Stradivarius – The Art Of Letting Go

A remarkable racehorse

Every now and then a story gets a bit stuck – some because they are tricky to write, and others because perhaps we just need to warm our hands on them for a little longer.

Life is hard, but it is also magic and when you find those rare bits of it, you have to mine them for all they’re worth, because magic exists to make one feel better.  About life.  About anything, really.  That’s rather the point.  And if you want magic, racing is the place to look.

Stradivarius in work

Les Carlyon coined the expression ‘When horses, or those who ride or train them, do rare things, they make the people who were present that day feel good’.  I try not to borrow it too frequently for fear of wearing it out, but if there is a better way of describing it, I’ve yet to find it.

I think the ‘good’ he’s referring to is magic.  The old kind, the rare kind, the knowledge of which is twisted deep into the strands of our DNA and compels us to spend our lives chasing it.  It’s a magic that snags the attention of horsemen and makes their hearts skip a beat because when they finally find it, they know.

Robyn Louw writes that the story of Stradivarius has been told and retold, but as the old saying goes, a classic never goes out of fashion.

From Sea Cottage to Stradivarius

As in all the greats, things had to arrange themselves just so for all the elements to blend together the right way, but it starts with a boy and a horse.

Born in Cape Town to a Danish father and South African mother, Bjorn Nielsen grew up in the suburb of Pinelands.

Bjorn Nielsen and Strad the foal

A competitive tennis player, he collected cuttings of his tournament results from the sports pages of local newspapers and became intrigued by the photographs and stories of horse racing that dominated headlines at the time.  It was the era of the mighty Syd Laird and Sea Cottage, his white-faced colt with the come-from-behind-tactics and ferocious stretch runs that captured the hearts of the nation.  He achieved legend status by surviving an assassination attempt in 1966 and then going on to write history with his run in the 1967 Durban July, conceding a welterweight 20lb to rival Jollify and with the bullet intended to kill him still lodged in his hindquarter.

Young Bjorn listened to that July commentary on the radio and recalls it easily.  “It was pretty emotional – Jollify had this big lead and everybody’s favourite horse Sea Cottage kind of ran him down and they dead-heated.  It’s something that stuck in my mind forever.”  There is more than a little providence that years later, he would come to own and race a white-faced horse with come-from-behind-tactics and ferocious stretch runs (even though the universe got the colour muddled and delivered a chestnut).

You Get The Horse You Need

As the product of Bjorn’s Bering matron, Private Life and racetrack phenom Sea The Stars, on paper Stradivarius should have been an Epsom Derby prospect.  Fortunately, horses don’t run on paper and anyway, the universe had other plans.  Having failed to make his reserve on the Tattersalls sale in October 2015, Stradivarius progressed into the hands of John Gosden and Bjorn’s yellow and black silks and another piece of the puzzle slotted neatly into place.

Lightly raced at 2, it was Stradivarius’ first start at 3 that gave the first inkling he might be something special when he won by 6 lengths.  Carrying 9st 7lbs, Stradivarius was beaten a neck next time out at Chester and then stepped up to win the Queen’s Vase at Ascot.  “When I really knew was when he won the Goodwood Cup from Big Orange,’ says Bjorn.  “It’s an extremely rare feat for a 3yo and we beat him fairly comfortably.  I thought to myself, to beat a Gold Cup winner, I might just have a special stayer on my hands.  That was the day really, the first time I knew.”

Racetrack glory

The rest is so much history now, but without the commercial pressures that accompany a Derby winner, the team – and racing fans – were afforded the luxury of enjoying Stradivarius for seven glorious seasons.

The team deserves every credit and then some.  Success is hard.  We all think it’s something we want, but it’s nearly impossible not to get overly excited, overly ambitious (or indeed, overly cautious), but despite having a very, very good horse indeed, they were absolutely foot perfect.

The eight-year-old retired in September 2022 having amassed 18 European Group race wins (one more than previous record holder, Cirrus des Aigles), with seven at Group 1 level including four Goodwood Cups, three Gold Cups at Royal Ascot (the first horse to win back to back renewals since Yeats) and three Cartier Champion Stayer awards.

