Graham Buddry remembers Royal Academy’s greatest race which brought a fitting finale for Lester Piggott
Graham Buddry looks back at Royal Academy
By any standards Lester Piggott was a colossus of the racing world,yet for all he achieved at the height of his success and powers, it was a later event which would go down in history as his defining moment.
Piggott won an astounding 30 English Classics, including nine victories in the Derby, the first as a teenager in 1954. Eleven times champion jockey in an era where there were a whole host of exceptionally talented riders was down to his commitment, undoubted talent, incredible strength in a finish and near obsession to ride the best horses. With a training talent equally as great in the legendary Vincent O’Brien it is little wonder they won almost every race of note together with horses such as Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, The Minstrel and Alleged.
Instantly recognisable on a horse due to his unique style, it was a shock to the racing world when he split with O’Brien in 1980 to take up duties as stable jockey to Henry Cecil at Warren Place in Newmarket. More success was inevitable during their four-year association with Piggott eventually retiring a year later.
The 1984 Derby saw his replacement with O’Brien, the talented Pat Eddery, cruising into the closing stages on El Gran Senor and then having to fend off the strong late challenge of Secreto in the closing stages.In a rare tussle Eddery just failed to force his mount’s head in front on the line, going down in a photo finish. Famously Piggott bumped into O’Brien in the grandstand later that day and uttered the immortal line:“Do you miss me?”
A brief training career and other issues soon lost Piggott to the sport as he settled into his well-earned retirement.
Horse racing is perhaps unique in sport in that it is a true double act and no matter how good one participant may be, there can be no glory without a willing and able partner of similar standing. For this story the horse in question is Royal Academy.
A Nijinsky colt foaled in 1987, Royal Academy would race only seven times with all bar his last race under his regular jockey, the very talented, but underrated, John Reid. After winning a 14-runner maiden at the Curragh by ten comfortable lengths,Royal Academy came over to Newmarket as the short priced favourite for the Dewhurst Stakes. In a very sub standard field Royal Academy made his move at the‘bushes’but weakened quickly soon afterwards to finish a poor sixth of the seven runners, four lengths adrift of the winner, Dashing Blade.
As a three-year-old he returned to the Curragh on 28 April 1990 for a mediocre Group 3 event and won as a 1/3 favourite should, but hardly shaking up the racing world. He returned to the course three weeks later for the Irish Two Thousand Guineas where he would be taking on the first and second from the English equivalent. In that race Tirol had defeated the previously unbeaten Machiavellian by two lengths. Significantly, Dashing Blade had also been in that race, finishing a good 13 lengths behind the winner, in twelfth place.On form lines this looked as though Royal Academy had little chance of success.
With Tirol racing up with the pace,Royal Academy settled towards the rear with Machiavellian who did well eventually to finish fourth after a very troubled run.Tirol took the lead three furlongs from home and Royal Academy started his run a furlong later,getting to and then passing the leader inside the distance.Tirol was a real fighter and rallied well while Royal Academy had stretched his stamina to the limit and started to weaken, the line coming just too late with Tirol prevailing by a neck to land a Guineas double.
Reid had his finest hour on the horse
next time out when they dropped back to six furlongs for the July Cup at Newmarket. Again Royal Academy started his challenge two furlongs out and again he got his head in front inside the last hundred yards but over this shorter distance he kept it there to record his biggest win to date by three parts of a length.
It was clear that this was the best distance for Royal Academy and duly he lined up at Haydock for the Ladbroke Sprint Cup. Unfortunately, there was a certain Dayjur around at the time and this near unbeatable sprinter made all, went clear close home and won as comfortably as an odds-on chance should.Royal Academy didn’t get the clearest of runs but he was never going to get much closer than the 1½ lengths separating the first and second at the line. Tellingly there was a five length gulf back to the third horse to confirm that this distance was his ideal.
Dayjur added the Prix l’Abbaye to his incredible haul of big sprint victories after Haydock and, with him contesting the Breeders Cup Sprint, O’Brien opted to send Royal Academy for the mile event, reasoning that the tight American tracks would help his horse get the distance with Belmont being sharper than most. The only problem was that in the recent French race won by Dayjur,John Reid had been injured in a bad fall before the start and would be out of action for some time, so a new jockey would have to be found for the horse.
Some time earlier Piggott had visited O’Brien at Ballydoyle and, still being reasonably fit as he would be riding in a veteran’s charity race quite soon,he rode some work for his old boss. Some weeks later,after pondering things over,O’Brien contacted Piggott and suggested he make a comeback five years after he had hung up his saddle. On 9 October 1990 the 54year-old was passed 100% fit and soon afterwards was granted a licence to race. His comeback took place at lowly Leices- ter on a Monday in October and the place was packed with race fans and Press. When asked if his style of riding would change, Piggott quipped: “No. Still one leg each side.” The fairytale didn’t quite happen as his first ride back finished a very close second.
It didn’t take long though to notch up a double and then another winner as well as a third place in the Dewhurst behind Generous. The following Tuesday, with Reid injured,Piggott flew to the Curragh to ride four for O’Brien.They all won.The end of that week,barely ten days since his return to the saddle, was Breeders Cup weekend and Piggott was confirmed on board Royal Academy.
In the days before the race they cantered on the course together for the first time, both relaxed and happy with each other.Royal Academy,however,had a foot condition which meant he could not be shod in the normal way with nails, so sported special plastic covered steel
shoes which were glued straight onto his feet. They weighed slightly more than conventional racing plates and he would carry extra weight in his tack as well in heavier girths and a thicker rubber pad under the saddle, leaving Piggott slightly pressed to make the 8st 10lbs weight they were due to carry.
The Breeders Cup that year is famous for Dayjur throwing away his winning run in the sprint when jumping a shadow on the track in the closing stages, but soon it was time for the mile event. Royal Academy bucked once while being ponied to the start so Piggott broke away and cantered down in the European manner. Royal Academy was also a long horse and didn’t like going into the stalls but being drawn in stall one he was put in first.
Surprisingly this settled him down to the extent that when the stalls burst open a short while later he seemed half asleep and came out in a heap.
Last in the early stages was not a problem though as Royal Academy was basically a sprinter and a furious pace was expected for the first half mile so the plan was to bring him through off the pace to ensure he stayed the distance.
Down the back straight and Piggott eased his mount up a few places on the outside as the leaders hammered away up front. Half way through the turn for home and Royal Academy had moved smoothly up to seventh,just six lengths off the lead, then, straightening up for home and with barely a furlong left to race, the magic happened. The two leaders were together on the rails, others trying their best close behind,and down the middle of the track came the distinctive figure of the 54-year-old grandfather asking his mount as only he could. Royal Academy responded like a champion, thundering down the centre, his head stretched for the line, every sinew giving its all as they caught and passed the leader just yards before the wire to land an incredible victory.
Royal Academy retired to Coolmore’s stud in Kentucky,where he sired 1997 One Thousand Guineas winner, Sleepytime andVal Royal,the 2001 Breeders Cup Mile winner.Also of note,Royal Academy is the grandsire of that superlative Australian sprinter, Black Caviar. Eventually transferred to Coolmore’s Stud in Australia, Royal Academy died of natural causes on 22 February 2012 aged 25.
He had earned his dues, as had his jockey and the magic of Royal Academy and Lester Piggott on that hot afternoon in 1990 will live with racing fans forever.
Royal Academy with John Reid