After the second of these, in the Group 2 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial Stakes, he showed evidence of a potentially excellent racehorse, and was promptly made favourite for the Epsom Derby of 2004. But Yeats was not to run as it emerged just two days before the race that he was having physiotherapy for a muscle problem and was withdrawn.
Yeats was off the track for exactly 51 weeks, and although not given a hard time on his return, finished second in a ten furlong Group 3 race at The Curragh. A step up in trip to 12 furlongs for Epsom’s 2005 Coronation Cup, run over the same course and distance as the Derby, showed just what might have happened the year before. Yeats led from the stalls, quickening up coming round Tattenham Corner and pulling clear with three furlongs left.
That was a first Group1 success for Yeats, and the second one was only a matter of weeks away. During his year off, Yeats had shown that he had the qualities needed to become a successful stayer, something he would have been unlikely to have the chance to show had he won the Derby. Ascot Gold Cup day came on 22 June, and trainer Aiden O’Brien had decided it was time to unleash the combination of speed, strength and stamina that enabled him to write his name into the record books for that particular race.
Yeats came to the Gold Cup each year from 2006 to 2009, and each year he won it. To win any race four times in a row is rare, to do so in a Group 1 race, unprecedented. And to be so untroubled in each race, as the Sporting Life race summaries show, was astonishing.
2006 – shaken up and in command over 1f out, easily
2007- in command when edged left inside final furlong, stayed on strongly
2008 – shaken up and drew clear final furlong, comfortably
2009 – in command 2f out, stayed on strongly.
When he was retired to stud at the end of the 2009 season Yeats had won 14 of his 19 races, and found his place in the record books. The only horse to come anywhere near getting the measure of him was Alandi, trained by John Oxx. Alandi won all three races in which they both ran, but none of them was the Ascot Gold Cup.
Yeats retired as the leading stayer, on a mark of 122, although Irish handicapper Garry O’Gorman wasn’t too sure about the rating. He said at the time, “It’s quite difficult to rate Yeats with confidence because his best performance was in the Gold Cup, where the extended distance means there are very few yardsticks. I’m not sure that Yeats was three pounds better than Alandi (119), who beat him on the three occasions they met. But the handicapping committee thought Yeats was as good in the Gold cup as in the previous year, though I’d have to have a niggle about that.”
Yet but for that muscle problem, would Yeats have had the chance to show his best qualities? I don’t think so.
There’s an element of what might have been about his alter ego, too. I had assumed he had been named after the Irish poet, WB Yeats, but it is not so. Step forward younger brother Jack Butler Yeats, artist, writer, and Olympic medal winner. If he had been the elder brother perhaps more would be known about him, for clearly he was no mean achiever.
Strangely, in the half dozen or so horses including Yeats in their name, is one called Jack Yeats, a jumper trained by Ferdy Murphy ten years ago. It’s hard to write much about him, as he was as likely to fall or be pulled up as to finish.
In the early 1900s, Jack Butler Yeats first became noticed when he contributed sketches for Punch magazine under the name W Bird. In 1913 he had a huge exhibition in New York, with over 1,300 works on display. Speaking after this, art critic Alexander J Finberg commented, “The people Mr Yeats is interested in are a rough, hard-bitten, unshaven, and generally disreputable lot of men." Perhaps JBY had been to a few too many race meetings.
His place in history came in 1924 at the Paris Olympics. Yeats did not compete in any of the sporting events, but did win a silver medal in the Arts and Culture Olympiad, in the process becoming the very first Irish Olympic medal winner following the creation of the Irish Free State.
He often painted horses, and the great English novelist, Graham Greene, painting completed in 1948, owned one such. After his death it sold at auction for more than £350,000. That figure was surpassed in 1999, when another painting, The Wild Ones, went for £1.2m. Which brings us full circle to his alter ego, Yeats, the racehorse, whose race winnings were £1.2m.