Sport Horse Racing

Sunday 23 July 2017

Something for every generation in stallion's story

Sadler's Wells represents the past and the future of racing, writes John O'Brien

When the news filtered through that Sadler's Wells had passed away at the age of 30, it didn't just signal the end of the most successful sire of thoroughbreds the modern racing world has known. It marked too the passing of one of the last remaining equine links -- and certainly the greatest -- with the genius that was Vincent O'Brien. Gradually, the remnants of Ballydoyle's first great racing empire are disappearing from our view.

Among the tributes that poured in the most memorable came from ordinary racing fans who had visited Coolmore and seen Sadler's Wells up close in his box. There was an unmistakable aura about the old horse, they observed, like he was perfectly conscious of his status, as if even in retirement he remained the focal point around which the place revolved. Thirty years of pampering and being treated like a king would confer that on any animal.

Sadler's Wells wasn't any animal, of course. It has always been customary when outlining his importance to list the great racehorses he produced and, more recently, the wonderful sires who inevitably began to usurp his position at the top of the international classifications. But that long scroll of champions, on its own, doesn't fully explain his critical role in the establishment of Coolmore as the world's leading breeding centre.

For O'Brien, Sadler's Wells was a reward, a glorious outcome of the faith he had placed in Northern Dancer as a sire in the early 1970s -- a momentous, far-reaching gamble. When the going got sticky for Coolmore in the 1990s and the Maktoum family were spending huge sums in the acquisition of horse flesh, the steady income and line of fresh talent provided by Sadler's Wells helped them stay in the game. When Galileo finally delivered a Derby in 2001, it was Ballydoyle's first in 19 years.

Without O'Brien none of it may have been achievable. It's easy to forget that when he brought Nijinsky over from Canada, his initial entry into the Northern Dancer bloodline, there were shrewd judges in America who doubted the wisdom of his venture. Too highly-strung, they warned. And when O'Brien prepared Nijinsky for the Derby, those same judges predicted that a son of Northern Dancer wouldn't stay 12 furlongs. O'Brien proved them wrong on that score.

Time hasn't diminished the breadth and audacity of that vision. There are those who baulk at the vast wealth Coolmore has harvested through its breeding operation and attribute it, at least in part, to the favourable tax status that Charles Haughey implemented as minister for finance in 1969. But could Haughey, even at his most cunning, have envisaged the profound implications of that initiative? And without it, who's to say O'Brien and his business partners wouldn't have created their racing empire?

Anyway, if you were a kid growing up in the '70s, the intricacies of breeding and stud values belonged to a hidden, obscure world. What mattered were the bluebloods and those famous blue and green silks on board the Robert Sangster-owned horses that O'Brien so diligently prepared for the racetrack. Sons and daughters of Northern Dancer appeared like BMWs off a German production line: El Gran Senor, Storm Bird, The Minstrel, Woodstream, Try My Best.

Ballydoyle horses had the best names and, even better, you could go to the racecourse and watch the incomparable Lester Piggott, standing impossibly tall in his stirrups, steer them past the jamstick. Piggott rode winners not just at The Curragh and Leopardstown but occasionally too at smaller tracks like Naas or Tipperary. On one memorable afternoon he rode three winners for O'Brien at Killarney.

Piggott was gone by the time Sadler's Wells began his racing career in 1983, succeeded at Ballydoyle by Pat Eddery. The winners still flowed if at a less steady rate than before. Eddery would ride Sadler's Wells to success in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and Eclipse Stakes although, in the light of his subsequent exploits at stud, anything he achieved on the racecourse necessarily pales into insignificance by comparison.

Yet type Sadler's Wells into YouTube and the first result that comes up has nothing to do with dancing but shows O'Brien's horse winning the inaugural Phoenix Champion Stakes in 1984. To the backdrop of Julian Wilson's commentary, Eddery and Sadler's Wells hold off the sustained challenge of Cash Asmussen and Seattle Song, displaying the speed and resilience which he would subsequently pass onto his progeny.

What makes it such poignant viewing is that it harks back to a time when Flat racing had a strong foothold in the capital city. A dedicated Flat course beside the rolling pastures of the Phoenix Park around which a knot of trainers, Jim Bolger included, maintained their strings. Dublin's Longchamp as it were. Now, blocks of humdrum apartments stand in a place that was once home to a majestic sporting venue.

And yet how odd that Sadler's Wells should evoke such nostalgic feelings. Because this is a horse whose legacy will endure for generations of stock still to come.

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