Ascot Legends: Brigadier Gerard

Rory Delargy reflects on the career of five-time Ascot winner Brigadier Gerard, who was triumphant in the 1972 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

It’s almost impossible to talk about Brigadier Gerard without talking about Mill Reef, and perhaps the best way to introduce them as a pair is to hark back to the essay on ‘The Brigadier’ in Timeform’s Racehorses of 1971, which began with the following observation:

“1971 was a flat-season to remember, a season blessed with the presence of two horses of the very highest class…. It must be emphasised that the two horses, one the winner of the Guineas and the other the winner of the Derby, rate well above the average Classic winner by our reckoning. They are two of the best animals we have ever seen.”

Given that the pair proved effective from six furlongs as juveniles up to a mile and a half, and remained in training as four-year-olds, it is remarkable that Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard should have met only once, but that one meeting produced possibly the highest quality 2000 Guineas ever run.

The 1971 2000 Guineas sets the scene perfectly for the strangely divergent careers of Mill reef and Brigadier Gerard. The former was an outstanding juvenile in the UK, winning all his races on home soil, including the Coventry Stakes by eight lengths and the Gimcrack by ten. Brigadier Gerard, not to be outdone, won all four of his races, culminating in a three-length victory in the Middle Park Stakes.

These wins marked the two English colts out as performers of the highest calibre, and both got an end-of-season rating of 132 from Timeform, but both were deemed inferior to My Swallow, a colt who lowered the colours of Mill Reef by the smallest margin in the Prix Robert Papin. My Swallow, trained privately for TV-rental tycoon David Robinson by Paul Davey at the stables now occupied by John Gosden, was also the first horse to win France’s big four juvenile races, the Prix Robert Papin, Prix Morny, Prix de La Salamandre and the Grand Criterium. 

Like last year's outstanding juvenile Pinatubo, My Swallow landed the Woodcote Stakes at Epsom on his second start, and ended his juvenile campaign, like Pinatubo, rated 134 by the Halifax mob, and headed the Free Handicap on 9-7, with Mill Reef 1lb behind, and Brigadier Gerard 1lb further in arrears.


History records that the 1971 2000 Guineas went to Brigadier Gerard by three lengths from Mill Reef, who had ¾ length to spare over My Swallow, with the winner returned at the remarkable odds of 11/2. It’s possible to write an entire book around that one race, but as we are primarily concerned with the subsequent exploits of The Brigadier at Ascot, it serves best to contextualise not only his brilliance, but also his unfashionable status. He was the rank outsider when winning on his racecourse debut, and was only third favourite when winning the Middle Park.

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Perhaps Brigadier Gerard’s lack of connection with the public in his early days was due to his pedigree. Although his owner-breeder John Hislop was fastidious in his study of pedigrees and breeding theory, his broodmare La Paiva was a disappointing maiden on the flat, and her sire Prince Chevalier had the rare distinction of being imported from France for stud duties not for a huge syndication fee, as might be expected of a Prix du Jockey Club winner, but in exchange for refrigerator parts.

When Hislop sent La Paiva to Queen’s Hussar in 1967, she had already produced a couple of winners, but had been barren every other year. Queen’s Hussar was moderately bred, and while a very good racehorse, winning the Lockinge Stakes and the Sussex Stakes as a three-year-old, he was not outstanding, and was beaten in 14 of his 21 starts. He was an unfashionable sire by 1966, and a fair proportion of the 15 mares he covered that season were those of his owner, Lord Carnarvon. It was hardly surprising that his fee had dropped to just £250.

In his book The Brigadier, John Hislop spends almost 50 pages explaining his approach to pedigree analysis, from his determination to acquire a mare descended from Pretty Polly through the varied reasons for his matings, and the reader is led to believe that the match between Queen’s Hussar and La Paiva was calculated to provide the greatest chance of producing a champion. In reality, Hislop and wife Jean weren’t wealthy enough to send their mare to the top stallions, so had to scour around for something in their budget.

