Royal Ascot memories: Explosive Zilzal a class apart

Zilzal winner wearing his lads cap The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes Ascot 30/9/1989.

Zilzal: arrived at Royal Ascot after a ten-length win at Leicester

  PICTURE: Mark Cranham (  

 By Scott Burton 10:15AM 15 JUN 2016 

Zilzal was a brilliant winner of the Jersey Stakes in 1989 before going on to bigger and better things. We spoke to his rider Walter Swinburn to recall their Royal Ascot success…

IT IS doubtful too many racegoers were on hand to witness Zilzal’s debut ten-length success at Leicester in May 1989 but, by the time he arrived at the royal meeting the following month, the colt that would go on to be crowned horse of the year was the name on everyone’s lips.

There must have been plenty crowded around the old paddock who wondered whether Zilzal was already in the process of losing the Jersey Stakes before it had been run.

“He was a horse that could really heat up round the paddock and get really sweaty,” says Walter Swinburn, who rode the son of Nureyev on all six career starts. “He was always a drifter in the odds but when you got him to the start he was the driest horse down there.”

Those who took the shade of odds-on soon knew their money was safe, as Swinburn and Zilzal burst clear of his pursuers on the far side of the track to win by four lengths from stablemate Russian Royal, with future Group 1 star Distant Relative back in third.

But Swinburn says that the ability Zilzal showed on the track – he went on to win the Sussex Stakes and the QEII with extravagant displays – was all the more remarkable because of his unconventional preparation back in Newmarket.

“Only Sir Michael Stoute could have trained him. If you want to learn about a horse’s talents it is usually on the gallops when they are going straight. We seemed to learn about him going everything but straight.

“Zilzal and his long-legged rider, Tommy Whelan, fell in love and went wherever Zilzal wanted to go. It was hardly ever on the gallops. They would go across the Heath, left or right, but never up the middle. And he was allowed to do it.

“Tommy was so tall that his feet nearly touched the ground. But the horse trained himself and the genius of Sir Michael was that he allowed him to. Tommy was a boxer but he never fought with Zilzal.”

Sparkling season

That summer was lit up by Zilzal’s explosive turn of foot and even a disappointing final start in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Gulfstream Park – a defeat Swinburn still blames on himself – couldn’t take the sheen off his season.

“I was a little bit nervous about riding him at Leicester and then the big day at Ascot, it was the same thing. If he showed up it was just a question of by far he would win.

“It will never be repeated: to see how good he was going to be before he ever got to a racecourse despite not going straight at home. All I had to do was sit on him. Shergar was extra-special but in another way, Zilzal still gives me goosepimples as well. Those horses are just freaks.” 

Horse Racing News | Racing Post

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