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Stradivarius: 'He's been one of the soundest horses who's ever lived'

Stradivarius: star stayer has carved his name on the list of racing's greats in recent years
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Fans' Favourites is a weekly feature in the Racing Post Weekender in which we talk to those closest to racing's most popular horses and find out why they tug on our heartstrings. This week's subject: Stradivarius

Amid the flurry of Flat racing elite set to descend on Royal Ascot this week, there is unlikely to be a more popular runner than Stradivarius.

Over the past six seasons the imperious chestnut stayer has carved his name on the list of racing's greats, his grit and showmanship helping to amass a prestigious collection of prizes along the way.

As consistent and brave as ever, in what is sure to be his final year of racing, Stradivarius remains one of the brightest beacons to light up the sport in the past decade.

His importance to Flat racing is understood best by Bjorn Nielsen, who not only owns Stradivarius but also bred him, and was lured by the white-faced foal from the start.

"The only picture I have with any horse I've bred is with Stradivarius," Nielsen says. "It was in August of 2014, six months after he was born, and it just so happened he was lying in the paddock and I took a photo with just me and him. It's the weirdest thing. I've bred around 20 horses a year for the last 20 years but he's the only one I've done that for. I suppose it was fate."

In another twist of fate, Stradivarius was sent to the Tattersalls sales a year later but failed to make the 330,000gns reserve Nielsen placed on the yearling.

It was a high figure worthy of a colt the owner felt already had a touch of class about him, so Nielsen kept the Sea The Stars colt in his roster and sent him into training under the watchful eye of John Gosden.

Nielsen says: "He deserved the high reserve because he had a very good pedigree and was a lovely yearling. I wasn't just going to let him go for nothing, he had to make his price.

"I'm thankful of it now that he didn't because he could have gone to somebody else and we wouldn't be talking about the same story at all. He could have turned out a totally different horse."

Sent into training at Clarehaven Stables, Stradivarius was considered a long-term prospect and flourished under the steady guidance of Gosden. He won on his third and final start as a two-year-old, a maiden on the all-weather, before he was put away and readied for a much more ambitious three-year-old campaign.

Bjorn Nielsen with Stradivarius and Frankie Dettori

Two handicap runs later and Stradivarius was launched into Pattern company in what would be the first of many appearances at Royal Ascot.

Although Gold Cup glory was still to follow, it was in the Queen's Vase that the three-year-old made his debut at the royal meeting, and in a first step up to 1m6f he weaved away from the rail to land the Group 2 by a neck.

"I probably remember that race the least out of all his runs," Nielsen recalls. "I didn't go there with any great expectation as he'd just been touched off at Chester, but he'd done it in a very good time.

"I asked John earlier in the season if he thought Stradivarius was a King George V Stakes horse and he said no – he was favouring the Vase. Andrea [Atzeni] rode him and Stradivarius did what he always does – he won by doing just enough."

Much clearer in Nielsen's mind was Stradivarius's next race, where a step up to 2m and first start in open company resulted in an emphatic victory in the Goodwood Cup, a race the stayer went on to dominate for four consecutive years.

It was not just a breakthrough Group 1 success but a significant milestone for Stradivarius, who claimed the race the year it was upgraded to top-level status.

Although in receipt of 13lb, Stradivarius put the sword to the previous year's winner and 2017 Ascot Gold Cup star Big Orange, surging past the six-year-old to cement his position in the staying ranks.

Stradivarius denies Big Orange to land the Goodwood Cup in 2017

"It was the first time I truly thought this is a seriously good horse," Nielsen says. "That day I knew it was a changing of the guard. A three-year-old beating the older horses. It was the beginning of his career really.

"He'd beaten the Gold Cup winner and did it easily. He had the measure of the older horses and three-year-olds don't just go and win the Goodwood Cup. He was a sensation.

"I couldn't think what would beat him next year but the St Leger was next, and I knew the only thing that could take him on would be a superb Leger winner."

