FROM HERO TO ZERO; Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, supposed wonderhorse Gorytus caused a sensation when flopping in the Dewhurst Stakes. Steve Dennis revisits the mystery.
HE WENT into the 1982 Dewhurst Stakes a 1-2 shot, with the eyes of the racing world upon him. Seven furlongs later, the eyes of the racing world were being rubbed with disbelief.
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, the brilliant two-year-old Gorytus, whose towering reputation had stood four square on the back of colossal performances in his two previous races, practically staggered over the line in the Dewhurst Stakes, 37 lengths behind the winner. And then the speculation started . . .
Had he been got at? Was he physically unsound? What had happened to bring about so complete a downfall?
Gorytus, named after an item of archery equipment, had been a sensation when he first set foot on the racecourse. A son of Nijinsky and Glad Rags, who had won four Classics between them, he was bred and owned by Alice Mills, owner of a stud farm in Virginia. Sent to Dick Hern's academy of excellence at West Ilsley, he began to edge his way to the top of the form with some showstopping displays on the gallops.
Brian Holmes, racing secretary to Hern at the time, says: "I have always said that Gorytus was probably the best horse I ever saw work on the West Ilsley gallops, and that includes Troy, Nashwan, the lot.
"He was certainly the best two-year-old I have seen work there - he was a magnificent-looking colt."
This paragon, this posterboy for the virtues of three centuries of thoroughbred breeding, was unleashed on an expectant public for the first time at York, in the Listed Acomb Stakes on the first day of the Ebor meeting.
Hern had a habit of aiming his embryo stars at the seven-furlong contest, winning it in three of the previous five years. This year, however, the market predicted that Gorytus would be playing second fiddle to Salieri, an unbeaten colt from Henry Cecil's yard who had won by wide margins on his two starts. Salieri was a 1-2 shot, Gorytus 5-1.
Gorytus thrashed him by seven lengths, with a grinning Willie Carson stock-still in the saddle.
The two-year-old course record was lowered by more than a second.
A little over three weeks later, Gorytus went to Doncaster for the Group 2 Laurent-Perrier Champagne Stakes against four rivals, including Group 3 winner All Systems Go and Prix Morny runner-up On Stage. He was more impressive than at York, storming clear through the final quarter-mile to beat the well-touted Proclaim by five lengths.
Hern was asked for the colt's next target. He replied: "The Dewhurst, the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby."
So the road led to the Rowley Mile a month later, where the dubious pleasure of being thrashed by Gorytus had led to all but three trainers sending their top colts elsewhere. The opposition was led by Middle Park Stakes winner Diesis, Cecil's best two-year-old and a brother to the mighty Kris, who was stepping up in trip for the first time. Guy Harwood risked Gordian and Robert Armstrong had his eyes on fourth-place prizemoney with 200-1 maiden Tough Commander.
What transpired was a travesty of what had gone before. The erstwhile equine god had feet not of clay but of concrete.
Before halfway, Carson asked the colt to close on the front-running Gordian, but response came there none. Within four or five strides he had dropped right out, tailing off through the last three furlongs. When Diesis passed the post five lengths clear of Gordian, there were arguably more people training their binoculars back down the track in search of the odds-on favourite than there were watching the winner.
Brian Procter, Hern's chief work-rider and still employed by Godolphin as he approaches his 66th birthday, recalls: "Gorytus was working perfectly well. He definitely felt all right and there was nothing amiss with him before he went to Newmarket. He looked a picture."
That opinion is backed up by Gorytus's groom Allan Wildman who is still in racing, at the age of 67, with Richard Hannon. "We were full of confidence. We thought he'd walk away with the Dewhurst," he says.
"Before the race there was nothing wrong with him, he was fine, no different than he had been at York and Doncaster.
"He stayed overnight at Newmarket, and there was always someone with him, either me or Buster Haslam. The only time he was left alone was at night, when his box had two padlocks and there was a security guard on patrol.
"He was fine in the parade ring and he went down to the start all right."
