Saturday, 27 May 2017

THE SORRY STATE OF OUR TOP HURDLE RACES




There was once a Sea Pigeon that raced in the famous Jock Whitney colours. Look at re-runs of the 1973 Epsom Derby. With Tony Murray aboard he makes his run on the outside, starts to hang in like many do at the course but is still in fifth with a furlong left to run. He is eventually passed by two other rivals to come home a respectable seventh.

Jeremy Tree was not one to willingly pitch no hopers into races and Sea Pigeon had ran a decent enough Derby prep behind Owen Dudley in the Dante and was considered one of the runners that may be capable of causing an upset.

Fast forward to now and bring that same horse to the present, away from that unsophisticated, brusque era without the shackles of political correctness when Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler solved crimes, and every Group One race in the relatively new Pattern system was worthy of the title.

You see nowadays a horse with the profile Sea Pigeon held at the stage in his career after the Derby run would be getting eyed up by many fold prospective purchasers. Smaller chance it be a Nicky Henderson than agents from Australia searching for a Melbourne Cup horse for 18 months down the line, and smaller chance of that than the omnipresent Godolphin looking to take him aboard.

This is a development that has set in in the last 20 years. It fits with the beliefs of  'the world is smaller' brigade. These believe that the globalisation of the sport and the fast changing fixture list that it brings with it are strengths that should be welcomed.

If their Derby hand was looking weak Godolphin could even have scooped him up before the Dante as a squad player. If they came in after York the fact he'd ran from the front in the Dante could have put him in mind as an optional pacemaker if he ran below the level what they hoped for at Epsom. Even back to the Knaveshmire for a pacemaking role for their Juddmonte runners.

With Charlie Appleby or Saeed bin Suroor next to the name he would then be running on the Dubai Spring cards. Then perhaps reappearing again in the 1m 6f listed at York today.

As dispiriting as this all may sound it is actually an optimistic working of the imagination of what may have been. To put it bluntly there would be more of a chance  of  poor old Sea Pigeon simply disappearing from action, another acquisition messed up. Or a long absence, a Winter in Dubai then reappearing carrying loads of excess. Again that York race today would have been the sort of race for him to reappear in.

Whatever they would have decided to do with him he would not have been let near a flight of hurdles - he  certainly doesn't have the profile of one who'd find himself in John Ferguson's team during that five year period of activity.

Thankfully, he lived in the right age. Gelded and sold to Pat Muldoon the following year, he found himself in the care of Gordon Richards. A promising initial appearance for his new yard when runner up in the Moet and Chandon under a young Nicky Richards and despite running like one with a questionable resolution at Beverley the race after a switch in codes would be the making of a household name.

A splendid first season over hurdles, three from four and things got better, A fall out followed between Muldoon and Richards, a move to Peter Easterby and Sea Pigeon graduated into a big,big player in the greatest era of hurdlers ever, not to mention him winning a couple of Chester Cups and an Ebor.

Today, who knows how many Sea Pigeons have been taken out of the traditional circulation due to the world getting smaller and to a lesser extent the expansion of All Weather racing.

Admittedly we have had and probably now lost the excellent Faugheen very recently and Hurricane Fly would have played a useful support part in any era, and a chief player in average years. Istabraq is recent enough to be classed as a modern day winner too though a good degree of guessing was involved with him and it's debatable whether he really did achieve the 180 rating Timeform gave him. They have him, 2 lb behind Night Nurse level with Monksfield and ahead of Sea Pigeon.
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See You Then was not afforded the same kindness in subjectivity by the Halifax organisation. He beat better horses than Istabraq including Flatterer the best US jumper of all time but  overall he was also not racing in a vintage era. It's that misty area where they add a few pounds for what they consider is left in the tank.

In fact of the fourteen hurdlers that  raced around the Champion Hurdle distance and received an annual Timeform rating of 175 or more, eight ran in the 1970's. And alarmingly, in the 27 years from 1990 to the present, only Istabraq and Faugheen are in the fourteen - I could in fact extend that to the 33 years from 1984 to the present but if Istabraq is included then we all know See You Then should be in there too.

It was not Istabraq's fault that the poor era he found himself in meant he was never given the platform to show a more measurable merit. The way I look at it is that in the five Champion Hurdles from 1976 - 1979, the first three arguably being the strongest renewals of all time, Night Nurse beat Bird's Nest, Night Nurse beat Monksfield, Monksfield beat Sea Pigeon, Monksfield beat Sea Pigeon and Sea Pigeon beat Monksfield.

In his three successive victories in the race Istabraq beat Theartreworld, Istabraq beat Theartreworld, Istabraq beat Hors La Loi. This is not meant to drag this superb performer down, rather a quick snapshot showing the dreary overall quality in the hurdling division as we reached the millennium.

There is one thing we better get accustomed to; it's going to continue to be the norm to see a Buveur  D'air, a Uknowhatimeanharry,  and a Nichols Canyon leading the hurdling ranks. And never again a Night Nurse, a Monksfield and a Sea Pigeon. 

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