In the build up to Christmas the International meeting at Cheltenham is one of the major highlights. Our latest blog by guest blogger Grenville Davies reviews the career of Birds Nest – The Forgotten One, who won the International Hurdle, formerly known as the Bula Hurdle on three occasions.
If the 1960s saw the zenith of steeplechasers, the 1970s had many a hurdler who could lay claim to the title of the greatest over the smaller obstacles: - Persian War, Bula, Comedy of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon. In amongst that who’s who of hurdling, one name is omitted – Birds Nest - all because he never got to wear the champion’s crown.
Foaled in 1970 he was by Entanglement out of Fair Sabrina, was owned by Ian Scott and trained by Bob Turnell.
Birds Nest could best be described as being like your granddad, in that he didn’t have the best of joints. He had a dodgy heart and was not averse to throwing the odd strop; but then again you would be taken aback, as he had a certain swagger about him when the mood took him. His reputation as being untrustworthy led to him earning the dreaded Timeform squiggle.
His first race gave little inkling as to what would lie ahead for he finished eighth in a three-year-old hurdle at Chepstow.
Fast forward two and a half years, having gradually moved up the hurdle hierarchy, he started 100-30 for the 1976 Champion Hurdle. Favourite that day was Night Nurse at 2-1 who had everything going for him, especially the fast ground which he loved, whereas Birds Nest was not so enamoured, as he was far more at ease with cut underfoot. Night Nurse led all the way and ran out an easy two and half-length winner from Birds Nest, with Flash Imp a further eight lengths back in third.
Over the next five years, he proceeded to turn out a catalogue of high-quality performances. His first major win came in the 1976 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, where he trounced the reigning Champion Hurdler Night Nurse by 15 lengths, in one of the few times that he was not ridden by Andy Turnell (Steve Knight was in the saddle). In years to come this would be the scene of many a battle he would have with Night Nurse’s stable-mate Sea Pigeon.
It was obvious from a very early stage that chasing would not be for Birds Nest, as he was a little terrier of a horse. He landed a second Fighting Fifth in 1977 and followed it up with victory less than a month later in the Bula Hurdle (now International) at Cheltenham’s December Meeting - a race like the Fighting Fifth he would win three times in total.
A second Bula Hurdle would follow in 1978 but a third Fighting Fifth would elude him, as victory went to Sea Pigeon. A third Fighting Fifth would however come his way in 1979.
Success at the Festival would continue to evade him. He did though win the first of his “Champion Hurdles”, albeit a Scottish one in 1979, a race he would win again in 1981.
By 1980, he was being looked upon as being part of the old guard but both him and his great rival Sea Pigeon still had a thing or two to teach to those young upstarts. He was first past the post in the Fighting Fifth finishing half a length in front of Sea Pigeon but veered right and impeded him and so lost the race in the stewards’ room. In so doing he missed out on his fourth win in the race. The interference was so minimal that under today’s rules he would probably have kept the race. A close third that day was the 1979 Triumph Hurdle winner Pollardstown, therefore the “Old Brigade” could still beat the youngsters. In December of that year, he added a third Bula Hurdle, having finished third to Sea Pigeon and Monksfield in the Champion Hurdle back in March.
His last hurrah came in the 1981 Scottish Champion Hurdle, which he won as an eleven-year-old beating Gay George by three quarters of a length and Ekbalco a further three lengths in third.
The sands of time would eventually catch up with him and his last run came in the 1982 Templegate Hurdle, where he was beaten a distance by Daring Run.
The esteemed historians John Randall and Tony Morris would go on to rate him the ninth best hurdler of the 20th Century in their book A Century of Champions and that is more than can be said of many a Champion hurdler.
Blog by guest blogger Grenville Davies.
Black and white photo courtesy of Ed Byrne.