Every Thursday we'll be looking back on the career of a Cheltenham Festival legend and this week, Timeform and David Ord pay tribute to the brilliant Sea Pigeon.
Sea Pigeon. Now there was a hurdler.
Few horses did more to ignite my passion for the sport than this fellow, a comment I’m sure applies to thousands of others.
I was too young at the time to appreciate just what it meant when people referred to the Golden Age of Hurdling but as time passed by it became more and more apparent.
The cast, the drama, the battles won and lost. It had the lot.
It took Sea Pigeon four goes to win a Champion Hurdle – but how it proved worth the wait.
Having twice filled the runner-up spot behind the Irish terrier Monksfield, Pat Muldoon, Jonjo O’Neill and Peter Easterby finally took their revenge in 1980.
By then Night Nurse, the behemoth of a stablemate, had gone chasing but his nemesis from over the Irish Sea was there – and in front jumping the last.
Like in 1979 Sea Pigeon was alongside – but unlike 12 months previously he swamped his rival for speed. It was a deadly attack, over in a matter of strides, as he sprinted clear to the line.
“He’s won it at last” roared Sir Peter O’Sullevan. At ten it seemed a fitting climax to a glorious career.
But this is a horse who’d made a habit of breaking convention. Seventh in the 1973 Derby, he went on to lump big weights to memorable victories in the Chester Cup and Ebor in a golden autumn to his career.
Incredibly, he was going to top that too.
The 1981 Champion Hurdle is a race to watch over and over again. John Francome was an artist in the saddle and this was his masterpiece. Quite what number he counted to before deciding to unleash Pidge after the last is unknown, but not to pull the trigger until halfway up the hill required serious bottle.
It was a moment of genius from both horse and rider, and a fitting Festival farewell from a hurdler who had graced the sport’s blue riband for five successive seasons.
In the Golden Age of Hurdling he shone brightest of all.
Sea Pigeon was an outstanding staying handicapper on the Flat, his victories in that sphere including two Chester Cups and an Ebor, but he is best remembered for his two Champion Hurdle victories and playing a leading role in the ‘golden era of hurdling’. The speedy Sea Pigeon, whose turn of foot proved a potent weapon, claimed his second Champion Hurdle crown at the age of 11, making him the joint-oldest winner in the race’s history, and he would have won more titles had he not been around at the same times as the outstanding Night Nurse and Monksfield. He was the leading prize-money earner in jumps history when retiring at the age of 12 in 1982.
Sea Pigeon, a winner on his only start as a two-year-old, was ambitiously campaigned at three, taking in the Craven Stakes (seventh) and Dante Stakes (fourth) prior to running in the 1973 Derby, in which he finished a creditable seventh in a field of 25. Following a disappointing end to his three-year-old campaign (after which he was gelded), he was bought by the Scottish wine importer Pat Muldoon for a reputed fee of £10,000 and moved to Gordon Richards’ Greystoke Castle stables in Cumbria. Muldoon’s investment soon looked a wise one as Sea Pigeon quickly showed himself to be an above-average novice, winning his first four starts over hurdles. In fact, Sea Pigeon suffered his only defeat of the campaign when a close second at Doncaster to Bird’s Nest – the pair would become fixtures at the highest level for years to come.
Major races won
Jonjo O’Neill took over in the saddle from Ron Barry and was to become Sea Pigeon’s regular partner for much of his career. There was a low-key start for the partnership when Sea Pigeon was only seventh to rising star Night Nurse at Newbury on his return, but the pair combined for a smooth victory at the same course next time. The Fighting Fifth Hurdle was up next, and it was to the first of five appearances for Sea Pigeon in the race. Ridden for the only time by David Goulding – O’Neill’s understudy at Greystoke – Sea Pigeon finished third behind Night Nurse (who was receiving 5 lb) and Comedy of Errors, the previous season’s Champion Hurdle winner.
Injury meant Sea Pigeon would not get the chance to contest the 1976 Champion Hurdle – which was won by Night Nurse from Bird’s Nest and run on fast ground that would have suited Sea Pigeon well – but he had already shown he was a force to be reckoned with through wins in the Cheltenham Trial Hurdle and Oteley Hurdle, while he was only narrowly denied by Comedy of Errors in the New Year’s Day Hurdle at Windsor.
Major races won
Sea Pigeon won impressively on his reappearance at Ayr and finished a respectable second to Lanzarote at Kempton, but was then sent to join Peter Easterby after Muldoon decided to remove his entire string from Greystoke after two of his other horses were beaten by a lesser-fancied stablemate. O’Neill, who would split with Richards the following summer to go freelance, retained the ride but was not aboard (claimed to ride a Greystoke runner) when Sea Pigeon made a winning debut for his new yard in the Embassy Handicap Hurdle at Haydock. He easily defied top weight under stand-in jockey Ian Watkinson.
Heavy ground counted against Sea Pigeon in the 1977 Champion Hurdle, in which he was a creditable fourth to new stablemate Night Nurse, but he produced top-class efforts to win a valuable handicap at Aintree under top weight before making the most of a 10 lb pull with Bird’s Nest in the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr.