He earned nearly £3.5 million in prize-money plus two £1m bonuses for winning back to back Weatherby’s Hamilton Stayers’ Million series.  It bears emphasising this series of four races is so ambitious, no horse had ever won them in a lifetime, let alone a single year.  But things only seem impossible until they are done and Strad is the quintessential ‘do it twice and take pictures’ guy.

I could recite the statistics, and by all means look them up because they are impressive – he was good, he was very, very good – it’s just that a list becomes ridiculous and because no-one has ever done what he has before, it’s hard to put into any kind of context.  The point is, this horse is so much more than his numbers.  Stradivarius is the 18 carat solid gold real deal.  He proved it.  And when we didn’t quite believe it the first time, he obligingly did it again.

Which does beg the question, why did they not just take the easy way out and retire him earlier, but as Bjorn says, “These horses come along once in a lifetime and I would like to climb into my wooden box one day and remember all the fun I had along the way with him.”

I think that’s part of being a horseman too.  It is part hope, part madness and part challenge to the universe, but again, there is some ancient imperative that tells us we must.  Because sometimes we win.  And sometimes we need reminding.

Happiness was born a twin

The joy of the old joke that a racehorse can take so many people for a ride at the same time is that it is true.  Anyone who has ever worked with a horse or in some way helped or contributed or even supported its career, automatically starts to feel a little proprietorial over it, and you can rest assured there was a tiny bit of all of us that felt just a little responsible for the entire thing. Because one doesn’t have to own a horse to feel like you do.

Strad was a solid and consistent presence when there was so much chaos and some pretty tough times for a lot of people.

And every single time he showed up and he lit us up and he made us feel good.  There is a lovely piece that reads, “For many, many people, the racehorse does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He flies when our bodies are broken; he defies his own odds; he rises above class and politics; sometimes, he achieves fame by sheer force of will. And you don’t forget a horse that gives you wings.”

Of course those wings do come at a price. They require that you lay your emotions on the line and genuinely invest in a horse, which means taking the downs with the ups and sticking with it regardless. However, when that investment pays off, to borrow a phrase, it feels as though Heaven has reached down and touched us personally.  That’s pretty heady stuff and it’s hard to give up, but one can’t hold on forever.

Things did not go his way when the team attempted a 5th Goodwood Cup on 26 July 2022, but Stradivarius fought like a lion to finish within a neck of Kyprios at the line.  A bruised sole kept him out of the 2022 Lonsdale Cup and on 26 September it was announced that Stradivarius would be retired to the National Stud.


I think one takes for granted what a privilege it is to retire any horse, let alone a top class stud prospect at the top of his game, sound and on your own terms, but in his usual way, it was just one more remarkable thing Stradivarius did.

On 24 October, more than 100 Clarehaven staff members turned out to pay their respects and see Stradivarius led out one last time.

Then, personally chauffeured by John Gosden, he made the short trip across town to his new home at the National Stud, receiving an equally warm reception from waiting press and National Stud staff.  Stradivarius took it all in as a matter of course as though this was simply what he deserves.  Which of course is exactly right.

Bjorn made the trip to Newmarket for the occasion, although it was bittersweet.  “It’s not easy,” he confided.

“Not so much for me, but I think it was a fairly tough day for all the people in the yard, who have seen him every day for the last 7 years.  But it had to be done and I’m really pleased he’s at the National Stud. I didn’t think about it when I did the deal, but as we got towards the move, I thought Thank God I did. He’s just two miles down the road where they can still go and visit and give him all the peppermints he wants.  People who weren’t even in racing have said to me how glad they are about that.  I called up to make a booking at the Jockey Club Room and the receptionist said ‘Oh I’m so pleased your horse is going to be retired to the National Stud, now I can go and see him regularly’.

Stradivarius – the next phase

Knowing I have a soft spot for his horse, Bjorn has kindly kept in touch to show me how beautifully he is letting down and shared all the details for his stud career.  Stradivarius is being offered at a very accessible £10,000 and generous incentives to encourage people to support him, so it seems he’s well on his way.

While it’s hard to give up something that has been this good for this long, the joy and perhaps the point really, of letting go means having to open your hands, which makes room for new and wonderful things.  Unexpected things, usually.  And that’s great.  Because if we only ever did things and went places we could imagine, how dull life would be.

Here’s to possibilities.

Happy next chapter, Strad.  Don’t forget to take pictures.

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