and, despite her disability, lived long and prospered as a broodmare. Although kind and gregarious, the handsome chestnut had to accept isolation as a burden of her sightlessness, as she could not have been pastured with other horses, against whom she could not defend herself. She lived in her own paddock with a loosebox opening into it and could find her way around perfectly. Her eyes looked normal, but she carried her head tilted with her ears pricked to catch every sound, and moved with her nose outstretched. Her foals, of which she produced 12 before her death at the age of 19, all wore a bell on their head collars.

Her finest legacy to that Lord Derby, afterwards the 18th and now the latest in the noble line, came late in her life, when she produced Ouija, who became dam of the superb gelding Teleprompter, winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and Arlington Million, and of his sister Selection Board, who failed to win but gave birth to Ouija Board three years ago.

But then the development of the thoroughbred hinges on serendipitous instances of chance and compassion. For example, right at the beginning of the breed's existence in the 1740s, an old stallion called Squirt had been condemned by his owner, but as he was being led away to be destroyed his master had a change of heart. Squirt rallied admirably; at the age of 17 he sired Marske, and without Marske the course of Turf history would have been very different. For he, in turn, was responsible for that paragon as a runner and progenitor, Eclipse.

And nearly two centuries later the 17th Lord Derby (again) gave serious thought to putting down a small, weak foal born in 1930 at his Woodlands Stud on the outskirts of Newmarket. The tiny chestnut was reprieved and grew up to be Hyperion, winner of the 1933 Derby and St Leger and champion sire six times.

The latest Oaks heroine is not the only top-class horse in her family. Samanda's sister Almah became grand-dam of one of Australia's outstanding champions, Kingston Town; and other branches of the dynasty have produced Argument (Washington International), Cistus (Prix de l'Opera and Nassau Stakes), Lancastrian (Prix Ganay) and Owington (July Cup). Ouija was also grand-dam of Ibn Bey (four Group 1s) and Roseate Tern (Yorkshire Oaks). And Samanda is four-greats grand-dam of last year's Fillies' Mile winner Red Bloom.

Ouija Board was the first horse to win a Classic in the famous silks (the white top button on Kieren Fallon's black jacket has been incorporated since 1924, when Tommy Weston accidentally pulled his silk stock through the buttonhole before taking the Derby on Sansovino) since Sun Stream took the same race in 1945 and the appropriateness of her victory hardly needs stressing. The creation of the Derby, named 225 years ago after the famous coin-toss by the 13th Earl and his chum Lord Bunbury, changed the structure of the sport and without the 17th Earl, who bred not only Hyperion but other outstanding runners and stallions like Swynford, Phalaris, Fairway and Samanda's dam Alycidon, the thoroughbred as we know it today would not exist. The 19th Earl has inherited some legacy; seldom can filly and owner be so well-matched in their bloodlines.

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