Donn's Articles » Camelot


On the brink of history

At around 3.40pm this Saturday, on a racecourse that lies on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Doncaster in the north of England, a racehorse called Camelot will bid accomplish a feat that no other racehorse has managed to accomplish in over four decades.

Doncaster racecourse is home to the St Leger, the final Classic race of the season, the third leg of the coveted Triple Crown. The 2000 Guineas, the Derby, the St Leger, rat-tat-tat, that’s the Triple Crown, except that it’s not rat-tat-tat at all, it is actually nigh on impossible to win.

Nijinsky in 1970 is the last horse to win all three legs. Richard Nixon was President of America in 1970, Eamonn De Valera was President of Ireland, Harold Wilson was Prime Minister of the UK. That’s how long ago 1970 is.

Camelot has already won the 2000 Guineas and the Derby. On Saturday, the three-year-old colt, trained by Aidan O’Brien, one of the best trainers of racehorses in the world today, races for a place in history.

Nijinsky was a remarkable racehorse. Trained by Vincent O’Brien (related to Aidan only through their shared genius and horse-sense), from the same Ballydoyle base that is now home to Aidan, he won the Anglesey Stakes, the Railway Stakes, the Beresford Stakes and the Dewhurst Stakes as a two-year-old, four of the top races on the European racing calendar for juvenile colts. Then he won the Gladness Stakes at The Curragh on his debut as a three-year-old before embarking on his Triple Crown quest. He won the 2000 Guineas doing handsprings, and he won the Derby as easily as he liked. “Always cantering,” said Lester Piggott afterwards. His rider’s economy of words mirroring the horse’s economy of effort.

After taking in the Irish Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes for good measure, Nijinsky was fully expected to win the 1970 St Leger at Doncaster. Stepping up to a mile and six and a half furlongs for the first time, two and a half furlongs further than he had ever gone before, the 2/7 favourite duly saw out the trip well enough to prevail. He only had a length in hand of Meadowville at the line, but it didn’t matter – he was a Triple Crown hero, immortalised for posterity in a statue that stands proudly at the Ballydoyle gates these days.

The Triple Crown has never been easy. Nijinsky himself was the first horse in 35 years to win it, and the fact that no other horse has managed to emulate him since puts the magnitude of his achievement into context. Nashwan won the Guineas and the Derby in 1989, but he was retired after he got beaten in the Prix Niel. Reference Point won the Derby and the St Leger, but he didn’t even contest the Guineas.

Therein lies the crux of the Triple Crown, right there in the range of talents that a racehorse must possess if he is to even give himself a chance of winning all three legs. Firstly, he must have the speed and the precocity to win the Guineas over a mile at Newmarket against the best milers of his generation. Secondly, he must have the pace and the durability, the soundness of limb and of mind to be able to win a Derby around Epsom’s helter-skelter and surrounded at every juncture by the open-top busses and the cheering masses. Thirdly, he must have the stamina to see off the best stayers of his era over the Leger trip, just a furlong and a half shy of two miles, which ends at the end of the fifth furlong of Doncaster’s punishing home straight.

On top of all of that, he has to remain sound from April to September, from the spring to the autumn, from the start of the flat season almost until the end, with not much room for an intake of breath in between races. Finally, he has to have an owner who is willing to go down the Triple Crown route and he has to have a trainer who is able to take him there, keep him sound, manage his energy. Fortunately, Camelot has all of those things on his side.

When Sea The Stars won the 2000 Guineas and the Derby in 2009, and connections decided to side-step the St Leger in favour of an all-in Arc de Triomphe (ultimately successful) bid, people said that the Triple Crown was unwinnable, that no horse would ever again win the Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger. There was even talk of supplanting the traditional Triple Crown with a modern-day imposter that could include the Eclipse or the King George and exclude the Leger. Ironic, then, that just three years later, a horse like Camelot should come along.

Camelot – The Discovery

Camelot is a son of Montjeu, a champion racehorse – winner of 11 races including the French Derby, the Irish Derby, the King George and the Arc de Triomphe – and a champion sire, his progeny including Arc winner Hurricane Run, Derby winners Authorized and Motivator, St Leger winner Scorpion and Ascot Gold Cup winner Fame And Glory. Camelot’s dam is Tarfah, winner of five of her eight races, including the Listed Snowdrop Stakes and the Group 3 Dahlia Stakes. This is a champion’s pedigree.

But just because you are bred to be a champion racehorse, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will be a champion racehorse. It is not a given. However, there has always been something about Camelot. When Coolmore Stud supremo John Magnier and his advisors saw the colt – then just a yearling – at the sales, they were blown away by his looks, his demeanour. We don’t know for sure, but there is a sense that they weren’t going to come home without him, no matter how far the auctioneer went before bringing down his gavel.

A champion’s aura has enveloped Camelot since the first day that he arrived at Ballydoyle. Listen to Aidan O’Brien speak about him. Hushed, revered tones. He has been different from day one, the trainer tells you. Everything about him is different. His heart, his times, his recovery, his demeanour. He is an independent thinker. If there are 40 horses in a barn and one of them gets upset, generally they will all get upset. All of them, that is, except Camelot. On the gallops, horses usually want other horses beside him. Not Camelot. He is happy doing things on his own. It is as if he has always known how good he is.

Sue Magnier registered the racehorse name Camelot 10 years ago. It is a special name, it conjures mystic, magic, legend, magnificence, bravery, nobility, the Arthurian world. The owner was patient, waited for a horse who would be worthy of the name to present himself. Then this handsome bay son of Montjeu stepped forward, and the owner chose to bestow the name upon him. She chose wisely.

