In the next in his series of iconic Cheltenham Festival moments, John Ingles looks back to a rivalry from the Golden Age of Hurdling.
As well as being the race of the season, the 1979 Champion Hurdle was just one of many clashes from that era involving some of the best hurdlers in Timeform’s experience during a period that has come to be known as ‘the Golden Age of Hurdling’.
Two of the star names of the time were stablemates, Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon, both trained by Peter Easterby, while one of their greatest rivals was Monksfield, trained in Ireland by Des McDonogh and a rarity among top jumpers in being an entire horse. Between them, this outstanding and hugely popular trio won two Champion Hurdles each in successive years from 1976 to 1981.
Night Nurse was the first to complete his double, having Monksfield back in second, with Sea Pigeon fourth, when successful in 1977 but, sent off favourite to win the Champion Hurdle for the third time a year later, he was beaten into third behind Monksfield who repelled the strong late challenge of Sea Pigeon to win by two lengths. Night Nurse and Monksfield had their most memorable clash at Aintree following the 1977 Champion Hurdle when they dead-heated after a sustained duel in the Templegate Hurdle in which Night Nurse was giving Monksfield 6 lb.
Night Nurse earned Timeform’s highest ever hurdles rating of 182 but, with the 1978 Champion Hurdle result showing he wasn’t quite that level any more, he was sent chasing in the 1978/79 season. Despite being a novice, Night Nurse took his chance in the Gold Cup at that season’s Cheltenham Festival, finishing tailed off, but would go on to finish second to stablemate Little Owl two years later.
That left Monksfield and Sea Pigeon as the pick of the established hurdlers for the 1979 Champion Hurdle. All of Monksfield’s races that season prior to defending his Champion Hurdle title were in Ireland. He returned with a win in a conditions event at Down Royal but faced stiffer tasks in his next three races giving lumps of weight all round in handicaps. He was placed in all three, however, including when carrying 12-0 in atrocious conditions at Leopardstown for the valuable Sweeps Handicap Hurdle in which he finished third, conceding 22 lb and 28 lb to the pair who beat him. But on his final start before Cheltenham, Monksfield, normally a front runner, ran a below-form sixth in the Irish Champion Hurdle after being held up in a slowly-run race. That resulted in his regular jockey, Tommy Kinane, losing the ride at Cheltenham to Dessie Hughes who was later to train the 2004 and 2005 Champion Hurdle winner Hardy Eustace.
As for Sea Pigeon, he’d been given a less arduous preparation with a break between mid-November and the beginning of March. He won both his starts over hurdles in the autumn, the William Hill Hurdle at Newbury (the day before running in the St Simon Stakes there on the Flat!) and the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle where he had to work harder to beat another top-class hurdler of the time Bird’s Nest, already a dual winner of that race and set to win it again a year later. Sea Pigeon’s prep race for Cheltenham on his return from his winter break is hard to imagine being replicated nowadays for a leading Champion Hurdle contender. Less than a fortnight before the Champion Hurdle, he carried 12-7 in the Embassy Handicap Hurdle at Haydock and ran a magnificent race in going down by three quarters of a length to Decent Fellow, conceding 18 lb to the runner-up who wasn’t far off Champion Hurdle standard himself.
Monksfield and Sea Pigeon weren’t the only race regulars in the 1979 Champion Hurdle field. Like that pair, Beacon Light, fourth the year before, was contesting it for a third time and his stable-companion Bird’s Nest – winner of the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham and the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell since his defeat to Sea Pigeon at Newcastle – was making his fourth appearance having been runner-up to Night Nurse back in 1976.
But splitting Monksfield and Sea Pigeon – both the subject of rumours about their wellbeing - at the head of the betting was the much-improved Kybo who’d completed a hat-trick of wins before the turn of the year when beating Bird’s Nest in the Christmas Hurdle, though a virus meant he hadn’t run since Kempton when lining up at Cheltenham.
