Nijinsky (horse)

Nijinsky (21 February 1967 – 15 April 1992), usually known in the United States as Nijinsky II, was a Canadian-bred, Irish-trained Thoroughbred racehorse and sire. He was the outstanding two-year-old in Europe in 1969 when he was unbeaten in five races. In the following season, he became the first horse for thirty-five years to win the English Triple Crown, a feat that had not been repeated as of 2018. He is regarded by many experts to have been the greatest flat racehorse in Europe during the 20th century.[1][2]

Nijinsky II
Nijinsky at the 1970 Irish Derby
SireNorthern Dancer
DamFlaming Page
DamsireBull Page
Foaled21 February 1967
BreederWindfields Farm
OwnerCharles W. Engelhard, Jr.
TrainerVincent O'Brien
Record13: 11–2–0
Major wins
Railway Stakes (1969)
Anglesey Stakes (1969)
Beresford Stakes (1969)
Dewhurst Stakes (1969)
Gladness Stakes (1970)
2,000 Guineas (1970)
Epsom Derby (1970)
Irish Derby (1970)
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (1970)
St. Leger Stakes (1970)
15th UK Triple Crown Champion (1970)
Timeform Horse of the Year (1970)
British Horse of the Year (1970)
Leading sire in GB & Ireland (1986)
North American leading broodmare sire (1993 & 1994)
1970 Motion PictureA Horse Called Nijinsky
Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame (1976)
Sun newspaperHorse of the Millennium
Nijinsky Stakes (Canada)
Nijinsky Stakes (Ireland)
Last updated on 20 July 2011

He was also historically important for establishing the international reputation of his sire Northern Dancer, though Nijinsky was atypical of Northern Dancer progeny in size and conformation. Retired to stud, he became the leading sire in Great Britain & Ireland and the leading broodmare sire in North America. Winning top class races from 6-14 furlongs, Nijinsky was considered to be among the most versatile of the great horses of the 20th century.[3]


Nijinsky, a bay horse with a white star and three white feet, was bred at E. P. Taylor's Windfields Farm in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. He was from the second crop of foals sired by Northern Dancer, the winner of the 1964 Kentucky Derby who went on to become one of the most influential sires of the 20th century. His dam, Flaming Page, by Bull Page, was a highly successful racemare, winning the 1962 Queen's Plate. At stud, she produced only two other foals; one of these was Fleur, who produced the 1977 Epsom Derby winner The Minstrel, the other was Minsky, champion Irish 2 year old in 1970.[4] Nijinsky was a big, powerful and handsome horse with great presence standing 16.3 hands (67 inches, 170 cm) high, resembling his dam rather than his sire in stature and conformation, traits he tended to pass on to his offspring.[5]

He was offered for sale at the Windfields Farm's annual yearling auction where he was bought for $84,000 by the American minerals magnate and industrialist Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., acting on the advice of the Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien. It was Engelhard's wife Jane who decided that the colt should be named after the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.[6] Nijinsky was shipped to Ireland, where he was trained by O'Brien at Ballydoyle, County Tipperary.

Racing career

1969: two-year-old season

Nijinsky's first four races were all at the Curragh. In June, he started at odds of 4/11 and won a six-furlong maiden race by half a length. He followed up with wins in the Anglesey Stakes and the Railway Stakes. On his fourth appearance, he was extended for the first time in the Beresford Stakes. He won decisively from Decies, a colt who went on to win the Irish 2000 Guineas in 1970. Having proved himself the best of the Irish two-year-olds, he was sent to England in October to contest the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket. Ridden for the first time by Lester Piggott, he was held up at the back of the six-horse field before moving through to take the lead inside the final furlong, earning top rating in the British Free Handicap.[7][8]

1970: three-year-old season


On his first appearance as a three-year-old, Nijinsky won his prep race by beating the 4-year-old Deep Run[9] in the Gladness Stakes at the Curragh in April and was then sent back to Newmarket for the 2000 Guineas over one mile. He started the 4/7 favourite against thirteen opponents. Nijinsky took the lead two furlongs from the finish, and without being put under any pressure by Piggott,[10] he pulled clear to win by two and a half lengths from Yellow God.


Nijinsky's opposition in the Derby at Epsom was stronger, and he started at odds of 11/8. His rivals were headed by the French-trained colt Gyr.[11] The veteran French trainer Etienne Pollet had delayed his retirement for a year to guide Gyr, a son of his champion Sea-Bird, through his three-year-old season.[7] Nijinsky was held up by Piggott as usual before moving forward in the straight by which time Gyr was in front and moving clear. Two furlongs from the finish, Piggott used his whip on Nijinsky. The favourite responded immediately, catching Gyr in a few strides and pulling ahead to win by two and a half lengths. The winning time of 2:34.68 was the fastest Epsom Derby since 1936.[12] Piggott claimed that he was "always cantering" while Bill Williamson, who rode Gyr, said that "Nijinsky was just too good."[13]

On 27 June, Nijinsky followed up his Epsom win by taking the Irish Derby at the Curragh. Ridden by Liam Ward, he started at odds of 4/11 and accelerated late to win by three lengths from Meadowville.[14] In July, Nijinsky raced against older horses for the first time in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. His five opponents included winners of major races including Blakeney (1969 Epsom Derby), Karabas (Washington, D.C. International Stakes), Crepellana (Prix de Diane), and Caliban (Coronation Cup). Without being extended, Nijinsky moved through to take the lead a furlong from the finish and won by two lengths from Blakeney despite being eased down to a canter in the closing stages.[15]

In August, Nijinsky contracted ringworm,[16] which delayed his training schedule.


