Tom Rich­mond

Yorkshire Post - Sports Monday - - SPORT - ■ Email: tom.rich­mond@ypn.co.uk ■ Twit­ter: @Opin­ionYP

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.”

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