Hislop’s long-time friend and neighbour, Roger Mortimer, noted in his book The Flat (a chronicle of Flat racing in Britain from 1939 to 1977) that at the time of Brigadier Gerard’s debut, his dam had not been mated with any of the more fashionable sires, and opined that “The selection of Queen’s Hussar may have been influenced by his modest fee and also by his proximity, since Highclere Stud is within easy bicycling distance of the Hislops’ stud at East Woodhay”.

In fairness, Hislop may not have been a wealthy man, but he was a fine judge of a cheap stallion, eschewing fashion and commercial logic in favour of proven bloodlines, although it’s telling that when The Brigadier bestowed some wealth, he found it perfectly appropriate to send his aging broodmare to a much more fashionable sire in Royal Palace. Still, such is the origin of legends, and the pairing of the maiden with the outmoded stallion produced one of the greatest racehorses to have graced the English turf.


When Brigadier Gerard is remembered, it tends to be for one or both of two races – the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in May 1971, and the inaugural running of the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup at York in August 1972. One was his coming of age, and the second his only defeat in 18 races. Despite that, his successes at Ascot make him one of the most successful of all time at the Berkshire track, and he won five times at the track, as well as two renewals of the Champion Stakes which is now run at Ascot, making his name an ever-present in the roll of honour at the course.

Brigadier Gerard had an odd campaign as a juvenile, although the choice of his engagements prior to the Middle Park mirrors largely the races in which his sire ran in his juvenile season. Queen’s Hussar ran nine times to The Brigadier’s four at two years, but the latter’s first three runs, in the Berkshire Stakes at Newbury, the Champagne Stakes at Salisbury and the Washington Singer Stakes at Newbury, were all in races contested in 1962 by Queen’s Hussar. Brigadier Gerard avoided a clash with Mill reef in the Coventry Stakes, and his first outing at Ascot was not until the following season when contesting the St James’s Palace Stakes.

Starting a warm favourite at 4/11 in a field of just four, The Brigadier had clearly shed his unfashionable status, and was expected to dispose of Diomed Stakes winner Sparkler without much fuss. The second favourite’s jockey, Lester Piggott, had other ideas, however. Bouncing Sparkler out on ground turned very soft by incessant rain, Piggott set an even tempo on his mount, and with Brigadier Gerard floundering in the heavy going in the straight and Piggott looking around for dangers, the race seemed won, but the favourite kept trying and with Sparkler finally tiring in the ground, The Brigadier got up in the very last stride to win by a head. It was almost inconceivable to consider defeat after the Guineas, but Sparkler proved himself a top-class miler, his only defeats in 1971 coming by half a length or less in the Irish 2000 Guineas, the St James’s Palace and the Prix Jacques le Marois. Nonetheless, a lesson might have been learned that the adage “a good horse goes in any ground”, is dangerous nonsense.

After his first foray to the Royal Meeting, Brigadier Gerard gained easy wins, by five lengths and ten lengths respectively, in the Sussex Stakes and the Goodwood Mile, where he beat Faraway Son and Gold Rod respectively. It’s easy to assume these races were uncompetitive by nature given the prices and margins involved, but the horses he beat were both winners, in consecutive seasons, of the Group 1 Prix du Moulin, a race Sparkler also won in 1973.

And so back to Ascot, but on much quicker ground, for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, where he faced just one serious rival, although that was Sparkler’s Prix Jacques Le Marois conqueror Dictus, wo had also accounted for Faraway Son in the Prix d’Evry, so was no pushover on form. What a difference a sound surface made, however, and the Brigadier who struggled in the mud in June was a distant memory. In his place was the brilliant Brigadier who relished the fast turf to hand out a thumping eight-length beating to the Frenchman, with Jersey Stakes winner Ashleigh another ten lengths last of three.

That might have been it for the season, but the prospect of heavy going and a first try at ten furlongs still did not deter the Hislops, and their pride and joy headed to Newmarket for the Champion Stakes, where a scrambling short-head win over Darkie Prendergast’s mudlark Rarity, a good horse but one whose wins came at Group 3 level, merely highlighted the folly of running the champion in a bog.


