Golden Cygnet was a racehorse who many racing professionals[who?] believed was going to be the next superstar of National Hunt racing after his performance at Cheltenham in March 1978. Described by Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien as "the best hurdler I've ever seen", he suffered a fatal injury in the Scottish Champion Hurdle. His hurdling career had lasted less than five months.
Golden Cygnet, a bay gelding, was born on the 21st June 1972 which made him a very late foal in bloodstock terms (on the 1st January 1973 he was officially the same age - 1 year old - as those born 5 months before him). He was from the first crop of his sire Deep Run - who would prove to be the best National Hunt sire of his era - and his dam (mother) was the Golden Vision mare, Golden Cygneture. He turned out to be the only foal of his dam who never set foot on a racecourse. His grand-dam was My Cygneture who never ran either and only had two foals apart from Golden Cygneture, both of whom were colts with one of them being a minor winner.
Golden Cygnet was sent to Goffs November Sales as an unbroken 3-year-old in 1975 where he was bought by trainer, Edward O'Grady for the sum of 980 guineas.
Golden Cygnet began his racing career as a 4-year-old in a flat maiden over 2 miles at Leopardstown on the June bank holiday Monday. He was backed in to 3/1 from 7's. Although he won the race, he was disqualified for causing interference inside the final furlong and placed second. His next run was in a bumper at Roscommon where he was a fast finishing third, beaten less than a length before signing off for the year with an 8-length win at Naas in a one-and-a-half mile flat maiden for amateur riders in early October.
It was almost a year before Golden Cygnet re-appeared on the racetrack again, finishing last in a handicap over 2 miles at Listowel in September before heading to Punchestown the following month for another handicap over a trip that was too short for him (9 furlongs). The form book stated 'never placed to challenge, some late progress'. He turned up for the Leopardstown November Handicap and was backed in from 20/1 to 7/2. With only 7-7 to carry, the top British-based lightweight jockey, Richard Fox, was booked for the ride. However, he failed to settle in the early stages of the race and as a result found himself in front with half a mile to run before fading in the straight to finish seventh. This being the last day of the flat season, Golden Cygnet's sights were then switched to hurdling.
His first appearance over hurdles came at Clonmel on the 8th December, 1977 where he was ridden by 19-year-old amateur Niall Madden who had ridden him to his only victory on the flat and was to ride him in all of his hurdle races. He won by 3 lengths (Form Book: 11/10 Fav, soon in touch, 2nd after 3 out, led between last two, ran on well). His next appearance was at Leopardstown on St. Stephen's Day in a 'Winners' hurdle for which he again started favourite at 6/4. This was a performance that had to be seen to be believed. Having been held up off the pace early on, he gradually made progress to join the leaders approaching the straight. At this stage he was travelling so well that Madden was having trouble restraining him as he had begun to take such a strong hold. He went to the front sooner than intended because he could not hold him any longer and he strolled away from the others in the straight to win on a tight rein (Form Book: 6/4 Fav, waited with, improved to 4th 3 out, joined leader cantering entering straight, soon led, drew clear, impressive).
So easily had Golden Cygnet won at Leopardstown that his trainer Edward O'Grady decided to let him take his chance in the Slaney Hurdle at Naas only 12 days later. Although he won, he was not as impressive as one would have expected after his performance at Leopardstown and not only was his victory hard fought, he also had to survive a stewards' inquiry into possible interference although he deservedly kept the race (Form Book: 4/6 Fav, mid division & waited with, improved when mistake 4 out, 5th 3 out, led from next, edged right at last, ran on well). He was given plenty of time to recover and did not re-appear until the 25th February, exactly 7 weeks later. His target was the Fournoughts Hurdle at Punchestown, a trial for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. He beat his 6 opponents (Form Book: 4/7 Fav, always close up, 2nd 2 out, led on bridle entering straight, went clear before last, easily).
As soon as Niall Madden pulled him out to challenge at the top of the hill with 3 to jump, he began to take a strong hold. Once he jumped the second last, he let him go and he shot clear, jumped the last well and sprinted up the hill to win running away by 15 lengths from Western Rose in a faster time than the Champion Hurdle which took place one hour later. (Form Book: 4/5 Fav, always going easily, led 2 out, went clear flat, impressive). Trainer of the runner-up Fred Rimell said "I've never seen a horse win so easily at the Festival." He was immediately installed as favourite for the 1979 Champion Hurdle.
He was to run twice more. Firstly he headed to the Fairyhouse Easter Festival for the Fingal Hurdle, a race for the best novices in Ireland. As in previous races, he beat his eight opponents, coming home eased down by 10 lengths (Form Book: 2/7 Fav, waited with, 2nd 4 out, disputed lead approaching next, soon led, quickened clear approaching last, impressive). It was expected to be his last race of the season but he was so well in himself afterwards that connections decided to let him take his chance in the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr 18 days later.