The conditions played a big part in how the 1979 Champion Hurdle was run. The going was very heavy for the entire Festival and the ground was badly cut up by the time the Champion Hurdle was run. In fact, from the following year the race was moved to its current slot on the opening day to ensure fresher ground in the event of testing going. The 1979 Champion Hurdle was also the final edition of the race in its old, slightly longer format, run over two miles and a furlong and over nine flights over hurdles instead of eight.
There hasn’t been a slower time for the Champion Hurdle since the 1979 edition which was run in just under four and a half minutes; most since have taken less than four. In those days, the old course extended in a loop beyond today’s pulling-up area after the winning post before a sharp bend behind the enclosures opposite the grandstand and a downhill run into the back straight.
With Hughes sending Monksfield into his usual lead, most of the principals, including Sea Pigeon, Kybo and Beacon Light, charted a wide course throughout, while Bird’s Nest was among those taking a more orthodox route round the inner but on the worse ground. A turning point in the race came on the run to the second last where Kybo fell when moving up to the leader, looking full of running at the time and almost certain to have finished in the first three.
That left the race between Monksfield and Sea Pigeon for the second year running. Turning for home, Sea Pigeon joined Monksfield on his inner, apparently cruising, with his jockey Jonjo O’Neill still having a double handful going to the last in contrast to Hughes who was hard at work on Monksfield. The pair took the final flight together, both jumping it well and for a few strides Sea Pigeon was in front but, typically for him, Monksfield refused to give in.
‘In a thrilling battle to the line Monksfield gradually edged ahead, showing the determination for which he is justly renowned to struggle home by three quarters of a length’ reported Chasers & Hurdlers. ‘There were no more gallant performances seen all season than Monksfield’s and Sea Pigeon’s at Cheltenham. For let no-one think that Monksfield’s victory owed anything to lack of resolution on Sea Pigeon’s part: both horses ran their heart out and neutrals admitted afterwards to more than a twinge of sympathy for Sea Pigeon. The Champion Hurdle is the race likely to be remembered above all others in the most recent season.’ There was a gap of fifteen lengths back to Beacon Light in third.
Despite having hard races, both Monksfield and Sea Pigeon ran well again later that spring. Monksfield went on to beat Kybo at Aintree (Sea Pigeon was in third when falling at the last and remounted for fourth), and successfully gave weight to Bird’s Nest in the Welsh Champion Hurdle before running an excellent second, for the second year running, under 12-0 in the valuable Royal Doulton Handicap Hurdle at Haydock where he gamely went down by two lengths to Beacon Light conceding the winner nearly a stone. After his fall at Aintree, Sea Pigeon tried for a third successive win in the Scottish Champion Hurdle but under 12-0 found Bird’s Nest too good for the second time that season, going down by three lengths conceding him 6 lb with Kybo back in third.
In an almost unanimous vote, Monksfield won the official ‘National Hunt Horse of the Year’ award, while Timeform, describing him as ‘a wonderful little horse, a top-class performer and one of the gamest horses we have ever set eyes on’, made him their Champion Jumper that season. Monksfield’s Timeform rating of 180 has only ever been bettered by Night Nurse over hurdles and only matched since by Istabraq, though Constitution Hill is currently breathing down their necks on 177p. Illustrating the quality of the top hurdlers that season, Sea Pigeon was rated 175, Bird’s Nest 171 and Kybo 169.
But that doesn’t quite tell the complete story of the rivalry between Monksfield, Sea Pigeon and, for that matter, Bird’s Nest too. A year later, the trio met again in the 1980 Champion Hurdle in which, for the third year running, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon were in the air together over the final flight. With O’Neill delaying his challenge slightly longer than the year before, Sea Pigeon was set alight just after the last and readily brushed Monksfield aside, running out the winner by seven lengths with Bird’s Nest back in third.
While Monksfield’s defeat as the 6/5 favourite cost him a place in the record books – at the time only three horses had won the Champion Hurdle three years running – few would have begrudged Sea Pigeon turning the tables on his old rival at the advanced age for a champion hurdler of ten. A year later, Sea Pigeon emulated his predecessors Night Nurse and Monksfield – the latter by then embarked on a stallion career – by becoming a dual Champion Hurdle winner himself.
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