Success in the Doncaster Classic was not to be for Stradivarius, who went down bravely in third under James Doyle, just half a length away from the winner Capri, with Crystal Ocean in second, in what Nielsen considers "one of the best St Legers in years".

Although that was not the glorious success desired, it was during Stradivarius's four-year-old campaign that the magic truly began. Frankie Dettori took over riding duties permanently and established a bond that has endured for all bar one of Stradivarius's subsequent runs.

The pair claimed the Yorkshire Cup to begin a dazzling run of success unbroken for ten races, which included four Group 1 victories, two at Royal Ascot. The staying division was Stradivarius's domain to rule. No one else could land a blow.

Frankie on fire: Frankie Dettori celebrates Yorkshire Cup victory on Stradivarius

A few came close, with the chestnut never one to pull significant lengths from his rivals. Instead, Stradivarius revelled in the battle, always ready to lay down a challenge to any horse brave enough to take him on.

"Even though he idles he always comes back at them," Nielsen says. "He has a lot of qualities that make him great and one of them is his running style. I've always felt comfortable watching because he knows what to do and he turns up every time.

"The highlight from that period was his first Gold Cup win. I knew nothing could beat him, bar a new Leger winner. So going into the Gold Cup as a four-year-old I wasn't worried about any horse, except for one and that was Vazirabad."

The French raider came to Royal Ascot with a host of Group 1 victories to his name, fresh from landing his third Dubai Gold Cup. The six-year-old had already taken the scalp of Big Orange and was out to assert his dominance over the newest star in Britain.

Nielsen says: "I had great respect for Vazirabad. He was a brilliant stayer who had beaten some good horses. I asked Frankie what the plan was before the race and he talked about who he'd follow, the draw, that kind of thing. I said to him, 'What about Vazirabad?' Because it was the only horse in my mind that had any chance. Frankie said, 'Well, I don't have eyes in the back of my head.' He knew he could control who he followed, but there was nothing he could do about what would come out from behind.

"That's exactly how it panned out. We went to pick it up and Vazirabad came, but he was a bit of a thinker and had to be put in front right on the line. He took it up about a furlong out but if Strad sees another horse he'll battle, and that's what he did. I have a picture of them crossing the line and I can see it in my head so clearly. It was incredible."

Stradivarius holds off Vazirabad and Torcedor to claim his first Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in 2018

As Stradivarius's fame grew so too did his following. He blazed to a third Gold Cup success as a six-year-old with a devastating ten-length winning performance, despite facing his rivals on unfavoured soft ground.

That illustrious success came in 2020, and Nielsen was forced to watch the victory from home while Royal Ascot operated behind closed doors owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"His win was stunning," the owner summarises. "He won by so far. It was officially ten lengths but it could have been 20."

His popularity quickly extended abroad and Stradivarius was met with a warm reception when he made his first trip to Longchamp three months after his Gold Cup treble.

"Everyone knew who he was. You could hear the commentator when he came out on to the course. I don't speak French but he said, 'Le magnifique Stradivarius.' Even I could translate that," Nielsen says.

"He has a reputation. Everywhere I go, in Australia or South Africa and all over Europe, people ask about him. People love that he's been around for so long and is so consistent.

"That year in France he ran in a bog in the Arc. It was the worst ground in over 50 years and he hated it. We ran him two weeks later on Champions Day, which was a mistake as the ground was also heavy.

"Aside from that, while there have been tactical issues in races, the horse has shown up every time and people know if they have a bet that he's going to give them a run for their money."

The public's attention plays into the showman nature of Stradivarius, who performs at the racecourse with a single-minded focus despite needing a wide variation of work at home.

"He's funny," Nielsen explains. "He screams and shouts when you saddle him, but when you bring him to the paddock and the crowds are out he's so cool. He just stands there, like he's thinking 'bring it on'.

"Everybody looks at him because of who he is and he walks around like he's John Wayne. There's no horse that walks better than Stradivarius, he's a great big cowboy.

"Then they head to the start and some horses start fretting behind the stalls but he stands there and looks across the landscape. He knows where he is, without a doubt.