That much appears to be readily verified by all concerned. The widely touted 'evidence' of an anonymous vet, who reported that he saw Gorytus evacuate a huge dropping as he was led into the parade ring, is not confirmed by anyone else and must be treated with scepticism. This report did not come to light at the time and only gained credence with the theory that Gorytus had been got at through the administration of a dose of croton oil, a vicious purgative used as elephant laxative.
Another potential means of nobbling the horse, through an 'anti-mugger spray' applied as he circled the parade ring, was outlined in the Daily Star.
Wildman pours scorn on such outlandish ideas: "We were all interviewed by the security people but nothing came to light. I don't hold with any of this crap about aerosol sprays - if someone had sprayed something at him I'd have heard it - and there's no way anyone could have got to the horse before the race."
In Racehorses of 1982, Carson concurs: "I can't believe the horse was tampered with while I was on board. Only two stalls handlers got near me."
Hern, who died in 2002, was adamant that the horse had been got at, according to Procter and Wildman, but this stance may have derived from disbelief and distress rather than any established proof. Procter says: "The major thought he was doped - he worked so well and looked so well that there seemed no other explanation why he should run like that, but nothing ever came to light.
"He was the sort of person who would leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of it, but nobody came up with anything."
Stones were turned over all around the world. Holmes says: "We did all the tests, his blood was sent all over the world to be analysed to try to find something, but nothing ever came out of it.
"It was a real mystery. Our vet, John Gray, was probably the best in the country at the time, but nothing was ever found."
A dope test, taken after the race, proved negative. Racecourse Security Services later released a statement indicating that they had found no evidence of foul play. Although Hern had had his own ideas, Wildman and Procter took a more phlegmatic approach. Procter says: "I don't think he was doped. I think he just ran a bad race, however unexplainable that is." It is of a kind with Wildman's point of view - "I put it down to just one of those things, one of the mysteries of racing."
Carson believes that Gorytus was coughing in the days after the race - Wildman, the closest to the horse, says that he displayed no ill-effects from the day - but adopts another tack to explain the colt's rapid eclipse.
"I think we trusted him too much, believed in him too much, because he did look brilliant, nothing could go with him at home he worked so well," he says. "Obviously, he had the ability, but I just think he took the mickey out of us on the racecourse after his first two races. If I had my time again I'd ride him differently, ride him more tenderly, kid him along."
That chimes with a statement given by Hern a week or so after the race and reported in Racehorses, in which he said: "He's so well I've had to give him some good exercise. He's showing no sign of a cough, and even if he did have a virus he should not have stopped as quickly as he did at Newmarket."
Whatever it was, inside his body or inside his mind, it left Gorytus as a shadow of the horse he threatened to be at the outset of his career. He returned to action in the 2,000 Guineas the following May, when his freakish ability was once again seen, albeit very briefly, when he ranged up to challenge a furlong and a half out before fading back into fifth place behind Lomond.
He was next seen out in the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup, when he again faded under pressure into fourth behind Caerleon. He did much the same in his final outing at Goodwood.
He raced on in America at four where, now trained by Woody Stephens, his irresolute ways caught the eye of the Racing Post's Tony Morris. "I went racing at Hialeah, and who should turn up there but Gorytus," Morris recalls. "I remember the race vividly. Gorytus came to win, then gave it away to an inferior challenger, Out Of Hock. I quizzed his trainer about this cowardly display, and he said 'Nope, didn't look very genuine, did he?' "
Was Gorytus nobbled at Newmarket, or did the colt's mouthwatering physique conceal the heart of a chicken? With no evidence for doping ever discovered, it may have been that he was an accident waiting to happen, a natural underachiever whose raw ability cloaked his fatal failing until that infamous afternoon 25 years ago.
He died in 1996 at the relatively young age of 16, after a fruitless career at stud at Coolmore and in Japan - but the mystery lives on.
Additional reporting by Graham Green
'I don't think he was doped. It was one of the mysteries of racing. It's the kind of thing that will never be solved' Brian Procter, work-rider with Dick Hern
'I think he took the mickey out of us after his first two races. If I had my time again I'd ride him differently' Willie Carson, rider of Gorytus
Gorytus on his way to post for the Dewhurst Stakes in which only three other rivals were sent out to take him on