Kept in training at four, Brigadier improved again, gaining wins in the Lockinge at Newbury and the Westbury Stakes (now the Gordon Richards Stakes) at Sandown before a return to Ascot for the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. Here he was made favourite at 1/2, ahead of the smart handicappers Lord David, Pembroke Castle and Prominent. It was Steel Pulse, trained by Scobie Breasley for shipping magnate Ravin Tikoo, who ended up getting closest to The Brigadier, but despite receiving 19lb, he could get no closer than five lengths to the emphatic winner, who lowered the course record. Just 11 days later, Steel Pulse won the Irish Sweeps Derby.

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Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the win was that Joe Mercer, who rode The Brigadier in all 18 of his races, was in no fit state to ride having been involved in a fatal plane crash just two days before Royal Ascot. Mercer was a passenger in a light aircraft also carrying trainer Bill Marshall and his wife Pamela and owner John Howard, on its way to Belgium from Newbury racecourse. The plane crashed shortly after take-off, killing the pilot. Mercer was thrown clear, but returned to the plane to assist the others. The Marshalls were badly injured, but Mercer managed to get them clear of the wreckage before the plane exploded.

John Hislop insisted that Mercer be given every chance to show himself able to ride in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, and let the decision rest solely with the jockey. Not surprisingly, having taken a desultory day off, Mercer took the ride. Asked the standard question after the race – how do you feel – Mercer replied: “I feel fine, but I won’t be in five minutes” and he was right. Suffering from what we’d now call PTSD, it was adrenaline alone which carried him through the race, and as that high ebbed away, it was clear that he was on the verge of collapse. He didn’t ride again for another nine days.

Throughout the spring, Hislop had been keeping a close eye in Mill Reef, a stunning ten-length winner of the Prix Ganay on his return, and due to meet The Brigadier in the Eclipse at Sandown, a race on both horses’ well-published agendas. Since being beaten by The Brigadier in the 2000 Guineas, Mill Reef was unbeaten, winning the Derby and Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe among other races. Debate raged as to who was now the best, but the rematch in the Eclipse failed to materialise after Mill Reef, an unimpressive winner of the Coronation Cup on his second start, failed to sparkle at home. Hislop’s view is that the decision to prepare Mill Reef for such an early target as the Ganay meant that he was fit in the spring but not thriving physically, and noted that when weighed after Epsom, Mill Reef was found to be 60lb lighter than as a three-year-old. Ian Balding, whose yard was suffering from a virus at the time, decided to give his star a complete break and so the King George came and went without him.

In the meantime, the Eclipse went to Brigadier Gerard who didn’t need to be close to his best to beat old rival Gold Rod by a length on ground he detested, but he had perhaps his sternest test since the Guineas in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes back at Ascot later in July, when attempting a mile and a half for the first and only time. Without Mill reef his task was easier, and he started favourite at 8/13 in a strong field which included the Italian Derby winner Gay Lussac, Alec Head’s outstanding colt Riverman, winner of the Poulains, Prix Jean Prat and Prix D’Ispahan, Irish Derby winner Steel Pulse and the tough stayer Parnell, winner of the Irish St Leger and Queen’s Vase in 1971, and successful in the Prix Jean Prat at Longchamp for new trainer Bernard Van Cutsem in April, although not the same Prix Jean Prat won by Riverman in June (those crazy French – zut alors!).

Parnell had finished second in the 2½-mile Prix du Cadran in his prep, so with stamina and courage his strong points, Willie Carson rode aggressively, pushing Parnell into the lead well before the home turn, but connections were adamant that Brigadier Gerard should be ridden as if his stamina was guaranteed, and Joe Mercer was the first to set off in pursuit, unlike Riverman, who was ridden for speed and caught out of his ground by the injection of pace. As the field straightened for home, the race clearly lay between Parnell and The Brigadier, whose stamina was about to be fully tested.

