29 Dec The legendary Night Nurse
I GOT hooked on racing at a fairly young age, probably because it was always on the telly. As a result, it slowly seeped into my blood. Certain famous horses struck a chord in those early days and it was usually the jumpers. Apart from Red Rum, of course, I loved the Michael Dickinson horses: Wayward Lad, Silver Buck, Bregawn, The Mighty Mac, Ashley House, Badsworth Boy… I could go on. But in the hurdling division I loved the way that the same familiar names cropped up year in year out. Comedy Of Errors, Sea Pigeon, Monksfield, Birds Nest, Pollardstown and, of course, probably the best of the lot, Night Nurse.
Bred in Ireland, Night Nurse was sold for 1,300 guineas to the wily northern training legend and the greatest-ever dual purpose handler, Peter Easterby. As a two-year-old on the Flat, Night Nurse was no great shakes and failed to win in six attempts. Aged three he broke his maiden at Ripon although, again, he was a loser in five other races. At four he won twice from three races on the level. But it was as a timber topper that he really came into his own.
Champion Hurdle glory for Night Nurse
Between 1975 and 1976 Night Nurse won 10 races on the spin, including the 1976 Champion Hurdle under the brilliant horseman Paddy Broderick, with the then five-year-old showing his trademark resilience to repel the late lunge of Birds Nest. In 1977 he retained his crown in a classic race for the Champion Hurdle, getting the better of the tiny Irish terrier Monksfield in a thrilling duel.
But it was the rematch in the Templegate Hurdle on Grand National Day in 1977 that really sticks in the memory. The battle between Night Nurse and Monksfield was immense and they could not be separated at the line. Relive that titanic dead heat here. Their race came shortly before Red Rum would go down in history by winning his third Grand National.
What makes Night Nurse stand out from his hurdling peers was that he made a successful switch to steeplechasing.
Night Nurse so close to Cheltenham history
Amazingly, Night Nurse was almost as good over fences as he was over hurdles. He was a natural jumper although he did clout the odd fence. In 1980 he was desperately unlucky in the King George VI Chase when he fell at the last when upsides Silver Buck.
He was quietly fancied for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1979 but blundered his chance away in a race won by stablemate Alverton, who came home alone after the final fence fall of Tied Cottage.
The closest Night Nurse got to Cheltenham Gold Cup glory was in 1981 when he was fancied for the race after making a successful comeback from injury. He was bidding to make history by becoming the first horse to complete the Champion Hurdle-Cheltenham Gold Cup double. (Dawn Run managed it five years later).
The race seemed to be going to plan when Night Nurse started to dictate affairs at the head of the field after the fall of runaway leader Tied Cottage on the first circuit. Alan Brown got some mighty leaps out of Night Nurse and turning into the home straight he disputed the lead with stablemate Little Owl and the favourite Silver Buck.
He was slightly outpaced on the run to the second last and the other two got away. But, remarkably, Brown conjured a final lung-busting effort from his brave steed. Night Nurse almost got up to win and was beaten narrowly by Little Owl, ridden by amateur Jim Wilson. A typically brave effort from one of the most remarkable horses in the history of jump racing. Watch the 1981 Cheltenham Gold Cup here.
Night Nurse still Timeform’s best
Night Nurse was the warm favourite for the 1982 Gold Cup. But he was pulled up after never travelling under Jonjo O’Neill. Michael Dickinson’s Silver Buck fended off his stablemate Bregawn up the hill to win.
Night Nurse remains Timeform’s highest-rated hurdler on 182, ahead of Istabraq, Faugheen and his old foe Monksfield.
Night Nurse enjoyed a long and happy retirement until he passed away in 1998 aged 27. He is buried next to Sea Pigeon at Peter Easterby’s yard in Malton now run by son Tim. The plaque next to them reads: “Legends in their lifetime.”