Major races won
Sea Pigeon embarked on an American adventure, but he fell in the Colonial Cup International Chase in South Carolina before the race had started to develop. He didn’t make his first start on British shores until February but returned with victory in the Oteley Hurdle, beating Beacon Light to win that prize for the second year in succession.
O’Neill was offered the ride on Night Nurse in the Champion Hurdle, but kept the faith with Sea Pigeon. However, O’Neill had to sit out the race after suffering concussion from a fall on the opening day of the 1978 Cheltenham Festival, and Irish champion jockey Frank Berry came in for the ride as Sea Pigeon chased home Monksfield in another stellar renewal, with Night Nurse back in third and Beacon Light in fourth.
Sea Pigeon again beat Night Nurse and Beacon Light (conceding weight to both) in the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr on his next start, where he did well to get up after being hampered by the final flight fall of the ill-fated Golden Cygnet. Sea Pigeon was below his best in eighth when sent off favourite (ahead of fellow top weight Monksfield) for the inaugural running of the Royal Doulton Hurdle at Haydock, but he bounced back quickly when defying top weight to claim his second Chester Cup just nine days later!
Major races won
Ian Watkinson took over from the injured O’Neill to win the William Hill Hurdle at Newbury and the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, in which Sea Pigeon edged out old rival Bird’s Nest. However, O’Neill was back in the saddle when Sea Pigeon warmed up for Cheltenham with a fine second in the Embassy Handicap Hurdle at Haydock, where he narrowly failed to concede 17 lb to the high-class Decent Fellow.
Had Betfair been around in 1979, Sea Pigeon would have traded at a short-price in running in the Champion Hurdle, but he again had to settle for second behind the ultra-game Monksfield. O’Neill thought he had gone for home too soon, though the fact Sea Pigeon pulled 15 lengths clear of Beacon Light hardly suggests that he was stopping – it was more a case of the heavy ground nullifying his finishing kick.
Sea Pigeon then fell when held in third in the Templegate Hurdle at Aintree, whilst old rival Bird’s Nest (who was receiving 6 lb) came out on top in the Scottish Champion Hurdle.
Major races won
Sea Pigeon was kept busy during the summer and autumn, memorably winning the Ebor under O’Neill, and finished runner-up to old rival Bird’s Nest (who was receiving 2 lb) in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle before signing off for his winter break to avoid the worst of the bad ground.
Most thought that the ten-year-old Sea Pigeon had missed his best chance of winning the Champion Hurdle, especially as his main rival Monksfield had beaten him on all five previous meetings, while a bruised foot in the new year put his participation at Cheltenham in serious doubt.
What was in Sea Pigeon’s favour, however, was a tweak to the Champion Hurdle course which reduced the trip by about 200 yards, placing more emphasis on speed. Monksfield led the way on the turn for home, with Bird’s Nest also close up, but neither had an answer as the strong-travelling Sea Pigeon showed them a clean pair of heels on the run-in, bursting seven lengths clear under O’Neill.
Sea Pigeon would follow up in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Chepstow, but the Scottish Champion Hurdle proved one race too far and he had to settle for third behind the lightly-weighed winner Secret Ballot.
Major races won
O’Neill won another two valuable Flat prizes on Sea Pigeon, but would never ride his favourite partner again over hurdles after the jockey suffered a career-threatening fall at Bangor in the autumn.
John Francome came in for the plum ride on Sea Pigeon and the pair got off to a winning start in the Holston Pils Hurdle at Sandown. Francome was unavailable for the Fighting Fifth, but stable understudy Alan Brown stepped in and Sea Pigeon claimed a second win in the race – though only after the Newcastle stewards controversially demoted Bird’s Nest, who’d been first past the post in a three-way finish that was completed by Pollardstown.
Francome was back in the saddle in the Champion Hurdle and produced an ice-cool ride as the 11-year-old Sea Pigeon retained his crown, joining triple champion Hatton’s Grace as the race’s oldest winner. Pollardstown and Irish raider Daring Run battled things out early in the straight, but Francome was taking his time and finally made his move half-way up the run-in, producing Sea Pigeon to win by a length and a half from Pollardstown without resorting to the whip. Alas, that proved to be Sea Pigeon’s final win – he finished fifth behind fellow 11-year-old Bird’s Nest in the Scottish Champion Hurdle.
Major races won
The chances are that ageing limbs weren’t the only reason for Sea Pigeon’s unplaced efforts in the Holston Pils Hurdle and Fighting Fifth – Easterby’s yard had been badly hit by a virus – and he was still among the ante-post favourites for the Champion Hurdle when connections opted to retire him after he failed to impress with his work at home.
Sea Pigeon lived a long and happy retirement, making the odd public appearance along the way, and died in 2000 - he is buried alongside Night Nurse (who shared the same field as him for much of his retirement) at Great Habton.
Sire: Sea Bird
Dam: Around The Roses
Dam’s Sire: Round Table
Breeder: Greentree Stud, USA
Hurdle Races: 40
Hurdle Wins: 21
Total Prize Money: £154,402
Owner: Pat Muldoon
Trainer: Gordon Richards & Peter Easterby