Hitting the front with just over a furlong to go, Brigadier Gerard hung across Parnell who was forced to switch, and to his credit he kept the gap to a length and a half at the line. Ascot stewards were not afraid of throwing them out in the 1970s, once disqualifying the first three home in the opening contest at Royal Ascot, and the dreaded bing-bong duly sounded. So it was that a nerve-shredding 13 minutes passed before a decision was made to allow the result to stand.

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And so to the most eagerly anticipated race in decades, but oh, what a comedown. Firstly Mill Reef, reported to have finally re-found his vigour at home, and fancied by many to end The Brigadier’s winning sequence, but a swollen hock put paid to Mill Reef’s chances of running, although somewhat oddly, his pacemaker Bright Beam still lined up in his absence. Gold Rod was again in opposition, and again ignored in the betting, but the race also contained the first and second from the Derby, the mercurial Roberto and Rheingold. 

Vincent O’Brien’s Roberto had been a fine second in the 2000 Guineas before beating Rheingold in a memorable finish at Epsom, but was a moody colt who ran appallingly in the Irish Derby behind Steel Pulse. Despite his Derby win, he started 12/1 as opposed to 7/2 about Rheingold, who had taken the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud after Epsom. Roberto’s price reflected his poor run at the Curragh in part, but also the contempt of the betting public for his US-based jockey Braulio Baeza, who was deemed a likely liability on his first visit to Europe. 

In the event, as is well documented, Baeza rode a masterful race, allowing Bright Beam to set the pace for the first half mile and then rushing his mount to the front and setting perfect fractions to smash the course record. Excuses have been put forward for defeat but the truth is that Brigadier Gerard beat the others by an official ten-length margin assessed correctly as “far nearer twenty” by Mortimer, and by Timeform as a no-nonsense seventeen, and that despite being eased inside the distance when it was clear he wouldn’t catch Roberto. Defeat ruined a perfect record, but history should be more respectful of Baeza’s brilliant, ballsy ride on Roberto.

In a way, there was a hint of anti-climax about the rest of the season, but he reminded the public of his brilliance and his indefatigability by winning both races, ending his career by again beating French champion Riverman by a length and a half in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, but while the cheers resounded at Newmarket with those present aware it was his swansong, it was his second victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes which truly set the seal on his career.

Back against his old foe Sparkler, who had come closest to beating him the previous year, and returned to Ascot as the winner of the Queen Anne Stakes and the Prix Quincey at Deauville, Brigadier Gerard was considered vulnerable dropping back to a mile after a series of hard races which had ended with his infamous defeat at York, and with the QEII only a Group 2 at that stage, he also had to concede 7lb to his chief rival, while Redundant had also won over the straight mile at Royal Ascot, and received a stone. Any worries increased sharply when The Brigadier, usually sharply into stride, missed the break completely, and had to be rousted up to chase the others, headed by his pacemaker Almagest.

Turning for home, he was still behind Redundant and Sparkler, but when Joe Mercer pulled him out, it was clear that there was to be no repeat of York. He devoured the ground, catching Sparkler in a matter of strides and pulled clear to win by six lengths. Once again, a longstanding track record was shattered, but this time it was all his own doing, and the Brigadier, giving 7lb and a six-length beating to a tough and consistent miler rated 129 by Timeform, was never better.

As mentioned, people tend to remember him for his stunning success in the Guineas, or for his shock defeat at York, but there was so much more to him, and to bounce back from the lowest point of his career to hit such a peak on his next start is typical of his endeavour, and that of his owner-breeders. 

No British Classic winner had won so many races since Bayardo in the 1900s and few are so openly campaigned in the modern era. His breeding might have owed something to frugality and fluke, but the Hislops never shied away at the thought of defeat, and that buccaneering spirit allowed Brigadier Gerard to prove himself a true champion from a mile to a mile and a half. 

That adaptability, on top of his undoubted brilliance, makes him a true great in an age when that term is applied far too liberally.


Ascot Legends: Brigadier Gerard

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