At the end of the 1971 Flat season, the big question for racing fans was whether the two champions to have emerged that season would ever meet for a second time.
Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef, the leading juveniles of 1970, had met only once in the 2000 Guineas over Newmarket’s straight mile, a distance which suited the Brigadier rather better than his rival with the result that Brigadier Gerard won what has gone down as one of the highest quality Classics ever run.
After the Guineas, Brigadier Gerard proved himself the best miler seen for many a long year with victories in top races like the St James’s Palace Stakes, the Sussex Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes before winding up with a hard fought win over 10 furlongs on heavy ground in the Champion Stakes.
Mill Reef, meanwhile, had stepped up in trip and won the Derby by two lengths, the Eclipse Stakes by four lengths and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes by six lengths. To top it off, Mill Reef had also won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe by three lengths.
Going into the 1972 season, there were a number of races which could see the re-match, notably the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown and a valuable new race, the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup over an extended 10 furlongs, to be run as one of the highlights of York’s Ebor meeting in August.
There was some concern when Mill Reef was forced to miss the Eclipse and the King George. It was thought he was suffering from a virus which affected many of the horses of Kingsclere at the time, but he returned to training and was said to be working with all his old zest and being prepared for York.
Trainer Ian Balding had just over a fortnight to get Mill Reef ready for the York showdown with the Brigadier, who, in Mill Reef’s absence, had won both the Eclipse and, on his only attempt over 12 furlongs, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
However a swollen hock meant the clash was off and so Brigadier Gerard arrived at York with just four rivals for the new prize and even though they included the first two home in the Derby, Roberto and Rheingold, nobody doubted that this would be win number 16 in the Brigadier’s 16th race.
An enormous crowd packed into the Knavesmire on a brilliantly hot summer’s day and there was a spontaneous round of applause when Brigadier Gerard entered the parade ring. Little wonder as he looked magnificent.
Lester Piggott, who had ridden Roberto to win the Derby, had swapped to runner-up Rheingold and so the ride on Roberto went to Panamanian jockey Braulio Baeza, who was having his first and what turned out to be his only ride in Britain.
From the start, Baeza had Roberto disputing the lead with Bright Beam, who had been entered for the race in order to set the pace for Mill Reef. Despite the champion’s withdrawal, he was left in the race.
The pair set such a hot pace that Bright Beam was done with before the turn into the straight and the rest – other than the Brigadier – were off the bit and clearly struggling.
With Baeza sitting as still as a mouse, Roberto set sail for home, but to the delight of the packed crowd Brigadier Gerard moved away from the pack and by the two furlong marker was little more than a length behind the leader.
Soon after, Joe Mercer drew the whip on Brigadier Gerard, but with Roberto keeping up a relentless gallop the response was limited and a furlong out the writing was clearly on the wall. Roberto galloped all the way to the line and passed the post three lengths clear, a margin exaggerated a little by Mercer dropping his hands in the last 100 yards.
Brigadier Gerard retired at the end of the season, having cleared any doubts by taking his win tally to 18 with victories in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the Champion Stakes.
Despite his defeat at York, the race went from strength to strength and now, as the Juddmonte International Stakes, is not only one of the highlights of the British calendar, but among the top races from around the world.
Mill Reef, of course, never raced again. A broken leg sustained on the Kingsclere gallops, threatened his life but owner Paul Mellon financed the intricate operation and his life was saved. He retired to the National Stud.