Its history is full of some of the most famous moments the sport has seen, and, in 2014, it was officially the best horse race in the world. So what has made this month’s Juddmonte International at York Racecourse such a monument to the greatness of the turf? Paul Haigh reports.
It may not have occurred to the members of the York Race Committee who met in 1972 that they would soon be devising a race that, within 50 years, would sit officially among the top few races of the world.
The more visionary among them may have had a thought about the possibility. Their aim after all was to bring together the two best British-trained colts of their generation - arguably the two best of the 20th century. But the plan was essentially short term. They wanted to settle an argument: was the best colt foaled in Europe in 1968 Mill Reef or Brigadier Gerard? And the issue would be decided at one of the great race meetings in Europe, York’s mid-August Ebor Festival (August 17-20 this year).
‘The Brigadier’, as his fans loved to call him, had trounced his rival in the 2000 Guineas, but the Reefists, as nobody called them then or since, refused to believe that result was conclusive. They pointed to their hero’s brilliance at longer distances, his dazzling Derby and Arc victories. The proposed rematch had to take place over a distance that would give no particular advantage to either faction.
Clash of the titans never took place
Where better than the historic Knavesmire, where racing had been taking place before Bostonians ever heard of tea tax, and over what better distance than 10.5 furlongs: long enough to bring Mill Reef’s stamina into play, short enough not to blunt the great miler’s astonishing burst of speed.
In the end, as even part-time racing historians know, the clash of the contemporaneous titans never took place, a testimony to the fragility of the breed rather than to the difficulty of getting both to turn up for any confrontation that, barring a dead-heat, must inevitably result in one or the other being diminished.
Both billionaire American banker Paul Mellon, Mill Reef’s owner, and rather more modestly wealthy British racing writer John Hislop were sportsmen, and right up for it. Mill Reef’s career-ending injury on the gallops ended the dream and left British racing with one more subject to argue about ever since.
The race was initially called the Benson and Hedges International (now if they’d really had an eye on posterity, wouldn’t they have thought of a better name, even in those insouciant days when cigarette companies were ‘just another sponsor?). The first running was still a sensation, though, and an enormous talking point in itself.
A chink in The Brigadier’s armour
Everyone had taken it for granted that, in his rival’s absence, the inaugural running would be nothing but a lap of honour for ‘The Brigadier’. They reckoned without what was then a front-runner’s track, an easy lead for the Derby winner, Roberto, and a perfect judgement of pace by U.S.-based Panamanian jockey Braulio Baeza, all of which found the chink in The Brigadier’s armour.
Maybe the glimpse given to the great horse of what the end of stamina looks like when class alone got him home in the mile-and-a-half King George at Ascot a month earlier might have had something to do with it too, but the fact was that, for the first and only time in his 18-race career, Brigadier Gerard finished second.
Nearly 40 years went past as people sought for other explanations, but that defeat fixed itself in the public mind and must surely have contributed to the rise in reputation that made the International (later the Matchmaker International, and finally the Juddmonte) a highlight of the racing season.
The other factors were the race’s distance, its perfect location in the calendar - and of course the fact that York is one of the world’s great racecourses.
Roll call of fabulous winners
Did the devisers realise that it would become a stepping stone to the Arc? Or a race that would encourage connections of horses who had distinguished themselves at shorter trips or longer ones to take the opportunity to prove their champions weren’t really about either speed or stamina but had versatility too? Best to give them credit for their perspicacity.
Whether it was by luck or judgement, though, the race continued to develop and has continued to do so ever since. There has never been a bad Juddmonte International, only good ones and superb ones.
The winners include Dahlia, the Chantilly legend trained by cosmopolitan legend Maurice Zilber, in ‘74 and ‘75, Troy (‘79) Caerleon (‘83), Commanche Run (‘85), Triptych (‘87) and In The Groove and Steve Cauthen in 1990. The triumph of Rodrigo De Triano in 1992 also brought the focus on the jockey as much as the race as the already elderly, immortal, jailbird and undisputed maestro Lester Piggott (already successful in the race four times) brought home the 2000 Guineas hero 44 years after riding the first winner of his incomparable career.
Two dual winners followed, Ezzoud (‘93, ‘94) and Halling (‘95, ‘96), and then Singspiel the year after. 2000 was Giant’s Causeway’s year, 2001 Sakhee’s, 2003 Falbrav’s. Duke Of Marmalade won it in 2008 and was followed the next year by no less than Sea The Stars.
Frankel’s ridiculous virtuosity
A pause now before the horse that clinched the race’s reputation, the one that really clinched the reputation of every race in which he ran. There are still those who’d say that Frankel’s 11-length defeat of four time G1 winner Excelebration in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot was the finest performance of his astounding career. But it’s surely impossible to put even that bit of almost ridiculous virtuosity ahead Juddmonte International in 2012.
The sight of him cruising past six-time G1 winner St Nicholas Abbey and subsequent British Champion Stakes winner Farhh, both being driven as though in a finish, two furlongs out, will stick immovably in the minds of anyone who saw him do it. So will the sight of his then-so-fragile trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, beside him in the winner’s enclosure, an incredibly moving juxtaposition, one the embodiment of athletic vitality, the other a reminder of every creature’s frailty.
After his seven-length Juddmonte victory the bookies put Frankel in for the Arc at long odds on ‘with a run’. It was a gesture more than anything else. Frankel would probably have done it even on soft ground and over the 12f he’d never tried before. Sir Henry, who’d never liked travelling, might not even have made it to the Bois de Boulogne.
How do the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities reach their conclusion on which race is the best in the world? Nothing very complex. It’s done on the quality of the runners. They just average the rating (from the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings) of the first four home each year. It wasn’t a rule that Frankel needed to have won the race, just to have taken part, but that certainly seems to have helped.
On top of the world
Declaration of War’s victory in 2013 didn’t hurt either, especially after his subsequent heroic third - beaten a nose and a head - behind Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It was after Epsom and Irish Derby winner Australia’s win in 2014 - ahead of Prix du Jockey Club (and subsequent Irish Champion Stakes) winner The Grey Gatsby, Hardwicke winner Telescope and Eclipse winner Mukhadram - that the race made it to No.1 in the IFHA list, which was then based on the previous three runnings (the three previous Internationals had been won, therefore, by Frankel, Declaration Of War and Australia).
The 2015 renewal comfortably kept the race in the IFHA top 10, Arabian Queen’s shock defeat of Epsom Derby and Arc winner Golden Horn with The Grey Gatsby in third being enough to put the International at world No.7 in the list for 2016 (and the only British representative in the top 10).
King George, Coronation Cup and Sheema Classic winner Postponed was an outstanding winner in 2016, beating Highland Reel, who also won the King George and went on to take the Breeders' Cup Turf, and a strong field that included winners of the Eclipse Stakes, the Irish Champion and the Prix du Jockey Club.
There can’t be a Brigadier every year. And there certainly can’t be a Frankel, but the tradition of quality is always sustained.
This article was updated on May 7, 2017