The Scottish Champion Hurdle represented a huge step up in class. Up until now, Golden Cygnet had been taking on fellow novices and he had shown himself to be in a different league. At Ayr he was taking on very experienced hurdlers of the highest class who were well capable of exposing any chinks he might have in his armour. On top of that, it was a handicap. In most years a Cheltenham winning novice could be expected to receive 14 lbs or more in weight from his more experienced rivals, especially from the likes of Night Nurse, the Champion Hurdler in 1976 & 1977 and Sea Pigeon who was to go on and win the Champion Hurdle in 1980 & 1981. However, the handicapper paid Golden Cygnet the huge compliment of allotting him 11st-13 lbs which was 5 lbs more than dual champion Night Nurse, 7 lbs more than Beacon Light, who had been fourth in the Champion Hurdle the previous month and 12 lbs more than Decent Fellow, winner of the Irish Sweeps Handicap Hurdle under 11-4. The only horse set to carry more weight than him was Sea Pigeon who was asked to carry only 1 lb more having finished a close second to Monksfield in the previous month's Champion Hurdle. In allowing him to take his chance at this level and at these weights, it showed just how highly Edward O'Grady rated him - and his assessment proved to be extremely accurate.
The race went according to plan most of the way. Having been held up early, Golden Cygnet moved into third place as they came to the second last hurdle. Approaching the final flight, he moved alongside Night Nurse travelling very strongly and looked an assured winner when for some unknown reason he just did not lift his front legs and crashed through the flight, somersaulting on his head before hitting the ground with a tremendous thud. Luckily, Niall Madden was thrown clear before the horse landed on him. Sea Pigeon went on to win the race, catching Night Nurse close home. "I was cantering on him," said Madden. "Still cruising. He had jumped brilliantly, never touched a hurdle. And then for some reason he stood off a bit too far at the last and he just clipped the top of it and came down on his neck." Racing's most respected judges 'Timeform' stated in their 1977/1978 Annual:
"The race confirmed two important points - that Sea Pigeon had no superior among the established hurdlers apart from Monksfield, and that all the superlatives heaped on Golden Cygnet had been justified........Golden Cygnet appeared to have plenty left, and was two lengths up on Sea Pigeon and about to take the lead from Night Nurse when he suffered his fatal fall. Judging by the way Golden Cygnet finished in his previous races, he would have taken some catching........The connections of Sea Pigeon did not dispute the general feeling afterwards that Golden Cygnet would have beaten Sea Pigeon in the Scottish Champion Hurdle if he had not come to grief at the last. And for a novice to have defeated a seasoned campaigner of Sea Pigeon's calibre at a difference of only 1 lb would have been a staggering achievement."
Very few people were inclined to disagree, including the compilers of the form book whose comment was (7/4 JF, waited with, improved approaching 2 out, quickened between last two, disputed & looked winner when fell last) .
Golden Cygnet eventually got back to his feet after the fall and although dazed and naturally very sore as a result, everything appeared to be pretty much ok. A long period of rest over the summer seemed to be all that was required. However, trainer Edward O'Grady was not 100% happy with his condition. A lump had developed on his neck which appeared to be a regular hematoma but something about it just did not look right. After consulting the racecourse vet he decided as a precaution to send the horse to the veterinary unit at Edinburgh University for a couple of days to be sure that everything was ok before allowing him to travel home. When he was contacted by the University the following day, everything appeared to be fine, but 24 hours later Golden Cygnet's condition began to deteriorate rapidly. When Edward O'Grady arrived home from Kilbeggan races later that Monday evening, his phone rang. It was the University again. He was hoping to receive the all-clear for the horse to travel home. Instead he was told that Golden Cygnet had suffered a brain hemorrhage as a result of an injured vertebrae and had been humanely destroyed. O'Grady said, "It was devastating, absolutely devastating. Rather like a friend or part of the family not only dying unexpectedly, but in a different country. That was the hardest part." When the news broke, the racing world was stunned. Timeform shared many peoples feelings when stating in their annual publication:
"Tragically, a bad fall at the last flight in the Scottish Champion Hurdle in April left him fatally injured and robbed hurdling of its most exciting recruit for years. Without doubt Golden Cygnet was a tremendous prospect and, with another year on him, there was no telling how good he might have proved himself to be........he was still improving when we last saw him as a hurdler and it is as certain as anything can be in racing that he would have had a very bright future in the top class had he survived."
He remains the highest rated novice hurdler of all time.
Niall Madden has described Golden Cygnet as "a freak." "I knew then that no matter how long I'd be in the game I'd never ride another like him." "He was different alright," said O'Grady. "The further most horses go in a race the more they come off the bridle. When he jumped off at the back of the field, he wouldn't pull. But the further he moved through the field, the more he started to pull. Exactly the opposite to a normal horse."
Golden Cygnet has a race named in his honour which is run at Leopardstown every year and it must bring back vivid memories for those who were present on the 26th December 1977. No one who was there is ever likely to forget the performance of Golden Cygnet that day or indeed any of his subsequent races. That his potential was never given the chance to be fulfilled remains one of the most disappointing and tragic events ever to have happened in National Hunt racing. Indeed it was described by one Irish newspaper as "the greatest loss to National Hunt racing since Arkle". However, of the many quotes after his death, the following one probably summed it up best for everybody - "They say that there is always another one around the corner but somehow I think it is going to be a very long corner before we see another Golden Cygnet." More than 30 years later that same quote could still apply.