Horse Racing Greats - Dancing Brave: Definitely, Maybe the Best in History
by Willy Weasel
Once a month we will be taking a trip down memory lane as we take a look at some the true Horse Racing Greats. This week we look at the rather unfortunate Dancing Brave has been ‘downgraded’ in the latest World Thoroughbred Rankings…
According to World Thoroughbred Rankings, Dancing Brave’s highest-ever rating of 141, awarded after he won the 1986 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, has been downgraded by 3lb. The decision leaves Frankel, with a rating of 140, as the best horse since official ratings began in 1977. Nevertheless, for 26 years, Dancing Brave was the benchmark against which every potentially world class thoroughbred was measured.
Although by Lyphard, a son of the legendary Northern Dancer, Dancing Brave was an unimposing, late foal. He made his debut for Pulborough trainer Guy Harwood in the Dorking Stakes, over a mile, at Sandown Park in October 1985. Starting at odds-on in a three-runner affair, Dancing Brave won comfortably despite a tardy start and, according to Harwood, stable jockey Greville Starkey said “This is my Derby ride” immediately after dismounting. Dancing Brave ran just once more as a 2-year-old, when winning the Soham House Stakes at Newmarket, again over a mile, in similarly comfortable fashion. Nevertheless, at the end of his 2-year-old campaign, Dancing Brave was still rated 11lb inferior to Dewhurst Stakes winner Huntingdale.
The following season, Dancing Brave won his preparatory race for the 2,000 Guineas, the Craven Stakes at Newmarket, with a minimum of fuss, despite racing on unsuitably soft going, and started favourite for the first Classic on the strength of that performance. In the 2,000 Guineas itself, Dancing Brave displayed his, now customary, blistering acceleration at the furlong marker to leave a decent field, which included subsequent Newmarket July Cup winner Green Desert, toiling in his wake. Now unbeaten in four starts, Dancing Brave was made favourite for the Derby; a race that was, unfortunately, to define the career of Greville Starkey.
Racing over half a mile further than ever before, Starkey held Dancing Brave up towards the rear of the field and, on the downhill turn into the straight at Epsom, known as Tattenham Corner, had just two of the seventeen runners behind him. Despite making up ground hand over fist up the straight, Dancing Brave failed by a diminishing half a length to overhaul Sir Michael Stoute’s Sharastani.
Greville Starkey, who retired in 1989 and died from cancer in 2010, was plagued for the rest of his career by accusations that he had left Dancing Brave too far out of his ground at Epsom. Starkey may have been riding to instructions but, in any case, former jockey Walter Swinburn, who rode Sharastani, summed up the situation when he said, “It’s a fine line. Had he got up by a head or a neck then all those who came out and tried to hang him for his ride would have been shouting his name from the rooftops.”
Nevertheless, Starkey rode Dancing Brave just once more, when winning the Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, over a mile and a quarter, before losing the ride to Pat Eddery. Under Eddery, Dancing Brave won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot, back over a mile and a half, and, after a preparatory race at Goodwood, headed across the English Channel for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
The field that assembled at Longchamp for the 1986 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was arguably the strongest for 20 years and included not only the Derby winner Sharastani, but also French Derby winner Bering, International Stakes winner Shardari and Champion Stakes winner Triptych. Pat Eddery apparently turned Guy Harwood white when he told him that he would be the last to challenge, but he was, producing Dancing Brave on the wide outside in the last furlong and half to pass eleven of the best thoroughbreds in Europe and win by just over a length and a half.
Unfortunately, Dancing Brave’s racing career was not to end on a high note. He travelled to The Breeder’s Cup at Santa Anita Park, California but, badly dehydrated and possibly already suffering the effects of Marie’s Disease, which nearly ended his life in 1987, he trailed in a well-beaten fourth. He retired to stud, valued at £14 million, but his early stud career was blighted by illness and, although his progeny included 1993 Derby winner Commander In Chief and numerous other stakes winners, he was sold to Japan in 1991 and died there, from a heart attack, in 1999 at the age of 16.
The so-called “historical recalibration” of the World Thoroughbred Ratings, which has promoted Frankel to the top-rated horse in history, has been questioned by many in the racing world. Walter Swinburn told the BBC, “I find the whole thing baffling. Trying to rewrite history is not the way to go.” Nevertheless, anyone who witnessed his win in the 1986 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe will remember Dancing Brave as one of the best, if not the best, racehorse they have ever seen.
We hope you enjoyed our lastest saturday racing previews as we took a look at the the chances of Sanctuaire and Sprinter Sacre in the Victor Chandler Chase. We will be again next week with another of our saturday racing previews… In the meantime we would love to hear your thoughts below…