Career-ended St Nicholas Abbey – A Tribute
Tuesday 30 July 2013
The thought of certain horses makes your blood rush, and St Nicholas Abbey is one of them. As a racehorse, he is a Breeders’ Cup Turf and three-time Coronation winner, a Dubai victor, a modern thoroughbred with almost £5 million in the kitty. But as an animal, he is a six-year-old son of Montjeu, a lithe bay horse with a high galloping action and rattling stride, a face narrow and refined as if Arab. He is a warrior down famous straights, has run into all sorts of famous names, and fame... well, it has come to him in all disguises since 2007. A Classics contender, a Breeders’ Cup hero, an Arc failure, a Frankel chaser, a Coronation legend.
A stricken racehorse.
Mid-last week, news trickled off the wire that St Nicholas Abbey had landed a ‘career-ending injury’ at Ballydoyle. It was the kind of news that floored horse racing, for this animal is one of the great sticking stories of our sport. Reports that he was injured wiped the King George of its banner entrant. But ‘injured’ didn’t quite cut what had happened in Tipperary. Nineteen screws, a plate in his pastern and a bone graft, and then word that colic complications had led to further surgery. How was it possible, I wondered, that I had never met this horse, but his fate had completely consumed my week?
It’s Tuesday evening as of writing, and St Nic, like his career, sticks on. It’s not surprising really. On the track, he had showed zero hints of tiring. He had sprung into 2013 with a clattering victory in the Sheema Classic at Meydan back in March, and followed it up with a history-making win in his third Coronation. But in a racing age where retirement falls at three for most of our ‘champions’, at the very most, four, this fellow, this six-year-old, was a blasting advertisement for training on. And his mileage said it all – twenty-one starts and five globetrotting seasons through Frankel, Snow Fairy, Danedream and Cirrus des Aigles, Sea Moon, Red Cadeaux, Nathaniel and Midday. An old-fashioned, well-seasoned marvel.
St Nicholas Abbey seems stained with that deep pot of Sadler’s Wells gold, the rare stuff that has lined the pipes of Europe’s best for decades. His damside is unremarkable. Leaping Water was an unraced English mare by the slick miler Sure Blade (who proved a pretty useless sire). She went to America for a brief stint, visiting mediocre stallions in matings that sounded nothing, until her half-brothers Aristotle and Ballingarry suggested she might do well on Sadler’s Wells. She did. Covered by Montjeu in 2006, she dropped St Nicholas Abbey on 13 April 2007, and he has gilted her name forever. Funny how a champion can do that. St Nicholas Abbey appears a one-hit wonder for Leaping Water, making him, as Tony Morris wrote in the ‘Racing Post’ back in 2009, ‘a faithful scion of the Sadler’s Wells tribe’.
If we can cling to recent optimism, St Nic will be a neon Montjeu at stud, and you can see why Coolmore has battled so hard to save him. But he was more to them than dollars and cents. He was a perennial, a stable favourite whose misfortune last week made Aidan O’Brien publicly sad, and that had nothing to do with him losing a King George favourite. Absolutely nothing.
There was something grand and glorious about unassuming St Nicholas Abbey, about his tremendous splaying stride, his narrow nose. And though the idea of a stricken racehorse is terrible, the picture of them on the ground unsettling because we know them at their strongest, their fastest, the idea of stricken St Nic was even worse. Somehow, this fellow, above most others, has really, really earned the oats of retirement.
(Picture above by author: St Nicholas Abbey before the 2012 Juddmonte)
Al Kazeem. Climbing.
Monday 08 July 2013
The first I heard of Al Kazeem was when he upturned the Camelot apple cart. That was the end of May this year, when only four horses took to post for the Tattersall’s Gold Cup at the Curragh. It should have been a soft win for Camelot, but he was put on his backside inside two furlongs. Al Kazeem was all sprint that day in a victory that surprised almost everyone. It’s the middle of July now, and the Welsh horse is four for four, undefeated this fair season.
After the Coral-Eclipse last weekend, I pulled up his record. The horse is a five-year-old now, a plain bay by Dubawi out of a Darshaan mare. But his record is pretty exceptional. After an unplaced first start in 2010, Al Kazeem has never, yes never, been out of the first two placings. He has raced 12 times all up, eight times in group status, for seven wins. His last five starts (all wins) read like this: Gr2, Gr3, Gr1, Gr1, Gr1. He has bounced through Camelot (twice), Mukhadram (twice), The Fugue, Mars and Declaration Of War, Thomas Chippendale (god rest him) and Sea Moon. And while these names might not wither superlatives like a Frankel or Shergar or Nijinsky, the name ‘Al Kazeem’ may yet. He is blazing down a path strangely familiar to race fans, one cut and trod by Sea The Stars.
Now hold up a second...
Not for a moment has Al Kazeem proved his measure like Sea The Stars. That horse was only three when he steered Mick Kinane through a fantastical 2009 season, a campaign that would have levelled any older horse – the 2000 Guineas, English Derby, Coral-Eclipse, Juddmonte, Irish Champion Stakes and, ah, the Arc. Will we ever see it again? It was an agenda that was as ridiculous as it was ambitious, yet it was no match for Sea The Stars. That year, I was waiting for terrible defeat and, delightfully, it didn’t come. But what has this to do with Al Kazeem?
Well, the Dubawi bay might surge on undefeated this season. We know his team are eyeing the Arc as a finale, as did Sea The Stars, and the route they take to reach it could be soft and safe, or it could be cold and courageous. With the King George probably out, that leaves a possible start for Al Kazeem in the Juddmonte in late August or the Irish Champion in early September. If he wins either, it will be trumpets all the way to Intello in early October. And should he win the Arc, and personally I think he is brilliant enough, he’ll be six for six this season, as was Sea The Stars in 2009. Like Sea The Stars, it might be six victories in six months in three countries, even if it won’t be six Gr1s (you can’t have everything).
Of course, that’s assuming Al Kazeem can win the Arc. Since the Eclipse, much cyber-column has been devoted to this very question. There are the sceptics that feel the horse is a grinding, one-paced sort of fellow without the stamina to stick a mile-and-a-half. There are others that kneel at the church of Intello. What do I think?
Well, I see a little of Sea The Stars in Al Kazeem. He wins economically, usually by little more than a length, sometimes two. When things get dirty inside the final two, he puts his head down, his ears back, and digs into reserves that only really good horses own. And there’s nothing tardy about him. His time in last weekend’s Coral-Eclipse was 2:04:35, just under a second off the race’s record held by, you guessed it, Sea The Stars. And Al Kazeem, if he wins next out, will head to Paris with a record far more upstanding than many of the Arc’s previous winners. He’s already streets ahead of many of them in the ratings, and he has tactile ability on soft (a la the Jockey Club Stakes) and the quick (Coral-Eclipse). In a normal year, with or without Intello, I’d say Al Kazeem was a good thing for Longchamps.
But that’s racing for you, a game full of predictions and retrospect. And sometimes all we are left with is a truly lovely horse, which is what Al Kazeem is. He is not flashy or colourful, much as Sea The Stars wasn’t. Nor is he dazzling dominance like Frankel. He is a plain bay entire with predictably good breeding, a high-set tail in running and a record that makes you wonder where the hell he came from. But who cares? It’s dazzling just to have him around.