Although Night Nurse never won the Christmas Hurdle the museum's Stephen Wallis recalls the star hurdler who always ran a cracker.
Few would disagree that the Christmas Hurdle was at its most competitive in the halcyon days of hurdling in the mid to late 1970’s. Unlike today, when very often the main protagonists are kept apart until they all arrive for the grand finale in mid-March, many of the top ranked hurdlers were seen in regular competition. The premier races of the era, the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, the Christmas Hurdle and the Cheltenham trial races would very often see the likes of Lanzarote, Comedy of Errors, Sea Pigeon, Bird’s Nest, Dramatist and Beacon Light in combat before the festival. In the thick of the action was Night Nurse.
Foaled in Ireland, in May 1971, Night Nurse was sired by the sprinter Falcon out of Florence Nightingale and was sold at the Newmarket sales for 1,300gns to trainer Peter Easterby. After several rejections he was bought by Midlands businessman Edgar Rudkin. The horse showed little form on the flat: running without successes as a two year old in six outings and winning only once, at Ripon, during a six race three year old campaign. He reached a Timeform rating of 85.
However, switched to hurdling under the new ownership of Reg Spencer, a York estate agent, the gelding was transformed. Trained at Malton by Easterby, the bold jumping bay soon enthralled National Hunt fans when striding out with veteran Irish jockey Paddy Broderick aboard in his unfamiliar long rein style. Opening his juvenile campaign with two August victories at Market Rasen, he finished the season with five wins from seven starts although he was unplaced in the Triumph Hurdle.
Night Nurse stormed through the 1975/76 season winning the Irish Sweeps hurdle (December) alongside the Scottish, Welsh and Cheltenham Champion Hurdles. At Cheltenham the gelding had made all the running to win by 2 and half lengths from the 6 year old Bird’s Nest with the two former champions Comedy of Errors and Lanzarote well beaten and outside the frame.
The champion began the new season with two more victories to extend his unbeaten run to ten. Firstly, he took the William Hill Hurdle at Newbury, where he beat Flash Imp (placed in the last two Champion Hurdles) by 2 and half lengths conceding 12Ib, before he won a battle royal with Lanzarote at Sandown by a short head, where Dramatist finished eight lengths back in 3rd.
It was therefore a major surprise when Night Nurse lost his unbeaten run in his next race, when defending his Fighting Fifth hurdle crown in late November, to the sometimes wayward, but mercurial Bird’s Nest. Trained by Bob Turnell and on this occasion ridden by Steve Knight, Bird’s Nest, who was running his first race of the season sprinted clear to defeat the champion by fifteen lengths. Easterby was shocked and the bookmakers immediately made the two, joint favourites for the Champion Hurdle. Perhaps the gruelling clash with Lanzarote had affected the champion who for once failed to show his usual hurdling speed, but it was soon revealed that Night Nurse had been hampered with a possible strained ligament in his back
Nevertheless Easterby soon had Night Nurse ready for action as he was due to run at Ascot on the 18th December. Frustrated by the meeting's abandonment, his next target became a return clash with Bird’s Nest in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in a field of six. Other notables in the line-up included Flash Imp and Dramatist, fresh from his three length defeat of Comedy of Errors at Ascot in late November.
Bird’s Nest was sent off the 10/11 favourite with Night Nurse 11/8 and Dramatist at 9/1. The latter was receiving 3Ib from the Champion Hurdle joint favourites. Dramatist ridden by Bill Smith took the inside turning into the straight and the three main contenders virtually jumped alongside each other at the last flight. Dramatist jumped best of the threesome and in the ensuing tussle on the run-in just kept the champion at bay to win by a neck with Bird’s Nest who had slightly veered to the left a further head away in third. Although beaten for the second consecutive race Night Nurse had reversed the Fighting Fifth form and been narrowly second in concession of 3Ib to an up and coming young hurdler.
Night Nurse did not run again until the festival, he had been pulled out of February’s Irish Champion Hurdle due to the heavy going and connections were seriously worried about the similar conditions at Cheltenham. There he lined up, in what is regarded as the finest hurdle race in history. Amongst the challengers for his crown were the Irish entire Monksfield (2nd in the 1976 Triumph Hurdle), Irish Sweeps hurdle winner, Master Monday, Sea Pigeon, Dramatist, Beacon Light and Bird’s Nest. Due the heavy going the champion drifted in the betting and was sent off as 4th favourite at 15/2 (10/1 on the tote) with arch rival Bird’s Nest heading the market at 6/4. Night Nurse had won all his eight races in the previous season on good ground and it was thought his dominating racing style might not suit the demanding conditions.
