VAIN: Entitled to be Vain
Bel Esprit, a Blue Diamond-winning two-year-old who became a top sprinter at three, ranks as arguably the best racehorse produced by a daughter of Vain. However, Scandinavia – winner of a Group Two sprint in Brisbane and a place-getter behind General Nediym in the 1998 Newmarket Handicap, behind Flavourin the 1998 Salinger (formerly Craven A) Stakes and behind Isca in the 1999 Lightning Stakes – was almost as fast. She has become a great broodmare, responsible for the Group One-winning sprinter Magnus and the Group Two-winning sprinter Wilander. She also, mated in 2000 with Sunline’s recently-deceased sire Desert Sun, bred Helsinge – who never raced but who now, courtesy of her visit to Vain’s grandson Bel Esprit in 2005, ranks as the dam of the mighty Black Caviar, a true champion of whom Vain would be very proud.
Black Caviar’s win in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot may well have been the least impressive victory of her career, but it is one which has taken the legend of her greatness to a new level. It is one thing for the best horse around to keep winning when he or she has everything in his/her favour; quite another to win when everything is against him/her. We already knew that Black Caviar was a freakishly talented, supremely reliable and tremendously durable mare – now we have had confirmation that she is truly courageous too, the effort of victory clear for all to see as she walked away from the race an exhausted horse, scarcely able to raise a trot but with her pluck undaunted still, as Banjo Paterson would surely have observed. She truly deserves her place in the pantheon of Australian sprinters, at the head of an elite group in which Manikato earned his place by dogged durability and Vain, who appears on both sides of Black Caviar’s pedigree, by transient brilliance, writes John Berry.
Black Caviar’s specialness stems from her ability to keep winning at the highest level. The racing career of Vain, on the other hand, lasted only 56 weeks – but even if his career had encompassed only the eight days of the VRC Spring Carnival in 1969, he would still rank as arguably the most talented sprinter in Australasian racing history. The fact that he then became one of the great sires was the icing on the cake.
This season in the British Isles could be a rarity in that the champion two-year-old might be the horse who won the year’s first two-year-old race. Dawn Approach might not necessarily end the year as champion two-year-old, but he currently heads the rankings and he appears to have every chance of maintaining his position of dominance right up to the end of the year – or even until the end of next year, for that matter. If he were indeed to go on to top the Free Handicap, that would be all the more remarkable for the fact that his racing career began (with an impressive victory at the Curragh on the opening day of the Irish season) as early as 25th March, which was six days before the first two-year-old race of the year was run in the UK.
In Australia it is less uncommon for the most precocious youngsters also to prove the best – but no horse has ever shown a mixture of precocity and dominance to match that displayed by Vain.
Vain arrived in the Epsom (Vic) stable of Jim Moloney as a yearling in the autumn of 1968, owned by his breeders, the brothers George, Fred and Walter Johnson. At the time, Moloney was battling, as was his jockey Pat Hyland. They needed a winner, anywhere, badly – but Vain would turn the tide for them in stunning fashion. It didn’t take long for Vain, despite the fact that he was very big, to demonstrate in a trial that he was blessed with exceptional speed. Moloney duly entered him for Melbourne’s first two-year-old race of the spring, the Debutant Stakes over four and a half furlongs at Caulfield. The colt was slowly away but still proved easily the best in the race, winning by two lengths.
From the Debutant Stakes, the obvious next port of call was Flemington on Derby Day, where Vain contested Melbourne’s principal two-year-old race of the spring, the Maribyrnong Plate over five furlongs. Starting the 4/9 favourite, he was more on the ball than he had been on his debut: he jumped straight to the front before passing the post eight lengths clear of his nearest rival Big Scope, who edged out the George Moore-ridden Power Fair for second.
After a brief spell, Vain continued to dominate in the summer/autumn. What is now Melbourne’s premier two-year-old race, the Blue Diamond Stakes at Caulfied, was not instituted until 1971; therefore, early in 1969 Vain’s obvious targets in Melbourne were the VATC Merson Cooper Stakes over six furlongs at Sandown and the VRC Sires’ Produce Stakes over seven furlongs at Flemington. He won them both before heading north to Sydney for the country’s best two-year-old race, the STC Golden Slipper.
