Racing: Salute the Brave, last of the heroes

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The Independent Online
DANCING BRAVE, the 1986 European horse of the year, has died at stud in Japan at the age of 16, apparently from a heart attack. The horse, trained by Guy Harwood for Khalid Abdullah, famously lost his Derby but did win the 2,000 Guineas, Eclipse Stakes, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. And if, as the English 19th century essayist William Hazlitt observed, the test of greatness is the page of history, then the chapter on Dancing Brave must be near the front of the book.

His exploits, particularly his mesmerising performance at Longchamp, make him pretty well unarguably the greatest British Flat champion of the last quarter of a century. And odorous though comparisons may be, they and opinions are part of the fun of racing. Of horses trained in Britain and Ireland in the post-war era, Dancing Brave would have had to defer only to Brigadier Gerard, Mill Reef and Nijinsky, and over a mile to Tudor Minstrel. The quality of his vanquished rivals puts him ahead of Shergar, and though he might not have beaten earlier superstars like Bayardo, Hurry On, Hyperion, Windsor Lad or Pretty Polly, he might have made them go a bit.

Dancing Brave, an American-bred son of Lyphard, cost $200,000 as a yearling in Kentucky. In common with many by his sire he was not a particularly handsome youngster, but James Delahooke, Abdullah's advisor at the time, saw beyond the design faults to the liberty of action and generous heart- room. As a May foal the colt was given time to develop and raced only twice at two, but his wins in minor mile contests, plus his home reputation, were enough to make him winter favourite for the Guineas.

On the big day, with an easy Craven Stakes victory under his girth, he treated his supporters to a display of the blinding acceleration that became his hallmark as he rocketed three lengths clear of Green Desert, later a high-class sprinter.

The question of whether he could reproduce that change of gear over a mile and a half was answered at Epsom, but in a wholly unsatisfactory fashion. Greville Starkey rode an extraordinary race on the 2-1 favourite, with only two behind him running down the hill. His exaggerated waiting tactics misfired badly, for although he was catching Shahrastani like a speeding bullet up the straight, the post came half a length too soon.

Starkey kept the ride in the Eclipse, in which Dancing Brave beat Triptych easily by four lengths. But Pat Eddery took over for the King George on the horse whose progress captured the imagination of the lay as well as racing public.

Eddery later admitted that he hit the front too soon at Ascot, taken there well before the furlong pole by his mount's scything run through the field. Shardari had time to launch a counter-attack, but Dancing Brave showed that he was not only brilliant, but also resolute, digging in under pressure to hold his rival, later winner of the York International, by three-parts of a length.

Then, after a warm-up in an uncompetitive Select Stakes, came the greatest test. Those who went to Epsom expected something out of the ordinary; those of us who were lucky enough to be in Paris on 5 October saw it.

The field for the 1986 Arc was richer in quality than any since the 1965 renewal, when Sea-Bird trounced Reliance and Diatome, yet Dancing Brave started 11-10 favourite. A quarter of a mile from home, six Group 1 winners - Acatenango, Triptych, Shardari, Darara, Shahrastani and Bering - were starting to range in line abreast.

Bering, the French Derby winner, forged to the front a furlong out and there was momentary panic among the Brave's supporters. Then, in a trice, it was all over. Eddery launched him down the centre of the track and with a truly electrifying burst he went past the best middle-distance horses in Europe as if they were standing still, beating Bering by a length and a half in a record time.

Anything else might have been anti-climax, and, sadly, it was. In the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita his famed finishing kick was lacking as he came in fourth behind three top-class US grass runners Manila, Theatrical and Estrapade.

Between the Derby and the Eclipse, Abdullah sold an interest in Dancing Brave to Sheikh Mohammed, and he duly retired to stud at the latter's Dalham Hall near Newmarket with a paper valuation of pounds 14m. And drama followed him to his new career. After one season he was found to be suffering from a rare equine illness, Marie's Disease and, although he pulled through, the associated stresses may have contributed to his comparatively early death.

After five seasons at stud in Britain, during which time his early crops had proved most disappointing, Dancing Brave was controversially sold to stand at the Shizunai Stallion Station. And, as seems to happen in the case of many stallions who are exported or die, his stock immediately began to excel themselves. An extraordinary 1990 crop produced eight Pattern winners from 39 foals, including Commander In Chief, Wemyss Bight, White Muzzle and Ivanka. He also had the top-class filly Cherokee Rose, and two Grade One winners in Japan, where he was sixth on the sires' list three years ago.

But on balance, he will not leave a lasting mark on the breed into the next century. Those of us who saw him race had the best of him and will be grateful that we will always, always have Paris.