Little bundle of class who proved doubters wrong.
BY 1976 I had been in the game long enough to be wary of hype and sceptical about any 'information' about a horse that was not verifiable from public performance. But in June of that year, there was I, in print, lauding the merits of a colt I had never seen, and nobody had yet seen on a racecourse. I had not only become caught up in the hype; I was adding to it.
It was unforgivable really, but every dog in Newmarket was barking the name of J.O. Tobin, and as the newly appointed bloodstock columnist of the Sporting Life I felt I could give credence to the rumours. By the sire of Mill Reef, out of the dam of a dual Classic winner in Mysterious, why wouldn't this youngster turn out to be all that he was cracked up to be? I got away with it for a while. J.O. Tobin won his maiden easily, gave a very taking display in the Richmond Stakes at Goodwood, then turned in a sensational performance to spreadeagle his field in the Champagne at Doncaster.
I wasn't the only one captivated.
Among the others, Noel Murless had it in mind to postpone his planned retirement in order to train him for the 1977 Triple Crown, and my Life colleague Ernie Dymock named his newborn son Tobin in homage to this superstar-in-waiting.
Then J.O. Tobin went to France for the Grand Criterium, and the unthinkable occurred. He was fairly trounced by Blushing Groom and didn't even finish second. Time for everyone to have a rethink.
Noel Murless confirmed his retirement, J.O. Tobin's owner-breeder, George Pope, decided to take his colt back home to the States (where he would become the first horse to beat Triple Crown hero Seattle Slew), and the rest of us looked around for a substitute three-year-old star.
The 1976 juvenile Free Handicap ratings were different from normal. Victory in the Dewhurst usually settled the championship, but not this time. In spite of his Longchamp defeat, J.O. Tobin sat on top by 5lb, and the Dewhurst winner, a striking bright chestnut with four white feet called The Minstrel, ranked 8lb below him, supposedly inferior to one stablemate in Acomb and Ashford Castle Stakes victor Padroug, and to the speedy Godswalk, lately recruited to Ballydoyle after scoring five times for Christy Grassick's stable.
What had The Minstrel done to be so insulted? He had run three times and won three times, and his Dewhurst performance seemed first-rate, strolling home by four lengths. Of course, he was small, and in appearance he was nothing like his illustrious three-parts brother Nijinsky, but he undoubtedly had class, and while the Derby distance would probably prove beyond him, he could surely be counted a legitimate Guineas contender.
Sure enough, the 2,000 Guineas was the spring target for The Minstrel, and to that end Vincent O'Brien brought him to Ascot to contest the 7f trial in early April. There he would meet Gairloch, rated his equal on the Free Handicap, and the outcome promised to be instructive.
As it turned out, we did not learn as much as we had hoped. The weather was foul, the ground heavy and the race was switched from the straight to the round course, with no starting stalls in operation. The Minstrel won, beating Gairloch convincingly, but he drifted to the left after taking command and the manner of his victory did not please everyone in the stands. Was it just the marshy terrain that caused his wayward progress in the final furlong? Hadn't he also failed to keep a straight course in the Dewhurst? Maybe there was an issue of temperament.
On Guineas day The Minstrel was a raging 6-5 choice, but the race was barely under way before the favourite looked in trouble. Lester Piggott was scrubbing him to keep in touch for the first quarter-mile, and though the colt eventually found a smooth racing rhythm, there was a lot of ground to make up and he never really looked like getting there. He wound up third, beaten a length and the same by Nebbiolo and Tachypous.
Consolation was supposed to come at the Curragh, where The Minstrel (7-4 favourite) crossed swords with Nebbiolo (3-1) again, and the Newmarket placings were duly overturned, but the pair were both beaten as Pampapaul scraped home by a short head.
This was a meeting at which plans for several of the Ballydoyle team were thrown into confusion. Most notably, its presumed chief Derby contender, Valinsky, was outpointed in the Royal Whip by unfancied stablemate Alleged, a colt too inexperienced for the Epsom test that lay only 18 days in the future, and now The Minstrel was twice a failure in his shots at Classic glory.
Robert Sangster, Vincent O'Brien and the rest of the team seemed inconsolable until Piggott remarked: "If you run The Minstrel in the Derby, I'll ride him."
The thought had hardly occurred. The little Northern Dancer colt was a presumed miler, and the Derby had never been on his agenda. Of course, the jockey's remark might just signify that he had tried and failed to climb aboard Blushing Groom, but if he thought there was a chance that The Minstrel would stay 1m4f, it might pay to follow the advice.
I knew that Blushing Groom - on a run of seven consecutive wins - would not win the Derby, and I made sure that my Sporting Life readers were made aware. So far as I could trace, his sire Red God had never got a winner over 1m4f at any level, and it wasn't going to happen at Epsom.