Sydney at that stage also boasted a seemingly-dominant juvenile, the filly Power Fair, who was by a champion (Todman) out of a champion (Wenona Girl). The Slipper was seen as a two-horse race with Vain the only horse given a chance of beating Special Girl, who started the 4/6 favourite. A record crowd flocked into Rosehill to watch – and, while favourite-backers lost their money, no true sportsman can have gone home disappointed because Vain treated the crowd to a magnificent performance. The two jockeys (Pat Hyland and George Moore) both asked their mounts to go forward from the start – and after only a furlong it was clear that Vain was the faster of the pair. Vain never saw another horse, running his first three furlongs in 34 seconds en route to passing the post four lengths clear under a hold, the first Victorian-trained horse to win the Slipper. Special Girl, by contrast, could only finish a tired fifth, broken by the effort of trying to match strides with Vain.
Vain was surprisingly beaten on his next start, the AJC Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick. Hyland sent him into a clear lead early, but the extra furlong proved the pair’s undoing as they were caught close home by the 33/1 shot Beau Babylon. Normal service was resumed, though, in the AJC Champagne Stakes (then run over six furlongs) which Vain won by 10 lengths (with Beau Babylon only third) in 1:09.2 seconds, which was not only a race record time, but also the best time ever recorded by a two-year-old in Australia for six furlongs.
Vain remains one of the best two-year-olds ever to have run in Australia. Remarkably, though, he was even better at three, totally dominating the spring from start to finish. He resumed at the end of August in the weight-for-age MVRC Freeway (now Manikato) Stakes over six furlongs at Moonee Valley, justifying 1/3 favouritism by five lengths. Reverting to his own age group, he easily landed the VRC Ascot Vale Stakes (beating Wood Court Inn and the outstanding NZ coltDaryl’s Joy) up the straight at Flemington and the VATC Caulfield Guineas (beating the same two horses but with Daryl’s Joy, who won the VRC Derby three weeks later, this time finishing second ahead of Wood Court Inn, who won the VATC Thousand Guineas on her next start) over a mile at Caulfield, a year on from his debut. It was at the subsequent Flemington Carnival, though, that Vain truly consolidated his greatness. In fact, his achievements over the four race-days of the VRC Spring Carnival at Flemington, spread over eight days, allow him to be viewed as the most talented sprinter the country has ever seen. Of all the many special feats posted by the legendary Phar Lap, winning on all four days of the Carnival (which he did in 1930) remains one of the finest. In 1969, Vain did the next best thing, winning three times at the meeting.
The first day of the Carnival, Derby Day, saw Vain at his brilliant best, posting what remains arguably the best sprinting performance ever seen in Australia. Taking on the best older sprinters in the land up Flemington’s straight six in the VRC Craven A (later Gadsen/Salinger) Stakes, Vain carried 5lb more than weight-for-age (ie 8 stone 7lb) and won by 12 lengths in 1:09.8, an outstanding time for a ‘slow’ track. Five days later, on Oaks Day, Vain had a very straightforward task at weight-for-age in the Linlithgow Stakes over seven furlongs, winning by six lengths and breaking the track record. Two days later, on the final day of the Carnival, he won the George Adams Handicap (now Emirates Stakes) over a mile carrying 10lb more than weight-for-age (ie 8 stone 10lb) in 1:35.7. He was giving a stone at weight-for-age to the runner-up Our Faith (who had won the previous season’s VATC Thousand Guineas) and 15lb at weight-for-age to the third-placedCyron, who had won the race the previous season.
At the end of the week, Pat Hyland observed that the three races had just been “training gallops” for Vain, while Bart Cummings, having tried and failed to beat him, described him as “the greatest sprinter in the world” and observed that “I don’t think that I have ever known or seen a three-year-old who could make top-class older horses look as mediocre as he does”. Victory in the George Adams Stakes took Vain’s record to 12 wins and two second places from 14 starts, all within just over a year.
Sadly, the George Adams Stakes was to prove to have been Vain’s last race. No sprinter had ever seemed to dominate his peers so completely. At that time, the VRC and the VATC each had its own handicapper, but both men held the same view of the colt, who was allotted an unprecedented 14lb more than weight-for-age in both the Newmarket Handicap and the Oakleigh Plate. Sadly, though, Vain was not able to take up those engagements: set to resume from a short spell in the MVRC William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley at the end of January, Vain sprained a fetlock in a gallop two days before the race. For a gelding this would not have been a career-ending injury, but it marked the end of Vain’s season – and then the end of his career, as the decision was taken to opt for safety and retire him to stud.