"He loves the reception after the race too. I think he's just like Frankie, the two of them just love playing to the public. Then the next morning after a race Stradivarius is screaming again from his box. It's like he's telling all his mates how clever he is."

Two great showmen: Stradivarius and Frankie Dettori

Stradivarius's two below-par runs at the end of his six-year-old campaign left question marks over his future. The start of the following season was the biggest moment of uncertainty connections ever faced, having enjoyed such a remarkable run of consistency throughout Stradviarius's career.

"After those two performances you don't know if he's going to be as enthusiastic. A lot of horses, when they get beaten like that, they're just never the same again," Nielsen says.

"There was some trepidation over that first race last year but he came out for the Sagaro Stakes and was just his old self.

"It's taken more thinking at the yard to keep him interested when the work can be repetitive. For the last couple of years they've mixed it up, galloped him in different places and walked him back through town.

"John tells me that Stradivarius looks at himself in every window. I'm sure he probably blows himself a kiss too as he walks past." 

As a seven-year-old, Stradivarius claimed three victories before falling short of Trueshan twice in the second half of the year. It put Nielsen back in a familiar position come spring, when the Yorkshire Cup was posed as a question as to whether his ability at home would once more translate to enthusiasm on the track.

The answer was a resounding yes, as Stradivarius landed the race for the third time and became the winningmost Group performer trained in Europe, a victory that came as relief more than anything to his owner.

Next is the Gold Cup, and while it is yet to be determined if Stradivarius can equal Yeats with a fourth success in the race, any accolades the stayer collects this season will be riches on top of an already bountiful collection.

"It never really gets old," Nielsen says. "He's now eight but my expectations won't be dissimilar to when he was younger. I'm not saying that he'll definitely win but I'm going there thinking he could run a big race."

Stradivarius (left) sets up one final crack at the Gold Cup with last month's victory in the Yorkshire Cup

Win or lose, it will also be a bittersweet fifth and final Royal Ascot appearance for Stradivarius, who is experiencing something of a victory lap with the luxury of entering his last season still at the top of his game.

"Of course, if it were up to me I'd like to see him run for another ten years," Nielsen says. "I don't want to stop while he's still so well, but he's eight and you can't just go on doing that.

"He's been one of the soundest horses who's ever lived. He's never missed an engagement in seven years, barring rain. He's got an incredible turn of foot, a calmness under pressure and a great heart and will to win."

At the end of this year Stradivarius will embark on a second career at stud, with Nielsen eager to prop up the venture with his own mares and insistent that the stallion will not cover jumps mares.

Nielsen says: "He's got a great pedigree and I don't think stayers ever really went out of fashion. Perhaps with breeders and owners, who want to buy a horse and run the next day, but never with the public.

"I remember the stayers when I was younger, particularly Ardross. I picture them so clearly, so to have a horse of that kind of ilk is an amazing thing.

"You can't compare them, times are so different. They're all the best of their own eras and you can't take their achievements away from them. It's pretty phenomenal to have a horse that is even talked about as their equal.

"For me, Stradivarius just came out of nowhere. I put a lot of thought into breeding but 95 per cent of it is luck. I could have put that mare to a different stallion and we would have a different result, I could have put her to the same stallion ten times before and it would never make a horse like Stradivarius. I got lucky and it's been a remarkable journey."

Read other Fans' Favourites . . .

Muhaarar: 'His last performance was his finest - he was the best I've ever trained'

Pyledriver: 'He was no 66-1 shot - so they had £20 each-way and I had £10 each-way'

Starman: 'His only fault as a racehorse was his enthusiasm for the opposite sex'

Big Orange: the Ascot Gold Cup winner who was almost sent over hurdles

Trueshan: 'He can quicken after a long way and just power away, it’s relentless'

The Front Runner is our latest email newsletter available exclusively to Members' Club Ultimate subscribers. Chris Cook, a four-time Racing Reporter of the Year award winner, provides his take on the day's biggest stories and tips for the upcoming racing every morning from Monday to Friday

Everywhere I go, in Australia or South Africa and all over Europe, people ask about him
E.W. Terms