The O’Briens and the Derby: 1972 – Roberto, Weary Willie and the Long Fella

Roberto (right) heads off Rheingold

In 1969 American John Galbreath was owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. Alongside this he bred horses at his stud farm in Lexington, Kentucky, and named one of that season’s foals after the Pirates’ star player, Roberto Clemente.

Roberto was sent to Ireland to be trained by Vincent O’Brien, and became champion Irish two-year-old following three first season victories ridden by Johnny Roe, including a win in the Group 1 National Stakes. Lester Piggott took over at Longchamp and the partnership came in fourth in the Grand Criterium. And in the end it was to be Piggott who rode Roberto in the Derby the following year.

For the 1972 Classics Piggott chose to ride Crowned Prince in preference to Roberto. It was a poor choice, and Crowned Prince flopped in the Craven Stakes, his prep race for the 2000 Guineas. Australian Bill Williamson came in for the ride on Roberto, and the two finished second at Newmarket. Sleepy-eyed and laconic, Williamson was known to racegoers as 'Weary Willie' because of his impassive appearance, whether his races ended in victory, defeat or controversy. Roberto’s owner had expressed concerns that he was not the right jockey, citing his age (49) and injuries as handicaps to victory.

When just a couple of weeks before the Derby Williamson had a bad fall at Kempton it gave Galbreath the opportunity to demonstrate that as he was paying the piper he was going to call the tune as well. He asked Bill Williamson to ride a trial gallop on Roberto but the jockey did not turn up as a result of oversleeping. He then took the jockey for an examination at the London clinic of Bill Tucker where he was passed as fit but still Galbreath was dissatisfied. At a meeting in London Claridges hotel he told Bill and Vincent that Lester would be riding Roberto and made the condition that if Roberto won Williamson would be given an equal percentage with Lester of the Prize money.

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That was controversial enough, although it was one occasion where Lester was unfairly blamed by both press and public for what happened. There was more controversy in the race, this time for Piggott’s aggrieve use of the whip.

As the field approach the last two furlongs, Roberto became the meat in a sandwich between Pentland Firth in his inner, and Rheingold outside him. Pentland Firth had led the race and was falling back, and Rheingold was starting to lean in to Roberto.

If you can watch the race, you’ll see that it was only once they were inside the final furlong that Piggott was able to get Roberto balanced. Then he let loose, Roberto responded and the pair were home by a head.

Many years later in an interview for The Observer newspaper, Piggott reflected on the race. “The Minstrel had a hard race in the Derby, when he just got up to beat Willie (Carson) on Hot Grove, but I was harder on Roberto,” he said. “I had to win, you know, and he wasn't doing much for me. I felt he could go faster if only he would. When we passed the post I thought I was beat, but I wasn't worried because I was sure I would get the race in the Stewards' Room.”

The result did go to the stewards, but they confirmed the victory. Vincent O’Brien was convinced that only Piggott would have won on the horse that day, and to the jockey, Roberto's reluctance justified the ferocity of his ride, one of those occasions where the will of the jockey was crucial in the final outcome.

In a way, everyone involved was a winner that day. Piggott notched up his sixth win in the Derby, Vincent O’Brien his fourth. Roberto’s owner John Galbreath became the first person to own Epsom and Kentucky Derby winners. And Weary Willie was paid for winning the Derby on horse he didn’t ride.

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