Easterby’s brilliant pair separated by a nose in all-time greats list

IT’S Night Nurse by a whisker from the fast finishing Sea Pigeon. This could easily be the denouement to one of Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s evocative commentaries from the late 1970s, hurdling’s golden era, when these two iconic stablemates were carrying all before them.

However, it is the form assessment of Robin Oakley, a former BBC political editor and Spectator turf correspondent, in an enchanting new series of essays that highlights the achievements – and characters – of his top 100 racehorses of all time.

Peter Easterby, who had the good fortune to train Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon to two Champion Hurdle victories apiece, could not separate them and, poignantly, they are buried together at his Great Habton stables near Malton under a line of beech trees where a plaque that reads ‘Legends in their own lifetimes’.

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Yet Oakley just gives Night Nurse the edge – the 1976 and ’77 hurdling champion is 27th on his all-time list, the highest-ranked Yorkshire horse and just one position ahead of Sea Pigeon who went on to conquer the Cheltenham Festival in 1980 and ’81.

“Night Nurse ran over fences as well – he would have been the first horse to complete the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double in 1981 if it hadn’t been for Easterby’s Little Owl – and that just gives him the edge,” Oakley told the Yorkshire Post.

“My other point is that when Night Nurse was winning his Champion Hurdles, he was winning them from Sea Pigeon and the Irish great Monksfield, who both went on to win the race a couple of times. In some regards, they were the Kauto Star and Denman of their day. Two stablemates who were able to reach these heights because they were brilliantly handled.”

Oakley’s task was made even more challenging because his list had to recognise equine greats from both Britain and Ireland. He then had to compare the respective merits of National Hunt and Flat horses.

His only complaint so far has not been about the first three to cross the line in his literary race to the finish – there is a photo-finish between Arkle, Brigadier Gerard and Frankel – but that the people’s favourite, Desert Orchid, owned by North Yorkshire’s Richard Burridge, was 31st overall.

That assessment is a measure of the brilliance of Easterby’s pair. Sea Pigeon, after all, was good enough to run in an Epsom Derby before winning an Ebor handicap at York when jockey Jonjo O’Neill so nearly lost the race when he dropped his hands after hitting the front too soon.

Of the hold-up tactics that needed to be deployed on ‘Pidge’, Oakley writes: “Racegoers admire courageous front-runners who grit their teeth and strike for home, defying the others to catch and pass them, but they thrill even more to the ‘hold-up’ horses who swoop like a falcon from a crag to snatch the prize on the line.”

The reverse was true of Night Nurse, who won the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Champion Hurdles in 1975-76. “Some horses make the running because they are tearaways who cannot be taught restraint. Night Nurse was not one of those. He was gutsy and he was encouraged to run that way not because he was unrestrainable, but because he was comfortable out in front, a natural jumper.”

‘Britain and Ireland’s Top 100 Racehorses Of All Time,’ by Robin Oakley (Corinthian Books, £16.99).