WE go back to December 1981 for a race that many will remember for its uniqueness – though an ordinary weight-for-age event, this renewal was named the Allen Snijman Stakes after a then just retired Jockey Club Chairman.
The race, over 1800m, marked the first and only time the great British jockey Lester Piggott would be flown in by an owner to ride at Gosforth Park. It came just after Piggott had won his 10th UK Jockeys’ Title, and a few months after he’d won the Irish Derby on the legendary, ill-fated Shergar.
The talented Swan Prince, by Royal Prerogative from Swan Lake, had won the 1980 Gr1 Dingaans and the Gr1 Champion Stakes, but had become somewhat problematic as a four-year-old and owner Mario Phitides convinced trainer Michael Airey that Piggott would be the only jockey to get the best out of him.
It wasn’t stated what it had cost Phitides to fly the “Long Fellow” to South Africa, let alone how they managed to communicate with the man who’d always liked horses more than people, but Lester arrived on that sunny summer’s afternoon to take up his engagement in front of a large and appreciative racing crowd.
In those days, the unique riding style of British jockeys hadn’t been seen across the world like today – there were some faded black-and-white videos of Piggott shown in the build-up to the event, but while he was famous, in South Africa jockeys who rode like that were considered ‘monkeys on a stick’.
The pessimists came in droves, nonetheless, and backed Airey’s runner off the boards. Lester Piggott was in town. Not near as good as our own Muis Roberts or Gerald Turner or Marty Schoeman, of course, but said to be pretty good.
Swan Prince hadn’t drawn favourably on the tight Gosforth Park circuit and Piggott was expected to go to the front and dictate the pace. But gasps went up when the 13-strong field jumped from the pens and Swan Prince was immediately dropped out to last, a few lengths behind the second-last horse, well out of his ground under a tall rider who looked ‘funny’ in the irons as they ran along the back straight and approached the short, 500m run-in.
“I don’t suppose the big crowd at Germiston gave Swan Prince a hope in hell as he turned into the straight,” wrote veteran scribe Peter Atkins, who almost swallowed his pipe at what he saw next. “Suddenly, we saw Piggott at his magical best. He’d swung Swan Prince widest of all, but had him perfectly balanced and gave the colt one crack with his whip. Swan Prince literally flew past the rest of the field to go on to win by three and a quarter lengths from Simile, with Secret Service a short head away in third.”
After the race, Piggott remarked that Swan Prince was the best horse he had ridden in this country. He’d only ridden a few here and there, in Jockeys Championships and the like, but Swan Prince was very good. And so was Lester. And the Allen Snijman Stakes of 1981 was a memorable race, indeed.