Legends of the sport: Was superstar racehorse Brigadier Gerard better than the mighty Frankel? *H&H Plus*

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  • Was Frankel definitely the best of all time or did Brigadier Gerard do even more within his era to earn that crown? The jury’s out, says Julian Muscat

    Brigadier Gerard’s origins

    Bay colt, foaled 5 March 1968
    By Queen’s Hussar out of La Paiva, by Prince Chevalier
    Owner: Mr and Mrs John Hislop
    Trainer: Major Dick Hern
    Breeder: John Hislop
    Jockey: Joe Mercer

    Brigadier Gerard’s sire, Queen’s Hussar, was decidedly moderate: he stood at a fee of just £250 when his best son was conceived, but he also sired The Queen’s dual Classic heroine, Highclere. Brigadier Gerard’s dam, La Paiva, failed to win while her dam, Brazen Molly, cost John Hislop just 400gns at auction. Brigadier Gerard cut little ice as a stallion himself. His best runner was the 1980 St Leger winner Light Cavalry, also ridden by Joe Mercer.

    Defeat is a dirty word in racing. It leaves a permanent stain, no matter how dominant any horse may have been throughout its distinguished career. When it comes to the “best of all time” debate, far better to retire unbeaten in the manner of Frankel.

    Frankel has been described by turfistes with elephantine memories as the best they have seen. However, his 14 victories were all gained over a narrow range of distances – between seven and 10½ furlongs. His versatility was never properly tested.

    For three seasons from 1970, Brigadier Gerard won 17 races over distances between five and 12 furlongs. In the book A Century of Champions by turf historians John Randall and Tony Morris, he was acclaimed as the horse of the 20th century in Britain.

    Brigadier Gerard even toyed with Mill Reef on their only racecourse encounter in 1971, yet his sole defeat is cited as evidence that on a solitary day within his three-year career, he was obliged to play second fiddle. The same charge can never be levelled against Frankel.

    On their relative merits, author John Randall is firmly in the Frankel camp. And since his view is based on rigorous assessment of the evidence, it would be a brave soul to take issue with him. Nevertheless, Randall’s admiration for Brigadier Gerard is fulsome.

    “For me, Brigadier Gerard’s best performance came in the 1971 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot,” Randall relates. “He won it by eight lengths from Dictus, the French horse who’d won the Group One Prix Jacques le Marois on his last start. On that day, Brigadier Gerard pulverised him in a way that even Frankel would have found difficult.”

    Stand-out winner

    The man on board was Joe Mercer, as he was for each of Brigadier Gerard’s 18 starts. However, the horse’s résumé of significant triumphs was so long that Mercer advances a different race as the most memorable.

    “The stand-out was winning the [1972] Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot,” Mercer says. “I’d been involved in a light-aircraft accident two days before. I was in a lot of pain and the big fella did it all for me. I’m convinced the horse knew I wasn’t feeling well. He never put a foot wrong the whole way.”

    It attests to Brigadier Gerard’s litany of achievements that neither Randall nor Mercer opts for the race that first defined him as an outstanding talent. He flaunted it extravagantly in the 1971 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, which remains one of the most competitive Classics ever run in Britain.

    Collectively, Brigadier Gerard, Mill Reef and My Swallow had won 16 of their 17 career starts – the only blemish being unavoidable, since My Swallow had beaten Mill Reef by a short-head in the previous year’s Prix Robert Papin. Mill Reef started favourite at 6/4, My Swallow at 2/1 and Brigadier Gerard at 11/2.

    “It was probably the best crop of racehorses in the 20th century,” Randall avers. “Mill Reef and My Swallow had both won their prep races, but Brigadier Gerard didn’t have one. He was almost ignored in the 2000 Guineas build-up, which was seen as a two-horse race.”

    For all that, Mercer’s faith in Brigadier Gerard knew no bounds. The colt was trained at West Ilsley by Major Dick Hern, who guided him through an unbeaten juvenile campaign comprising four races. The fact he’d never previously crossed swords with Mill Reef and My Swallow concerned Mercer not a jot.

    “I’ll never forget the horse’s final gallop [before the 2000 Guineas] on the Trial grounds at West Ilsley,” Mercer relates. “He went with Duration, a decent four-year-old who I was giving plenty of weight to. We set off 10 lengths behind Duration and Brigadier Gerard made him look like a donkey. He went by him like a rocket.”

    But that wasn’t all. Duration ran in the opening handicap on 2000 Guineas day, when he carted top weight to a wide-margin victory. The portents for Brigadier Gerard later in the day could hardly have been more favourable.

    Mercer watched Duration’s triumph from the stands with Bobby “RP” Elliott, a jockey who regularly rode at Hern’s on work mornings. With Mercer sidelined after a fall, it was Elliott who’d put the young Brigadier Gerard through his early paces. He’d written to Mercer insisting that he hurry back from injury; a juvenile of outstanding promise was in the making at West Ilsley.

    After Duration’s victory at Newmarket, Elliott turned to Mercer: “I told him the Brigadier was a certainty in the Guineas,” Elliott relates. “Joe just smiled; he was thinking exactly the same thing. Then he went out and annihilated them.”

    It almost defied belief to see Brigadier Gerard leave Mill Reef toiling in his wake as he accelerated away to win by three lengths.

    “It was all very straightforward. I just pressed the button two furlongs out and away we went,” Mercer says.

    “After that, there was a lot of excitement at West Ilsley about the Derby,” Elliott recalls, “but John Hislop [Brigadier Gerard’s owner/breeder] wasn’t having it. He wanted his horses to stay at one mile. Then Mill Reef went and trotted up at Epsom.”

