Graham Buddry looks back on the career of Commanche Run
Graham Buddry remembers the great Commanche Run who swept Piggott to victory in the 1984 St Leger
The mid 1980s were great years for racing with a plethora of brilliant horses, far more than just the odd two or three we sometimes get. We also had the spectacle of Frank Buckle’s long-standing record of English Classic winners being challenged 157 years after he rode his twenty seventh and final one, 35 years after his first in 1792.
Lester Piggott is a legend in his own lifetime, a jockey of unmatchable class and strength with a unique style in the saddle that even your old granny could spot a mile off. Like Buckle, he started his English Classic winning haul by landing the Derby as an 18-year-old, steering Never Say Die to victory.
Thirty years later he equalled Buckle’s record when winning the Oaks on Circus Plume yet with all those English Classic victories to cherish and recall in retirement among other big races, on horses whose names trip off the tongue like nectar, one of the very best, and most versatile, is often overlooked.
Commanche Run raced in the unusual colours of red with a double chevron on the body of his owner, Ivan Allen, soon to become a close friend of Piggott’s. Allen was actually a trainer in his own right, having recently taken over a licence in Singapore on the death of his father but Commanche Run was trained in England by Luca Cumani. Piggott maintained in later life that Commanche Run was one of his favourite horses and it’s not hard to see why.
It was as a late developing three year old that Commanche Run started to make his presence felt in the racing world. Third place in the King Edward VII Stakes at Ascot over 1m3f to Head for Heights was followed with the same place behind the same horse over a furlong further at Newmarket next time out. Cumani and his stable jockey, the American Darrel McHargue were unsure about the best distance for the colt, one line of thought wanting to drop him back in distance, the other thinking he needed further. Eventually it was decided his next race would be the Gordon Stakes at Goodwood.
McHargue was suspended at the time and Allen urged Cumani to employ Piggott for the ride and as it turned out this proved a blessing in disguise. Piggott scored a runaway success on the colt but, as always, it was his uncanny insight into a horse that was equally invaluable. Returning to the winner’s enclosure after an easy victory, Piggott was of the opinion that Commanche Run could get further and then added that he had such speed he would be equally as effective over shorter. In essence we had an oddity where a mile and a half was too far for his blistering speed and too short for his ample reserves of stamina and he needed either shorter or longer to be seen to his best advantage.
Cumani digested this and pencilled in his next race as the March Stakes back at Goodwood but up in distance to 1mile 6f with a clear view of the St Leger as a prime target if all went well. McHargue returned from his suspension and took the ride as Cumani stayed loyal to his retained stable jockey. Commanche Run got the distance well and won, setting up an interesting set of events for the final Classic of the season at Doncaster.
It was well known that Piggott was just one Classic victory from the record but he didn’t have a firm ride in the race yet. This was compounded by time out with a bad injury when falling from a horse at Yarmouth when the saddle slipped round in the closing stages and he was dragged along the rock hard turf. Piggott was eventually back riding barely two weeks before the St. Leger and despite some speculation that he would ride Commanche Run, Cumani insisted his stable jockey would retain the mount. Four days before the race Allen, the owner, and burgeoning friend of Piggott, insisted that it was his prerogative to have Lester on board his own horse.
The next day, as the Press speculated that Piggott had phoned up for the ride as he had certainly done many times in days past, it was surpassed by news that Commanche Run had fallen in the covered ride at the stable and injured his knees, making him a doubtful starter.
With constant care and attention it wasn’t until Saturday morning that Commanche Run, the favourite, was finally declared fit and well enough for the race where his only serious rival appeared to be the Aga Khan’s Baynoun. Recent winner of the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot and the Geoffrey Freer at Newbury, Baynoun was ridden by the brilliant young American, Steve Cauthen, soon to be crowned British Champion Jockey.
In the pre-race preliminaries Commanche Run was far from his usual calm self and many thought he had lost his race before getting to the post but he settled well enough in second place as the race got under way with Baynoun not far away and watching his every move. As they turned into the long home straight at Doncaster with a full half mile still to go, Commanche Run hit the front and Baynoun immediately moved through to challenge. Two out and to many it looked as though Baynoun had his measure and momentarily got his nose in front but soon we saw Piggott at his strongest and best. In perfect rhythm with the horse he drove his willing partner back in front and stayed there like no other jockey could have done to win by a neck.
The favourite had won thanks to a Piggott master class as he claimed a record 28th English Classic and the crowd cheered the pair to the echo, all thought of how he secured the ride forgotten. As Piggott dismounted he quipped: “I didn’t realise they cared so much.”
The following season Commanche Run reverted to 1 mile for the Brigadier Gerard Stakes at Sandown where he destroyed his field by 12 lengths, Pig- gott now his regular partner. The Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot looked a match between Commanche Run and the great filly, Pebbles, who beat her adversary by a short head.
However, the talented yet unconsidered Bob Back floored them both.
All three were due to meet again for the Eclipse back at Sandown with Rainbow Quest also in the field for what looked an unforgettable confrontation. Unfortunately Commanche Run went lame going down to the start and had to be withdrawn as wonder filly Pebbles became the first of her sex to win the Eclipse in its 99 year history, Rainbow Quest holding Bob Back for the minor places.
Commanche Run was fit again by the time of what is now the International at York, again over 1¼mile, and faced another filly of the highest possible class in Oh So Sharp, the hot favourite. Cumani thought it best to let the filly lead and try to pass her in the straight but Piggott thought otherwise and
shot Commanche Run out of the stalls and immediately into the lead. Oh So Sharp sat a length behind in second all the way round as Piggott gradually increased the pace until they had the filly at full stretch and the rest, including another top race mare in Triptych, struggling behind. Just inside the final half mile Piggott had a long look round then kicked again and the spoils were theirs. Oh So Sharp was brilliant but on his day there were few who could live with Commanche Run.
That year there was a million dollar bonus on offer for any horse who could win that race and both the English and Irish Champion Stakes. Sportingly Commanche Run’s next appearance was at Phoenix Park in a display nothing short of awesome. Like watching a Rolls Royce racing against Reliant Robins with dodgy spark plugs Commanche Run glided along at the head of the field, oozing class, then pulled effortlessly away as the rest coughed and spluttered in his imperious wake.
With two legs secured the bonus sadly proved a step too far after a busy season. Never able to fully dominate he also had the misfortune to run into Pebbles at her own scintillating best with the recent Derby winner, Slip Anchor, a well held second as Commanche Run faded close home.
It was unfortunate that Commanche Run ran in the same period when so many other great horses made headlines around the world and he was thus often overlooked. A brilliant horse over 10 furlongs with the class to win a Classic over 14, perhaps his biggest claim to fame was in giving Lester Piggott his record breaking 28th English Classic success. For the record, Piggott went on to ride two more Two Thousand Guineas winners, taking his tally to an unprecedented 30 before finally retiring.
After only moderate success at Coolmore Stud, Commanche Run was transferred to Astley Grange Stud in Leicestershire in 1999 and lived a long and contented retirement until his death in March 2005 at the age of 25.
For those of us lucky enough to have witnessed those distant days at first hand, though, Commanche Run is fondly remembered as a shining star in a rare galaxy of equine excellence.
Commanche Run and Lester Piggott beat Baynoun in the 1984 St Leger