Remembering Blakeney

Blakeney is not among the more famous Derby winners yet he was one of my favourite horses, not only because of his pedigree and honesty, but also the way he was campaigned

One of my favourite horses died 25 years ago this month, and if I don’t mark the anniversary I doubt if anyone else will. A record of three wins from 12 starts provides ample proof that my subject was no superstar, and I recall that he was damned with faint praise as the worst Derby winner in Timeform’s experience.

Arthur Budgett looks on proudly as Blakeney, with Ernie Johnson up, is led in after winning the 1969 Derby

I don’t care. I always liked Blakeney, and I remember him fondly for several reasons, including his pedigree, his make and shape, and his honesty, that last attribute manifested in a number of game displays, even when clearly over-matched. And I cherish his memory because he was campaigned after the fashion of Classic horses of an earlier era, and can now be recognised as the last of that type. We shall not look upon his like again.

Blakeney owned an outstanding pedigree, albeit one that was already beginning to seem a bit old-fashioned, being wholly European and replete with ancestors of great distinction. Within a few years we were to regard him and Brigadier Gerard as odd men out as American influences became all the rage and changed thoroughbred breeding forever.

The sire of Blakeney was Hethersett, whose fall in the Derby pile-up of 1962 surely saved me from substantial losses in my role as school bookmaker. His subsequent emphatic St Leger victory suggested that but for his misfortune he must have won at Epsom. An impeccably bred son of Hugh Lupus from the great Cleaboy family descending from Lost Soul, Hethersett tragically died at the age of seven, within a few months of Blakeney’s birth. We should have expected that the stock he left in his all too brief stud innings would soon earn distinction.

Blakeney was out of Windmill Girl, a daughter of Hornbeam and another from a family developed by Lionel Holliday, but tracing to a half-sister to Blue Peter, Lord Rosebery’s dual Classic star of 1939. Bought privately from Holliday as a foal for 1,000gns, Windmill Girl failed to reach a 5,000gns reserve when Arthur Budgett re-offered her as a yearling, so he leased her to Sir Jeffrey Darell and put her into training himself. She duly won the Ribblesdale after a remarkable run into second at 50-1 in the Oaks, when Joe Mercer, seeking better ground, took her so wide in the straight she wound up under the stands’ rails.

Like his dam, Blakeney failed to raise the 5,000gns Budgett wanted for him as a yearling, so he went into training at Whatcombe as the property of his breeder and made only two appearances as a backend juvenile

Windmill Girl’s first mating was with Hethersett, who had been named after a village a few miles from Norwich, and the name chosen for the neat bay colt who resulted from their union on March 28, 1966 followed that theme, Blakeney being a village situated on the Norfolk coast, famed now for its nature reserve.

Like his dam, Blakeney failed to raise the 5,000gns Budgett wanted for him as a yearling, so he went into training at Whatcombe as the property of his breeder and made only two appearances as a backend juvenile. An unfancied 100-7 shot on his debut in the six-furlong Clarence House Stakes at Ascot, he was soon outpaced before making some late progress to reach fourth place, four lengths behind the Murless-trained colt Caliban.

I was present three weeks later at Newmarket when Blakeney had his second start. The afternoon began with a remarkable two-year-old maiden in which Hymn started 6-4 favourite in a field of 45 and duly won by five lengths. An hour later Sir Ivor landed the odds in the Champion Stakes, and after Wolver Hollow had failed gallantly, trying to give 27lb to the winner in the Cambridgeshire, the seven-furlong Houghton Stakes provided an improved Blakeney with his first success.

Backed down from 10-1 to 7-1 in the 27-runner field, he was never far off the pace, led just over a furlong from home, and held on tenaciously by half a length from the late-closing Prince de Galles.

I had to like the way Blakeney quickened and kept going gamely, but I can’t say I at once marked him down as a prospective Classic winner. But his pedigree was all class, and it did suggest he’d be well suited by longer distances as a three-year-old. Racehorses of 1968 noted his promise and gave a guarantee that he would prove better than the juvenile rating – 104p – it had given him. Like many others, I had been captivated by Ribofilio’s impressive display in the previous day’s Dewhurst; it was he who seemed to stand out as a potential Classic star.

Blakeney suffered a setback in the following spring and when he was finally ready for an outing, in the Lingfield Derby Trial, he was the only one of the 16 runners making his seasonal debut. Even so, he was quite well fancied, going off at 8-1, and in common with many other observers I felt he should have won. The Elk got away from his field and had gone well clear before Blakeney quickened and came with a sustained run to finish only three-quarters of a length in arrears. It was all rather reminiscent of Charlottown’s defeat in the same race three years earlier. Perhaps Blakeney would emulate Charlottown at Epsom.

In truth I was still a Ribofilio fan on Derby day, in spite of his mysterious flop in the Guineas, but this was to be the second of four Classics in which the son of Ribot would be the beaten favourite. He came home fifth without ever seeming likely to take a hand, while Blakeney, last early, enjoyed a trouble-free run, responded to pressure to take command at the furlong marker and stayed on stoutly to win by a length from Shoemaker, with the fast-finishing Prince Regent, given far too much to do by Jean Deforge, the same distance back in third.

Seeing a Derby winner in the Gold Cup was like a throwback to pre-war days, and while he couldn’t complete the double, that feat had even been beyond Hyperion

Seemingly confirming that he had been unlucky at Epsom, Prince Regent won the Irish Derby by a length from Ribofilio. Blakeney missed third place by a whisker, and having returned sore from the Curragh, was not ready for his next intended target, the Great Voltigeur at York. He closed his campaign in the St Leger, where he suffered interference in the straight and wound up fifth. This was the Classic that Ribofilio ought to have won, his move coming too late to threaten Intermezzo.

Timeform’s assessment of 1969’s middle-distance and staying three-year-olds was never going to be flattering. Blakeney was rated 123, Intermezzo 124, Ribofilio 125 and Oaks winner Sleeping Partner 120.

When Blakeney and Sleeping Partner returned to action in the 1970 Jockey Club Stakes to finish fifth and seventh, they didn’t enhance the reputation of their crop. Then Blakeney had his work cut out to give 12lb to modest handicapper Hey Ho in the Ormonde; his career had reached a new low, and many a 21st century trainer would have retired him.

But Arthur Budgett was not for giving up, and I came to admire Blakeney more than ever for what he did in the three races to come. Those three races were the Gold Cup, King George and Arc. Seeing a Derby winner in the Gold Cup was like a throwback to pre-war days, and while he couldn’t complete the double, that feat had even been beyond Hyperion.

Heading from the Gold Cup to the King George took Blakeney on another unusual route, but second place in both more than justified the move. And if an Arc venture seemed unduly ambitious, remembering how Nijinsky had cantered all over him at Ascot, his fifth place at Longchamp – first among the older horses – showed him in the best form of his life. Timeform raised him 3lb in consequence.

When Blakeney left Whatcombe for the National Stud I conducted extensive researches into his pedigree background, and became so impressed with it from several angles that I went into print, predicting a great future for him as a sire.

He did have his moments, but I overlooked the fact his arrival in the ranks of stallions was coincident with increasing success in Europe for stock bred in the US. The old guard was swiftly sidelined as the clamour for American-influenced pedigrees intensified. Blakeney was foaled perhaps a decade too late to be properly appreciated by breeders.

But the neat little bay, who was put down at the National Stud on November 6, 1992 provided me with some vivid memories of his career as a racehorse, and the likes of grand-daughter User Friendly and grandson Sir Percy have given me cause to remember him on other Classic occasions.

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