Racing was given a real jolt yesterday when Ballydoyle announced the bad news that St Nicholas Abbey, one of the best horses in the world, had suffered an injury so serious that it has not only resulted in his immediate retirement from the track, it has also put his life in jeopardy.
The six-year-old, who fractured a pastern in a routine piece of work, was later reported to be in a “comfortable condition” at Fethard Equine Hospital, where he will undergo surgery this morning.
The timing is especially cruel, just days before the colt’s bid for a seventh Group 1 triumph in the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on Saturday, but there could never be a right moment for such a devastating conclusion to what has been a glittering career.
As vets try to save the colt for another lucrative life at stud, the racing world, which had been looking forward with such relish to his weekend challenge, is now instead reflecting on past glories – and what glories they were.
We all suspected that St Nicholas Abbey might be something special when he took apart England’s best juveniles at Doncaster in 2009, but we had to wait another two years for that promise to be fulfilled as he then sat out most of the 2010 season – trainer Aidan O’Brien candidly blaming himself for “messing up” his Derby campaign.
Benefiting from the step up in distance his breeding always indicated would be the making of him, St Nicholas Abbey won the first of his three Coronation Cups in 2011 and went on that year to record a dazzling triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, partnered by O’Brien’s son, Joseph, who, at 18, became the youngest ever jockey to win a race at the American festival.
It is sobering to think that we would not have had the pleasure of witnessing any of this if the decision had been made to retire him to stud before he turned four. Nor would we have seen him demolish more top class opposition in the Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan this past spring, arguably the best performance of his life. This sport needs its stars to hang around for a while and St Nicholas Abbey didn’t just carry on racing, he trotted the globe and showed everybody what a great champion he was.
The King George was the one that got away. It was a race his sire, the recently deceased Montjeu, won without breaking sweat in 2000, but the patient riding tactics employed in both 2011 and last year were doomed to failure in slowly-run affairs. Saturday was meant to be the day when a rather more aggressive strategy would at last get the job done; when horse and rider would put the record straight.
But even without the cash and kudos of a King George victory, St Nicholas Abbey’s career stats stack up very nicely: nine wins from 21 races and total prize money close to £5m, a European record.
French raider Cirrus des Aigles, who may have ended up heading the market anyway with the ground expected to turn in his favour, is now a strong favourite at 13-8 ahead of the German-trained colt Novellist (4-1), who will be ridden by Johnny Murtagh. Ektihaam also has a new man on top – Dane O’Neill replacing Paul Hanagan, who has elected to ride Mukhadram at York instead.
Ascot’s showpiece remains a top class contest, of course, but there is no getting away from the feeling that it is not the race it should have been. And that doesn’t begin to compare to the hole left at Ballydoyle.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Bridgehampton (8.40 Sandown) Improved last season, winning three out of four on turf, and connections are confident there is plenty more to come this year.
Swift Cedar (7.30 Sandown) Progressing nicely, has pulled out enough to win his last two starts and so remains on an attractive handicap mark for this hat-trick bid.
One to watch
Whozthecat (Declan Carroll) won a valuable handicap at the Curragh last Sunday and will be a danger in the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood next week.
Where the money's going
South African-trained sprinter, Shea Shea, steadily backed for the Nunthorpe Stakes at York next month.
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