Bygones: How the horse no-one wanted hurdled into Festival folklore

Sea Pigeon followed up with another victory for Great Habton trainer Peter Easterby
Sea Pigeon followed up with another victory for Great Habton trainer Peter Easterby
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THERE have been many multiple winners of Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle in the past four decades – Monksfield, Sea Pigeon, See You Then, Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and, most recently, Hurricane Fly. To this day, they are revered by racegoers on both sides of the Irish Sea as the best of best.

Yet it could be argued that each of these great two-mile hurdlers remain in the shadows of the unlikely Yorkshire-trained racehorse, rejected and overlooked by so many potential purchasers, who led from start to finish 40 years ago to take the discipline to an entirely new level – Night Nurse.

Night Nurse, top, won Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle on two successive occasions and his winning mark remains the highest of all time.

Night Nurse, top, won Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle on two successive occasions and his winning mark remains the highest of all time.

The first of successive wins in the race for Night Nurse, trained at Great Habton by irrepressible farmer Peter Easterby and ridden by jockey Paddy Broderick wearing a pair of patched-up breeches, the horse produced a breathtaking exhibition of fast, accurate hurdling to earn the crowd’s acclaim.

To this day, Night Nurse’s winning mark – assessed at 182 by Halifax-based Timeform – remains the highest ever afforded to a Champion Hurdler.

The rating reflected the quality of the opponents – previous winners Comedy of Errors and Lanzarote were amongst the well-beaten also-rans.

It was no fluke. Night Nurse repeated the feat 12 months later before putting up a career-best performance to dead-heat with Monksfield at Aintree on Grand National day in 1977.

Trainer Peter Easterby at his home, Habton Grange, Great Habton.

Trainer Peter Easterby at his home, Habton Grange, Great Habton.

Overlooked because this was the unforgettable day when Red Rum galloped into National immortality, Easterby’s warrior was conceding six pounds to his diminutive rival from Ireland, who would go on and win the 1978 and ’79 Champion Hurdles in a golden era for the sport before Night Nurse’s great stablemate, Sea Pigeon, finally conquered Cheltenham.

If it was not for Easterby’s Little Owl winning the 1981 Gold Cup, Night Nurse – and not Dawn Run five momentous years later – would have become the first horse to win Cheltenham’s two blue riband races. He was that good. “My fault, wasn’t it?” the trainer tells The Yorkshire Post with typical self-depreciation and economy of words.

Yet the 86-year-old, one of the very few trainers to have saddled more than 1,000 winners on both the Flat and over jumps, still can not believe the turn of events in the early 1970s that led him to acquiring a horse for £1,000 that would eclipse his 1967 Champion Hurdle hero Saucy Kit.

Having bought the horse at Newmarket Sales on a whim, Easterby – racing’s ultimate wheeler-dealer – struggled to find a purchaser.

Bred at the historic Cloghran Stud near Dublin Airport, sired by Falcon out of the mare Florence Nightingale, there was little to admire about the pedigree. Yet Easterby saw something in this “big, plain horse”.

Rebuffed by countless owners, Easterby had to use all his persuasive charm. “My job is to sell them, not keep them, or you go skint. The ninth man bought him; a fella called Mr Rudkin from Leicester. He had glasses that thick... he couldn’t see, could he?”

It was just as well. Apart from one undistinguished win at Ripon, this horse was inferior to Sea Pigeon, who had been good enough to run in the 1973 Epsom Derby, which was won by Yorkshire jockey Edward Hide on Morston.

Until, that is, Easterby decided – on another whim – to school Night Nurse over hurdles. Then the fun began. “He jumped, not half. I phoned up this Mr Rudkin and said the horse was entered at Market Rasen,” recalled the trainer.

“He was 85 and his girlfriend was 68. Shortly after, the girlfriend calls and says ‘You run that horse over hurdles over my dead body’. I was in a spot of bother. How do you get out of that one?”

Then Easterby’s enterprising instincts kicked in. He bought Night Nurse off Mr Rudkin for £1,000 – the original purchase price – and ran the horse in his own colours at Market Rasen where the trainer’s shrewdness was vindicated by an eye-catching win.

Yet Easterby was to enjoy another stroke of luck. When he sent the horse back to the sales, nobody bid for Night Nurse because unfounded rumours had emerged about a heart murmur – nothing, says the trainer, compared to the heart failure that Mr Rudkin’s “girlfriend” suffered when Night Nurse became such a household name with his brave front-running style.

Instead, the trainer sold the horse to his best friend, Reg Spencer – the pair had been contemporaries at Bridlington School – for £1,500. Asked to justify his 50 per cent profit, Easterby smiles. “He got a good deal, didn’t he?”

It did not end here. Night Nurse was so well beaten in the 1975 Daily Express Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham – the heavy ground did not suit and the horse coughed all the way back to Ryedale – that it deterred reported rumblings of a £25,000 bid as the horse’s reputation grew.

“He was that ill that he never got his summer coat until July,” said Easterby. “I couldn’t sell him, could I? I think Reg might have taken 25 grand, but I didn’t want to lose the horse.”

By March, 1976, and with his favoured fast ground at Cheltenham, Night Nurse was the horse to beat and the injury-ravaged Broderick, described by the acclaimed racing journalist Brough Scott as having a riding style associated with “old sporting prints”, looked to make all.

“There was never any point giving Paddy instructions. He never listened,” said Easterby, whose only worry came at the last when the well-backed Birds Nest threatened to challenge before veering to the rail and enabling Night Nurse to win by two-and-a-half lengths.

TV pundit Richard Pitman, so long associated with the beaten Lanzarote and Comedy Of Errors, acclaimed Night Nurse as the best Champion Hurdler for a decade while Middleham’s Grand National-winning trainer Neville Crump went further – he said he had never seen a better winner of the race.

Lifted shoulder-high to the winner’s podium by jockeys Tommy Stack and Jonjo O’Neill after winning the race at his very first attempt, Broderick concurred. “He was the best ever,” said the victorious rider, who suffered one concussion too many when he fell from Night Nurse at Kempton in December, 1977 and retired from the saddle.

As for Peter Easterby, Sea Pigeon’s subsequent successes saw the Yorkshireman complete his career with five Champion Hurdle wins – a record that could be broken if Nicky Henderson wins Tuesday’s race. He could have as many as five horses.

Easterby maintains that Night Nurse’s tussle with Monksfield at Aintree was the horse’s highlight, and says he remains mystified by how the ratings of the Champion Hurdlers are assessed.

“But I’m not arguing,” he adds.