Nijinsky appeared to recover fully after being placed on a "rich" diet including raw eggs and Irish Stout,[17] and was sent to Doncaster for the St. Leger in September. In the one mile and six furlongs race, he was attempting to become the first horse since Bahram 35 years earlier to complete the English Triple Crown. He started the 2/7 favourite and won comfortably,[18] although his margin of victory over Meadowville was only one length. As of 2017, he is the last horse to accomplish the feat of sweeping the English Triple Crown: since 1970 only Reference Point (1987), Nashwan (1989), Sea The Stars (2009) and Camelot (2012) have won two of the three races, but Oh So Sharp won the filly's version of the Triple Crown in 1985.

In his next race, Nijinsky was sent to France for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris in October. Piggott produced Nijinsky in the straight to make his challenge but was baulked twice before making his run on the wide outside. However, 150m from the finish he caught front runners Miss Dan and Sassafras and took a slight lead. In the last strides, Nijinsky appeared to veer left away from Piggott's whip,[19] and Sassafras, ridden by Yves Saint-Martin, produced a renewed effort to regain the advantage and win by a head. While many, including his trainer Vincent O'Brien, felt that Piggott had given Nijinsky too much ground to make up and had left his challenge too late,[20] the jockey, who was heavily criticised by the media and racing public, said that in his opinion Nijinsky was past his peak for the year.[21] It is beyond dispute that Nijinsky was a most unlucky loser.[22]

Less than two weeks after his defeat in the Arc, Nijinsky ran his last race in the Champion Stakes over ten furlongs at Newmarket. Although he had been known to sweat freely before some of his previous races, Nijinsky on this occasion appeared to become particularly nervous and anxious before the start. In the race itself, he ran well below his best form and was beaten 3/4 length at odds of 4/11 by the five-year-old English horse Lorenzaccio.[23] O'Brien on this occasion concurred with Piggott, saying that Nijinsky appeared to have "lost his fire."[21] Nijinsky was retired to stand at stud at Claiborne Farm near Paris, Kentucky having been syndicated in August for $5,440,000.[24]

Assessment and honours

Nijinsky was given a rating of 138 by Timeform, the second highest for a winner of the Epsom Derby up to that time.[25] This was later scaled up to 140 by the Racing Post.[3] He was Timeform's Horse of the Year for 1970. Nijinsky was also voted British Horse of the Year by the Racecourse Association, gaining 38 of the 40 votes.[26] In 2018 Nijinsky was rated the greatest ever Epsom Derby winner by a panel of experts assembled by the Daily Telegraph.[2] In their book A Century of Champions, John Randall and Tony Morris rated Nijinsky as a "great" Derby winner and the best Irish racehorse of the 20th Century.[27] Vincent O'Brien named Nijinsky and Sir Ivor as the best horses he had trained, placing Nijinsky first "for brilliance."[28] Lester Piggott concurs saying ""I think Nijinsky probably on his day was the most brilliant horse I've ever ridden".[29] Geoff Lewis who rode Mill Reef to be second against Brigadier Gerard in the 1971 2,000 Guineas felt that Nijinsky was the best Guineas winner of the 1970s decade.[30]

In 1970, a film was made about his racing career entitled A Horse Called Nijinsky. Narrated by Orson Welles, it was released in British cinemas and in 1988 released on VHS video.[31] The Nijinsky team also was voted the 1970 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Team Award.[32] In a poll in 2000, readers of the UK newspaper The Sun voted Nijinsky their "Horse of the Millennium."[33] Among the more unusual tributes, a Cabernet Sauvignon wine[34] and a variety of winter wheat[35] have been named in Nijinsky's honour. Bronze statues of him stand at Ballydoyle and at The Curragh racecourse.[36][37]

Nijinsky was also mentioned in Series 3 Episode 1 of Only Fools and Horses, in which a doctor describes 'Grandad' played by Lennard Pearce as having "legs like Nijinsky". The doctor then explains that he is referring to the racehorse rather than the dancer.

Stud record

Having been sent to stand at stud in the United States, he was registered there as Nijinsky II.

