BY his own admission, Willie Carson had rarely been so nervous in his racing life.
He is outside the old stewards room at Doncaster waiting to learn if he’s won the St Leger on the Queen’s filly Dunfermline in 1977 – Silver Jubilee year.
The agonising wait goes on – and on. With each passing minute, the trepidation – and sense of dread – grows. Was the interference that significant?
Even though his great rival Lester Piggott on the previouslyunbeaten Alleged assured him the result would not be reversed, Carson is – by now – panicstricken.
He knows Piggott, by reputation, is even more singleminded than one Geoffrey Boycott, another sportsman in his prime, though Carson would not put it beyond his great rival to deny the Queen a big race.
And then the moment of truth after 20 agonising minutes – belated confirmation that Her Majesty’s horse had added a second Classic to her earlier victory in the Epsom Oaks.
Carson’s audible sigh of relief was eclipsed by the roar of the patriotic crowd on Town Moor who had lined the running rail in their tens of thousands. Forty years on, he still has nightmares.
“Until the result was confirmed, I was s******* myself,” a relieved Carson told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview ahead of this Saturday’s William Hill St Leger.
“I was on tenterhooks because I did bump Alleged. It was touch and go, I suppose. Lester told me it wouldn’t be a problem but, in those days, you touched a hair and you were in trouble.
“And I thought I was in trouble.”
The 1977 renewal of the world’s oldest Classic was not just one of the most memorable in the history of a race inaugurated in 1776.
It was, arguably, the defining contest of a racing summer dominated by the burgeoning rivalry between Carson, the Scot with the unmistakable cackle, and the stony-faced Piggott who had a new challenger to his status as the housewives’ favourite.
These great jockeys had already fought out a vintage Epsom Derby – Carson’s unheralded mount Hot Grove narrowly losing to Piggott’s harddriven The Minstrel – before Dunfermline won the Oaks at Epsom three days later in the Royal colours.
The jockey was relieved in more ways than one. En route to Epsom, Carson’s Ferrari collided with another vehicle. It was a race against time to get to the track as panic grew. “No mobile phones in those days,” he reminded me. “It was a bit hairy.”
Though greater dramas were to follow, Carson and Dunfermline weaved their way through the field to win – the only regret being that the Queen was not present because of Royal duties.
“There was one person who wasn’t going to miss the race – and that was the Queen Mother. She was there,” he recalled.
“We went up to the Royal Box afterwards and the Champagne has never tasted better. I took a phone call from the Queen.”
Yet hopes of St Leger success appeared optimistic. For, while Dunfermline was suffering a shock defeat in the Yorkshire Oaks, the imperious Alleged was winning the Great Voltigeur Stakes on York’s Knavesmire.
Though Dunfermline’s trainer Dick Hern attributed the defeat to the absence of a pacemaker to make the race a true test of stamina, Carson disagreed. “She had been coughing and there were some issues,” he said. “She wasn’t 100 per cent.”
And The Yorkshire Post concurred. On St Leger day, the big race preview was headlined ‘Alleged should be clear cut winner’ in which Victor Green – The Duke – ventured: “From the moment that Lester Piggott gave orders to Alleged to quicken his pace two and a half furlongs out in York’s Great Voltigeur Stakes, the St Leger has looked as good as over.”
Like Epsom, the Queen – to her lingering regret – was a notable absentee, not because she, too, had dismissed Dunfermline’s chances but because duty called (she was hosting James Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, at Balmoral).
However, Hern and Carson took no chances, with the jockey bristling at the suggestion that they headed to Doncaster “more in hope that expectation”. “We had a better chance than that,” he said pointedly.
Dunfermline’s stablemate Gregarious set a strong pace and was still leading when Piggott and Alleged, trained by the brilliant Vincent O’Brien, challenged shortly after turning into the long home straight. It was a rare tactical misjudgment on Piggott’s part as he sought an eighth St Leger. By doing so, he provided Dunfermline with a target to chase down. “Lester went too soon. He didn’t do it often,” noted Carson who could not believe his luck.
Yet, as Piggott drew his whip two furlongs out, Dunfermline was still closing and the two protagonists momentarily touched as the Queen’s horse poked her nose in front.
To the accompaniment of the famous St Leger roar, the Royal horse had a length and a half in hand at the winning post. They were in a different parish to their trailing rivals. And then the drama of the stewards inquiry which even took ITV by surprise – its viewers were none the wiser because the broadcaster had gone to a commercial break.
For 20 minutes, the stewards deliberated before Carson could accept a congratulatory phone call from an excited owner who had been watching the race on TV.
The victory noted The Yorkshire Post’s report, was special because of Alleged’s lofty reputation. “For years, an influential body of opinion has derided the Doncaster Classic as a second-eleven fixture but when the Free Handicap is published later this year it will show Dunfermline and Alleged out on their own and ahead of the Derby winner, The Minstrel.”
Dunfermline did not win another race. She finished fourth in the following month’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe to Alleged who would prove his true greatness by successfully defending Europe’s blue riband race in 1978.
Yet Carson believes his horse was one of the best to carry the Royal colours and was certainly superior to Her Majesty’s Estimate who won the 2013 Ascot Gold Cup for stayers. “The Oaks and St Leger are Classics. They’re the races you most want to win, whether breeder, owner trainer or rider. They’re not many horses that win two of them in a year,” he added.
“Looking back, Dunfermline was very, very special. She was basically very masculine. She wasn’t good looking. She was a ‘plain Jane’ type of animal. She was always in control. Stamina. A galloper. She could sustain a relentless gallop at a high tempo. She got from A to B faster than most. And the only horse to beat Alleged, who is regarded as one of the greats because he won two Arcs.
“She was special...but that stewards inquiry? Don’t go there.”