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York Gold Cup upset
Brigadier Gerard suffered his first racecourse defeat to Roberto in the 1972 Benson & Hedges Gold Cup at York
With York eagerly awaiting the appearance of the unbeaten Frankel next week, we cast an eye back 40 years to when another seemingly invincible horse arrived on Knavesmire
UNBEATEN and unblemished, he came to York as the Flat superstar of his age. Brigadier Gerard, the Classic-winning speed machine, was the prime attraction of the track’s newest race – a £40,000 contest over ten furlongs to compete with the very best middle distance races in the world.
Instantly the richest race ever staged on Knavesmire, the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup – you will know it today as the Juddmonte International – needed a heavyweight player to boost its considerable prize tag.
For a while, it looked like there would be a contest to match with Mill Reef, the Derby and Arc winning victor, set to meet the Brigadier in a rematch of the 1971 2,000 Guineas that had punters slavering.
Mill Reef lost on that occasion and would, sadly, never get the chance to face his old rival.
Hampered by rhino neuritis, he shattered a foreleg during a routine gallop. He survived, but his racing career did not. And so the four-year-old Brigadier Gerard, with a perfect record of 15 wins from 15 races, came to York looking invincible.
The opposition held no fear either for the horse’s owner, John Hislop, or his trainer, Dick Hern.
Rheingold and Roberto, the two three-year-olds who looked the most dangerous, had fought out a rabid duel for the Derby in June which looked to have cost the latter, who won the tough contest, dearly. He had been dismal subsequently in the Irish Derby.
With Lester Piggott having the choice of either ride, he plumped for the Barry Hills’ trained Rheingold, leaving the legendary Vincent O’Brien, saddler of Roberto, looking westwards for a new jockey.
It was the Panamanian Braulio Baeza to whom he turned.
With 24-hour news and the internet, racing stateside is no longer a mystery to the well informed. But, back in the 1970s, few spectators knew of any but the most famous riders and their riding tactics were hardly studied.
So it was no surprise when, as raceday arrived in August 1972, Brigadier Gerard went off the 1-3 heavy favourite.
Few could have predicted what came next.
“He must have been stung by a bee,” Jean Hislop, the wife of the Brigadier’s owner, John, would later say after watching Roberto and Baeza smash out of the stalls to the front of the pack.
The Brigadier tracked Rheingold in fourth place, and was soon six lengths behind the leading pair of Roberto and Bright Beam. Moving into the straight, jockey Joe Mercer moved his superhorse past Rheingold but the red warning light was already flashing brightly.
“One of the stewards that day was Lord Allendale,” said John Sanderson, York’s clerk of the course in the 1970s. “I was standing right behind them with the binoculars in that little box past the winning post and he said ‘you know, I think Joe’s in trouble’ as they turned into the straight.
“This thing was still going, showing no signs of stopping, and you knew he could get a mile-and-a-half because he won a Derby. This wasn’t a mile-and-a-half.”
Even with four furlongs to run, the expectant crowd believed Brigadier Gerard would make it. They willed him to turn on the gas and surge past the impetuous challenger. But the further down the straight they travelled, the more it became apparent they were witnessing something far more shocking.
As Mercer drew his whip on his mount, with two furlongs left to go, his horse was in big trouble. The closest he got was Roberto’s quarters. His unbeaten record was shattered.
“Everyone was just dumbstruck,” remembered one-time Daily Mirror and Racing Post journalist Tim Richards. “In the winner’s enclosure they just couldn’t believe it. What I really remember was that it was just completely quiet.
“It (Roberto) was a very impressive winner but it just shut everybody up, because the Brigadier was beaten.”
Baeza, now in his 70s, still revels in the glory of a race he will never forget. “It is true that Vincent O’Brien didn’t give me any instructions,” he said. “He just said ‘you’re the rider, do what you think is best’ though he did say that if the pace was strong it would find out Brigadier Gerard in the last half-mile and he was right.
“I had Roberto up there throughout and he kept on galloping all the way to the line. It was a wonderful day for me.”
Victories at Ascot and the Champion Stakes at Newmarket eased the pain of defeat but, 40 years on, many who were there still shake their heads in memory of the day he was shocked at York.
They say history often repeats itself. Will Frankel, trying ten furlongs for the first time, find the Knavesmire track too tough a nut to track? Time will tell.