Gra­ham Bud­dry re­mem­bers Royal Academy’s great­est race which brought a fit­ting fi­nale for Lester Pig­gott

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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.

Lester Pig­gott

Royal Academy with John Reid

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