Nijinsky sired 155 Stakes/Group winners ranging over the full range of distances at which he excelled as a racehorse, and is the only sire to have a winner of the Kentucky and Epsom Derbies in the same year. His notable progeny included:

Nijinsky was euthanised in April 1992 as a result of "the infirmities of old age"[8] after suffering from laminitis since 1985.[39] He is buried at Claiborne Farm.[40]


Pedigree of Nijinsky (CAN), bay stallion, 1967[4]
Northern Dancer (CAN)
Nearctic (CAN)
Nearco Pharos
Lady Angela Hyperion
Sister Sarah
Natalma (USA)
Native Dancer Polynesian
Almahmoud Mahmoud
Flaming Page (CAN)
Bull Page (USA)
Bull Lea Bull Dog
Rose Leaves
Our Page Blue Larkspur
Flaring Top (USA)
Menow Pharamond II
Flaming Top Omaha
Firetop (Family:8f)[41]


  1. McKenna, P. G. (1 January 2015). "Vincent O'Brien Biography" via ResearchGate. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. “Why Nijinsky rules supreme as the greatest champion”. Daily Telegraph, 2 June 2018.
  3. "Nijinsky II (horse)". American Classic Pedigrees.
  4. "English Derby Winner: Nijinsky II". Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  5. Great breeders and their methods ... – Frank J. Mitchell – Google Books. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  6. "Nijinsky (1967–1992) – Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  7. Mortimer, Roger; Onslow, Richard; Willett, Peter (1978). Biographical Encyclopedia of British Flat Racing. Macdonald and Jane's. ISBN 0-354-08536-0.
  8. "Nijinsky II Destroyed at Claiborne Farm –". The New York Times. 16 April 1992. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  9. Encyclopedia of British horseracing – Wray Vamplew, Joyce Kay – Google Books. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  10. "Nijinsky promoted Derby favourite". Glasgow Herald. 30 April 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  11. "It looks like Nijinsky's year". The Age. 3 June 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  12. "Nijinsky cops Derby". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 4 June 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  13. Classic, Guardian (1 June 2007). "Nijinsky, one of the greatest | The Guardian". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  14. "Nijinsky captures Irish Sweepstakes". Schenectady Gazette. 29 June 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  15. "Nijinsky wins 10th". The Press-Courier. 26 July 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  16. "Nijinsky heads for U.S." The Sun. 19 October 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  17. "Nijinsky goes on rich diet". Lewiston Daily Sun. 18 August 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  18. "Triple feat to Nijinsky". The Sydney Morning Herald. 14 September 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  19. "Nijinsky's unbroken string snapped in French classic". The Gazette. Montreal. 5 October 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  20. Whitney Tower (26 October 1970). "Nijinsky's defeat after 11 straight victories raised – 10.26.70 – SI Vault". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 6 January 2012.
  21. Dink Carroll (20 October 1970). "Playing the field". The Gazette. Montreal. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  22. O'Brien, Jacqueline and Herbert, Ivor. Vincent O'Brien: The Official Biography (2005) Bantam Press ISBN 0-593-05474-1
  23. "Nijinsky beaten". The Age. 19 October 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  24. "Nijinsky will stand in Kentucky". Herald-Journal. 16 August 1970. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  25. "Dosage". Archived from the original on 22 May 2012. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  26. Morris, Tony; Randall, John (1990). Horse Racing: Records, Facts, Champions(Third Edition). Guinness Publishing. ISBN 0-85112-902-1.
  27. Morris, Tony; Randall, John (1999). A Century of Champions. Portway Press. ISBN 1-901570-15-0.
  28. "Horse Racing: Lester loves Nijinsky. – Free Online Library". Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  29. "I think Nijinsky probably on his day was the most brilliant horse I've ever ridden
  30. "Vote for your best 2,000 Guineas winner of the 1970s?".
  31. "A Horse Called Nijinsky". 12 June 1970 via
  32. "Press Office – Sports Personality of the Year: team winners key facts". BBC. 10 February 2004. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  33. "Nijinsky II Derby Winner". Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  34. "L'Esprit de Nijinsky". Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  35. "Two New Outstanding Nickerson Wheat Varieties Added to the Hgca List! At Limagrain". 1 December 2003. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  36. Hayward, Paul (14 September 2012). "Aidan O'Brien and Camelot ready for their race into the history books by completing Triple Crown with St Leger" via
  37. "Nijinsky statue a reminder for Camelot trainer Aidan O'Brien". 10 September 2012.
  38. "Nijinsky II Yearling Brings $13.1 Million". New York Times. 24 July 1985.
  39. "Nijinsky II made his mark". Star Telegram. 16 April 1992. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  40. "Grave Matters Claiborne Farm". Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  41. Patricia Erigero Thoroughbred Heritage. "8 Bustler Mare". Retrieved 5 January 2012.

Further reading

  • Sampson, Lesley I. Nijinsky: Blue Riband Sire (1985) J.A. Allen & Co Ltd ISBN 0-85131-411-2
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