    ‘Never crossed swords’

    Mill Reef would never be beaten again. During that summer, he’d also land the Eclipse, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, but sadly never crossed swords with Brigadier Gerard after the 2000 Guineas.

    “Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef were the greatest contemporaries in the history of British racing, and possibly the world,” maintains Randall, who followed both of their careers closely. “It was a great shame they only met on the racecourse once.”

    A rematch was projected in the 1972 Eclipse Stakes but Mill Reef was under the weather in the build-up. He was duly withdrawn, allowing Brigadier Gerard to post a bloodless victory despite his aversion to the prevailing testing ground.

    “If the two horses had come together in a race over 10 furlongs on good ground, I’d have gone for Mill Reef – purely because of the distance of the race,” Randall says. “Brigadier Gerard showed supreme brilliance over a mile, but the extent of his superiority decreased with each furlong he went beyond that distance.”

    Although Randall’s thoughts are borne out by the Form Book, Mercer maintains Brigadier Gerard was equally potent over 10 furlongs.

    “He would also have won the July Cup [over six furlongs] if he’d run in it,” the former champion jockey says.

    As a four-year-old in 1972, Brigadier Gerard emulated Mill Reef by winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot over 12 furlongs. It was a tribute to his versatility, yet while he was followed home by four Classic winners, his defeat of Parnell wasn’t gained with his trademark authority.

    “He was at the end of his tether, but he still stuck his head out,” Mercer recalls.

    Allure to breeders

    So much in Flat racing has changed in the five decades since Brigadier Gerard graced the turf. Having excelled over one mile, the strapping bay, who stood 16.2hh, was asked to race over 10 and 12 furlongs so as to increase his allure to breeders.

    These days, it is the other way round: Derby winners are invariably asked to race over distances short of 12 furlongs, very often to their detriment. Contemporary breeders prize speedier types ahead of middle-distance horses, the best of which combine speed and stamina in their make-up.

    In consequence, there is little incentive for horses like Frankel, who made his reputation over a mile, to step up in trip, in the process demonstrating their versatility. Brigadier Gerard ran 11 times at distances up to a mile and won them all, often by margins as extravagant as Frankel.

    Mercer is adamant Brigadier Gerard would have been more than a match for Frankel.

    “There’s no doubt Frankel was a great horse, but he didn’t beat the calibre of opponents Brigadier Gerard did, time after time,” he says. “The Brigadier was a superstar, much the best I ever rode. Frankel put up some fast times, but my horse broke three track records. Everybody keeps saying Frankel was the greatest but if Brigadier Gerard hadn’t had that one loss, I’m sure people would think he was number one.”

    The loss to which Mercer refers came like a bolt from the blue. It was inflicted on Brigadier Gerard’s 16th start, in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup (now the Juddmonte International) over 10 furlongs at York, for which the horse started at odds of 3/1 on. What was perceived as a regal procession turned into a wake.

    Roberto, who’d won the Derby 11 weeks earlier but had since disappointed in the Irish equivalent, was ridden by Braulio Baeza, the Panamanian who was champion jockey in the US five times. Baeza had been flown over especially for the mount and soon had Roberto disputing the lead at a furious early gallop

    Baeza sent Roberto into the lead around the turn for home. Mercer sat tight in his slipstream, yet when he prompted Brigadier Gerard halfway down the long straight, there was minimal response. The leader was not for stopping, and with Mercer easing down aboard his beaten mount, Roberto forged away to win by three lengths. The grandstand was stunned into silence.

    Brigadier Gerard’s defeat seemed all but inexplicable. He’d run into the mercurial Roberto on one of his “going” days, although Mercer insists Brigadier Gerard was ailing.

    “All of Dick Hern’s horses were sick with a virus,” he says. “The Brigadier did look extremely well but he rode like a dead horse. When he went back to the racecourse stables, he lowered his head and mucus came out of his nostrils in lumps.”

    Defeat can be excused but it can never be erased. That’s why it is such a dirty word.

    Rebounding from defeat

    Connections’ nerves were taut when Brigadier Gerard returned to the track after his only defeat at York, but jockey Joe Mercer had no inhibitions: “I knew he wasn’t right at York, so I wasn’t worried. In the paddock, owner-breeder John Hislop asked me how I planned to ride the race. I told him I was going to go out there and break the track record. That’s exactly what we did.”

    The look of eagles

    Brigadier Gerard had his quirks, even though he was usually easy to ride.

    “One morning we were coming back from riding work at West Ilsley, which is basically open farming country,” says Brigadier Gerard’s jockey, Joe Mercer. “We were walking by the side of a 100-acre field with some deer standing in the middle. Brigadier Gerard just stopped and looked at them. No matter how hard I kicked him, he wouldn’t move until he had taken it all in. That was him.”

    Brigadier Gerard’s race record

    Won 17 of 18 starts and £253,024.70 across three seasons from 1970, including:

    • 1970 Middle Park Stakes, Newmarket
    • 1971 2000 Guineas, Newmarket; St James’s Palace Stakes, Royal Ascot; Sussex Stakes, Goodwood; Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, Ascot; Champion Stakes, Newmarket
    • 1972 Lockinge Stakes, Newbury; Prince of Wales’s Stakes, Royal Ascot; Eclipse Stakes, Sandown; King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Ascot; Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, Ascot; Champion Stakes, Newmarket

    Showing who’s boss

    Brigadier Gerard dropped jockey Robbie Elliott, who rode him in his formative gallops, on the first occasion they were united. It was to become the horse’s party piece.

    “He did it to everyone,” Elliott says. “He did it to fellow jockey Jimmy Lindley when Jimmy first sat on him and he did it to Joe Mercer. I told Joe to watch out but he still ended up on the floor. Perhaps the horse thought he was the guv’nor and wanted anyone who rode him to know it.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 19 November 2020