Vain’s devoted owners were in the happy position of having the pick of any stud in the land (and many internationally) as the new home for their pride and joy. They settled upon Widden Stud high up in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, Walter Johnson observing that, “I’ve never seen a stud with such potential or wonderful pastures and with such opportunities for a stallion. Widden has a proud history in Australian racing and has produced so many good horses that I am convinced that it is the place for Vain”.
While Vain’s most important credential when setting out at stud was his racing record, it was also in his favour that he was a magnificent specimen and came from a very fast family. His dam Elated was one of the many very good gallopers sired in Australia by the Nasrullah stallion Orgoglio, responsible for several top-class horses and broodmare sire of two champions (Vain and Tontonan). Elated, whose dam Rarcamba was a daughter of the very successful Hyperion stallionHelios, had been a very good sprinter in Melbourne, winning 10 races and finishing third behind Gay Saba in the 1961 Oakleigh Plate, a race of which Orgoglio sired two winners (Marmion and Magic Ruler, successful in 1967 and ’68 respectively). Elated was a full-sister to Picca, who had won the Craven A Stakes four years before Vain won it. Another full-sister (Vana) ultimately became the grand-dam of the Group winners Saleous, Passmore and Mighty Supremo, while from Elated’s half-sister Decree would descend the decent Victorian-based stallion Blazing Sword. Another decent stallion from the family turned out to beTruly Vain, who sired several good horses in New Zealand including the multiple Group One-winning sprinter Vain Sovereign. Truly Vain was a particularly interesting horse as he was a son of Vain in addition to coming from the immediate family of Vain.
As regards his sire-line, Vain’s background was extremely popular at the time. Vain’s Golden Slipper-winning season 1968/’69 was the third time that his sireWilkes had topped Australia’s General Sires’ Table. Overall, Wilkes, the first great stallion to stand for the Kelly family at Newhaven Park Stud, finished in the top three in the sires’ table eight times. He had been exported from France after winning twice as a three-year-old in Paris in 1955. Although Wilkes had been a decent racehorse, his pedigree was his principal asset: he was a half-brother (by the former British champion sire Court Martial whose other Australian-based sire-sons included Affreux and Court Sentence) to the outstanding French racehorse and stallion Worden, as well as to the grand-dam of another top-class galloper and sire, Le Fabuleux. Wilkes duly became another great sire from this family, responsible for the champions Wenona Girl, John’s Hope, Vivarchi andBogan Road in addition to Vain, although sadly it is now a sireline which has waned dramatically in the past couple of decades.
Inevitably, in a long and distinguished stud career spent at Widden, Vain did not produce a horse as talented as he himself had been. Such an occurrence would have been close to impossible. However, having been Australia’s Horse of the Year in 1969/’70 (despite having raced only in the spring), he completed a mighty double by becoming the country’s champion sire in 1983/’84. Additionally, he twice finished runner-up in the General Sires’ Table and once third, and twice headed the list of leading sires of two-year-olds. He was also leading sire by individual winners twice and leading sire by races won four times. He also proved to be a great broodmare sire, eight times finishing in the top three in that respect and twice topping the table (in 1990/’91 and 1993/’94).
Vain’s two most obviously successful sons were the Golden Slipper winners Sir Dapper and Inspired, winners of the race in 1983 and ‘84 respectively. His other stars included Oakleigh Plate victrix Mistress Anne, Caulfield Guineas winnerKenmark, the top sprinters Zegna, Festal, Better Vain and Proud Knight, and the high-class two-year-olds Charity, Rainbeam, Vaindarra, Vain Prince,Purpose and County. He sired several decent stallions – including Truly Vain, Sir Dapper, Zegna, Proud Knight, County and So Vain – but overall his daughters made a greater mark at stud, breeding such stars as the top-class stallionCentaine (a son of the aforementioned Group Two winning-filly Rainbeam), Chief De Beers, Golden Sword, Jetball and his full-brother Marwina, Kenvain, Centro,Arlington Road, Keltrice, Joie De Grise, Ideal Planet, Tennessee Vain,Scandinavia and Bel Esprit – and it is the last pair who are now of particular interest.