Brod and the champion had other ideas and the pair went straight to the front, which they held until the 3rd last when briefly headed by Beacon Light. With a brilliant display of hurdling, keeping to the inner, Night Nurse regained the lead at the 2nd last, before they ran on up the hill, to win going away by two lengths from Monksfield with Dramatist third. Easterby’s other runner Sea Pigeon came 4th.
The gelding’s best ever performance followed in the Templegate Hurdle over 2m 5 ½ f at Aintree. Conceding 6Ib to Monksfield, National Hunt racing witnessed its Grundy versus Bustino moment as the two hurdling greats matched each other stride for stride from the 3rd last to the line. “I wouldn’t like to call that one” said Peter O’Sullevan on BBC Television as the two of them flashed across the finishing line. The result was a dead heat, probably the most memorable National Hunt dead heat of all time on the same epic day that Red Rum secured his record breaking third Grand National win. What a day’s racing!
Remarkably Night Nurse was entered and well fancied off a low weight of 7st 8Ib for the Chester Cup in early May. Sadly he was unable to emulate Brown Jack, the last Champion hurdle victor to win the prize in 1931. Unplaced, the race was won by Easterby's second string Sea Pigeon, a future dual winner of the Champion Hurdle.
After his summer break the quest was now to join the ranks of Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken and Persian War to become a three time Champion. After finishing 2nd to Beacon Light by two lengths at Newbury, albeit conceding 6Ib, Night Nurse was then beaten twice by the wayward genius Bird’s Nest in the Fighting Fifth and the first running of the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Doubts were beginning to be expressed about Easterby’s star. Had he lost some of his speed? The trainer had reported in the press that he was now harder to train as he got older.
His next step on the road to Cheltenham was the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day which became a significant date in the gelding’s career. The field was only three, but featured quality opposition in Dramatist and Beacon Light. Both were set to receive weight from Night Nurse, Dramatist 6Ib whilst Beacon Light only 3Ib.
After leading with 2 flights to jump the perennial front runner had narrowly lost the lead to Beacon Light as they jumped the last. But as Broderick recalled “I asked Night Nurse for a long one but he caught the top of the hurdle and turned a somersault”. The two came crashing down to leave the prize to Andy Turnell on Beacon Light. It was the first time that Night Nurse had fallen. Brod was badly concussed and following a series of x rays was forced to retire by the doctors. His dream partnership which had rewarded him with 18 victories from 26 races was over.
Jonjo O’Neill took the ride on Reg Spencer’s seven year old and began with a late January win at Doncaster, where he beat his familiar foe Birds Nest by a head to nudge ahead in their own personal battle 4/3. The win moved Night Nurse back to the top of the Champion Hurdle betting although the initial relationship with O’Neill was short lived as the Irishman decided to choose Easterby’s other stable runner Sea Pigeon for the big race.
Northerner Colin Tinkler was given the ride on Night Nurse but unfortunately O’Neill was concussed when falling in the previous day’s Champion Chase and missed the ride on Sea Pigeon which went to fellow Irishman Frank Berry. Sent off the 3/1 favourite Night Nurse set the early pace and led the field until they jumped the 2nd last when Monksfield (11/2) took the lead. From that moment the defending champion’s chance of glory was over, Monksfield took control running out a two length winner from Sea Pigeon. Night Nurse ran on gamely to finish third six lengths further back, Beacon Light was fourth, Dramatist fifth and Bird’s Nest (5/1) seventh.
A change at the top of the Champion Hurdle ranks was now taking place. The old champion was beaten in successive races when he was runner up to Monksfield at Aintree and Sea Pigeon in the Scottish Champion hurdle. By Mid April it was announced that Reg Spencer planned to send the seven year old chasing next season
Night Nurse’s finale over hurdles came at Newcastle on the 13 May 1978 in a handicap hurdle over 2m 4f carrying 12st 7Ib. Sadly Reg Spencer’s brave warrior with Jonjo O’Neill aboard in those familiar purple and mauve crossbelts failed to go out on a high, finishing seventh of the thirteen runners.
His career record over hurdles; Ran 32, won 19, 2nd 7, 3rd 3.
Night Nurse’s great attribute as a hurdler was undoubtedly his ability to gain ground as he jumped the obstacle. His leading from the off style and indomitable battling spirit with Paddy on top made him a wonderfully popular horse during the golden age of hurdling. As the ratings show he was, and remains the Greatest Hurdler. (Rated 182 in 1976/77).