But that didn't stop Blushing Groom being backed into 9-4 favourite, and nor did it help me to tip the winner, because I couldn't convince myself of The Minstrel's staying powers. My typically uninspired choice - 20-1 shot Monseigneur - finished fourth, three lengths behind Blushing Groom, and over the last two furlongs it was clear that neither could win.
The issue lay between Hot Grove, who had been driven into a threelength lead by Willie Carson, and The Minstrel, hot in pursuit, but still with plenty to do unless the leader were to cave in. Hot Grove did not cave in. He battled all the way, brave as a lion. But we had been here before - five years earlier, Roberto against Rheingold - and though there was still more than a length to find coming to the final furlong, the mind's eye had a picture from 12 seconds in the future. Lester and The Minstrel were going to reel in Hot Grove.
AND they did. Under the sort of encouragement that only Piggott could apply, answering as only the gamest throughbred could muster, the flashy little colt clawed back his worthy rival's advantage and nailed him within a few strides of the finish. And to think we'd had doubts about his resolution.
Why was The Minstrel backable at odds-against on Irish Derby day? It could only have been the thought that such a hard race at Epsom might have taken its toll, because it was hard to visualise a danger, and he duly came back a comfortable winner by a length and a half. The only threat came after the finish, when runner-up Lucky Sovereign's rider lodged an optimistic objection, but that was soon overruled.
A tougher test lay ahead at Ascot, where there were seven Classic winners among the ten lined up against him in the King George, and it was Orange Bay, two years on from his Italian Derby triumph, who tested him to the limit. Driven clear by Pat Eddery early in the straight, the five-year-old soon had most of his rivals in trouble, but The Minstrel made smooth progress to collar him before the furlong marker, seemingly set for a ready victory.
The thought was premature. Orange Bay, in first-time blinkers, was firmly focused on renewing the battle. Rallying bravely, he made Piggott get serious on The Minstrel, who was all out to repel him by a short-head.
We saw no more of The Minstrel, and in the months that followed we came to recognise stablemate Alleged as his superior, but like others who saw him at Epsom, the Curragh and Ascot, I would always retain a soft spot for that little bundle of class and courage that many were inclined to write off after he had fluffed his lines in the spring.
THE MINSTREL ch c 11-3-1974 Pedigree Nearco Nearctic Lady Angela Northern Dancer (b 1961) Native Dancer Natalma Almahmoud Chop Chop Victoria Park Victoriana Fleur (b 1964) Bull Page Flaming Page Flaring Top Bred by E.P. Taylor in Canada.
$200,000 Keeneland July yearling Race/stud record Ran 9 Won 7 2nd 1 3rd 1 Earned pounds 333,197 Big races won Larkspur Stakes, Dewhurst Stakes, Ascot 2,000 Guineas Trial, Derby, Irish Derby, King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Group 1-winning progeny L'Emigrant (Poule d'Essai des Poulains, Prix Lupin), Palace Music (Champion Stakes, John Henry Handicap), Treizieme (Grand Criterium), Bakharoff (Futurity Stakes), Silver Voice (Manhattan Handicap), Minstrella (Phoenix Stakes, Moyglare Stud Stakes, Cheveley Park Stakes), Melodist (Oaks d'Italia, Irish Oaks), Minstrel's Lassie (Selima Stakes), Silver Fling (Prix de l'Abbaye), Musical Bliss (1,000 Guineas), Opening Verse (Oaklawn Handicap, Breeders Cup Mile) Your recollections of last week's giant - Dancing Brave A truly magnificent racehourse. Raw power, acceleration and stamina to suit. His win in the Arc was of the highest calibre and I haven't seen a performance of equal measure since. Brilliant. sheffieldspark My memory of Dancing Brave is I backed him to win the 2,000 and the Derby and with Midway Lady in a treble at fancy prices for the Oaks. The rest is history. Still brings a lump to my throat even now. ccarter I was 17 during Dancing Brave's three-year-old season and it was really this horse who sparked my interest in racing. His performances, especially the Arc, were so exciting. I feel privileged to have seen the horse in the flesh winning the Eclipse. tonykavanagh In Dancing Brave you had a horse of immeasurable talent, champion milers and sprinters alike were dismissed with equal disdain. He lit up the 1980s and to this day no horse has faced the opposition he did and been disposed of by such a raw power. shade2424 A truly fantastic racehorse from an epic era of racing, the 1980s. Shame the Derby wasn''t to be, though shades of Dancing Brave with the way Pour Moi won but he made it to the line just in front this time! Even now. davethehorse
The Minstrel under Lester Piggott on his day of reckoning at Epsom