Stepping stones

If you were looking for evidence of the esteem in which the juvenile Camelot was held at home, of the quality of his homework before he was unveiled to the public, you had it in the betting at his unveiling at Leopardstown in July 2011. Three to one on, the bookmakers said. A five-horse race, four of them unraced, very little formbook evidence, and the bookmakers said if you want to have three euro on one of them, we will give you back just one euro if he wins.

They were right to be so frugal: Camelot eased to victory that day without breaking sweat.

Aidan O’Brien gave the colt a short break after that, allowed him time to recover from the exertions of his racecourse debut, allowed the National Stakes and the Beresford Stakes and the Dewhurst pass him by, then eased him back to the boil in time for him to contest the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster in October: another stepping stone on the road to history.

As a prelude to his first foray into Group 1 company, the privileged few who get to see these things would have seen Camelot beat Daddy Long Legs by 25 lengths in a piece of work up the gallop at Ballydoyle. Daddy Long Legs is no slowcoach. On the contrary, he is a high class colt. Before he sparred with Camelot that day, he had won the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket, and he would go on to win the UAE Derby in Dubai the following March. He just wasn’t Camelot.

The Racing Post Trophy went the way that the work-watchers and the market thought that it would – Camelot first, everything else beaten.

The talk during the winter was that Camelot might be more a Derby horse than a Guineas horse, that he was bred more for stamina than for speed. The Racing Post Trophy is usually a much better pointer to the following year’s Derby than the following year’s Guineas, the theory went, and was borne out by winter odds of 4/1 for the Derby and 7/1 for the Guineas.

But early in the spring, it became apparent that the Guineas was very much on Camelot’s radar. Aidan was at pains to point out that the horse wouldn’t be rushed, that if he didn’t get ready for the Guineas in his own time, they wouldn’t push him to get him there. That said, there was no question that, all being well with the horse, the Guineas was the race in which Team Ballydoyle wanted him to make his 2012 debut.

And he did. Gloriously. Under the coolest of cool rides from the trainer’s son Joseph, almost last with just two furlongs to run, on ground that should have been softer than ideal for the horse, Camelot cut through the Guineas field like a currach cuts through water, and he got up on the line to prevail by one of the bravest necks by which the Guineas has ever been won.

It was then that whisperings of the Triple Crown began. If you had laid all three legs of the Triple Crown out at the start of the season and thought, which of the three would be the most difficult for Camelot to win, you would have said the Guineas. Probably the Guineas.

And so the Camelot Derby bandwagon started to roll. Aidan O’Brien had gone mighty close to Derby glory in the decade that had gone before, but the reality was that the Master of Ballydoyle hadn’t won the Blue Riband since High Chaparral had led home a Ballydoyle 1-2 in 2002.

That was all put to rights this year. Camelot, once more under the assured guidance of Joseph O’Brien, glided down around Tattenham Corner, set off after his stable companion Astrology at the top of the home straight, took it up at the furlong pole and stayed on strongly to win by five lengths. It was a famous victory. Not only was it Joseph O’Brien’s first, or Aidan’s first in 10 years, it was also the second leg of the Triple Crown in the bag for Camelot and suddenly, right there in the winner’s enclosure at Epsom, the pipedream evolved into a realistic target.


After Epsom, Camelot went on to win the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at The Curragh at the end of June. He is now unbeaten in five runs, a maiden and four Group 1 races, three Classics, two legs of the Triple Crown. He has had a nice break since the Irish Derby in June, and Saturday’s race has been in Aidan O’Brien’s sights since.

Victory in the St Leger on Saturday is not assured, however, despite what the market would have you believe. It is a horse race, it is a contest, the opponents are assembling.

Aidan talks of the tension (just about bearable), the pressure that he is under in preparing his supreme equine athlete to run for his place in history. He talks of the trip, a venture into the unknown. He says that 10 furlongs is probably Camelot’s optimum, that a fast-run 10 furlongs on good, fast flat racing ground, a trip at which he can use his push-button acceleration, is probably ideal.

So to ask him to go four and a half furlongs further is to ask him to do something that is probably some way beyond his comfort zone. It would be like asking David Rudisha to race over 5,000 metres. Rudisha might be able to compete, he could be a champion at the distance, but it would be a massive step into the unknown.

Then there is the opposition: Derby runner-up Main Sequence, gunning for revenge; King Edward VII Stakes winner Thomas Chippendale representing the peerless Sir Henry Cecil; impressive Melrose Handicap winner Guarantee; Ursa Major, gutsy winner of the Irish St Leger Trial. There is also the small matter of a triumvirate of bullets from John Gosden, the man who has been responsible for three of the last five St Leger winners.

Tactics will be fascinating. You can be sure that all of his rivals will have one eye on Camelot. That’s the problem with being champion, everyone has their eye on you, everyone thinks if they can beat you they can win. The Gosden third-string Dartford will probably set the pace, a pace that will be designed to draw the finishing kick out of the favourite and play to the probable strengths of Dartford’s two stable companions, Michelangelo and Thought Worthy.

Michelangelo has raced just four times, he is most progressive and he will probably wear blinkers on Saturday, just to sharpen him up. Thought Worthy is a full-brother to the 2007 St Leger winner Lucarno, and Gosden has sent him down the Lucarno path this year: Fairway Stakes, Derby, King Edward VII Stakes, Great Voltigeur. You can be certain that he will be primed to run for his life on Saturday.

Camelot will not have everything his own way, but then, you don’t expect to have things all your own way when the reward for success is a place in history. Camelot is an extraordinary racehorse; his place in history would be fully deserved.

After Saturday, they may just have to put up another statue at Ballydoyle.

© HRI, 12th September 2012