Monday, 20 November 2017


The name of Royal Gaye will not mean much to racing fans who have not yet reached the wrong side of fifty. Trained by Fred Rimmell in the 1970's, the gelding was not even a top class performer in his own right, but will go down in history as the winner of what undoubtedly remains the most strongly contested handicap hurdle ever staged.

The way the racing program is now moldered with those in the top band having races 'made to fit', means that the quality of the field assembled for the race Royal Gaye won will never be repeated in a handicap. 

It was May Day 1978 when Haydock Park staged the first running of the Royal Doulton Handicap Hurdle. With a big pot on offer, not having today's wealthier version of the Punchestown Festival to contend with, and in an era without molly coddling conditions races littering the calendar, the event promised to attract some big names.

But the promoters could still not have possibly been expecting the response they received. It would be no exaggeration to describe it as fantasy board game stuff.

Night Nurse, still to this day the highest rated hurdler of all time by Timeform, had just lost his crown to his established adversary Monksfield, who remains the joint second highest ever hurdler on Timeform ratings. Both lined up.So too did the highly popular Sea Pigeon, who would go on and win the 1980 and 1981 running's of the Champion Hurdle, as well as an Ebor to add to his Chester Cups, just for good measure.

The three superstars were joined by the Bob Turnell pair Beacon Light, who had finished third in the Champion Hurdle, and the enigmatic Bird's Nest, the old foe of Night Nurse and widely acknowledged to this day as one of the best hurdlers never to win a Champion Hurdle.

It is outrageous to consider that something was actually missing from the field. For we had just lost the enigma and legend called Golden Cygnet, who for regretfully too short a time blazed across the hurdling scene then left us forever after being fatally injured. His loss was substantial, even in such a vintage era.

Monksfield with Dessie Hughes aboard, and Sea Pigeon, partnered by Jonjo O'Neil both carried 12 stone. Night Nurse, carried 11st 9 lb, Bird's Nest 11st 8 lb, and his stable companion Beacon Light had 11st 6 lb. Further down the field you had Schweppes Hurdle and Imperial Cup winners and the like, receiving shovels of weight. Amazingly,half the twenty runner field carried the minimum 10 stone.

Monksfield was the moral winner, failing by only three quarters of a length to concede a full two stone to the Colin Tinkler ridden winner,who himself had won at Aintree on his previous outing. Close behind was Night Nurse, who rallied gamely to finish just over two lengths further back in third.

Monksfield was arguably the toughest Champion Hurdler ever to look through a bridle. Prior to Cheltenham, he would be campaigned in his homeland, handicap after handicap, shouldering big weights in testing ground. Writing about Monksfield during that season, the Timeform organisation noted, with understatement, that ' his has been a strenuous career '.

In fact nowadays it would be termed a grueling career but, he thrived, incredibly remained an entire, and found a small stallion role when he retired.

He would do it all again the following season, retaining his Champion Hurdle then, after his customary visit to Aintree, returning for the second running of the Royal Doulton where this time, burdening 12st again, he found Beacon Light too good to whom he was conceding 13 lb.

In Ireland there existed no program of regular condition races that the likes of Istabraq and Hurricane Fly would later take in. Small fields, the odd scare, a rare defeat or tussle, but never that buzz when you watch a star tested in the big field handicap scenario, giving away lumps of weight. Neither of these ever ran in a handicap hurdle.There was never any need to.

If someone asked what 'soul' was in racing, then an acceptable answer could well be circumstances when horses are tested in a variety of conditions and who will try their hand giving weight away from the top of the handicap instead of being lovingly campaigned in a program of small field conditions events.

The UK did offer a conditions race program for top flight hurdlers at the time. You could start in the Fighting Fifth, then the Champion Hurdle Trial at Cheltenham, go for either the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton or New Years Day Hurdle at Windsor, then the Oteley at Sandown.

Some did, but some mixed handicaps in too. For example, Sea Pigeon carried top weight to win the Embassy Hurdle at Haydock one year, then attempted the same feat when finding Decent Fellow too good in the same race on a later occasion. This year he gave that event a miss as his season began with a fall on his only ever attempt over fences, in the Colonial Cup, at Camden,South Carolina. That's an event we never hear much of nowadays.

Top class established hurdlers do not appear in handicaps anymore. You'll get a Celtic Shot , Make A Stand or Rooster Booster going through the handicap route on the way up, but once they are established top class horses, connections would never use a handicap as a target in itself or as a warm up for the big one.

It will sometimes happen in the chasing sphere, Arkle, the benchmark for all, was of course was tested in handicaps, mostly when the only one in the handicap proper. Two decades later  Burrough Hill Lad was considered an outstanding Cheltenham Gold Cup winner only because of his weight carrying performance in the Hennessy. And not to forget that one of  the best and most popular chasers ever, Desert Orchid ,also could be said to have had a 'strenuous career' with regular weight defying performances in handicaps over all sorts of distances.

And if this smacks of ignorant rose tinted spectacle stuff, then what about Denman's two winning Hennessy performances, both under under 11st 12lb. They were exhilarating and testament to what the sport is regularly missing out on nowadays.

It would not be wide off the mark to suggest that when Denman won the second of those, in 2009, it was the finest example in the past decade of the sport at its very best. A few minuites that can mesmerize and win over new fans.

Such moments are becoming rarer. National Hunt racing could do with a sponsor with some initiative, ploughing a bundle into the Schweppes, or Befair Hurdle,whatever its called now, so those at the top of the tree will participate and give at least one cuddly conditions race a miss.

The Grand National has become a public relations exercise and the heady money on offer is not consistently pulling in the very best when they are at their zenith. So why not give the Hennessy such a monetary boost that the previous season's Cheltenham Gold Cup winner will take it in as part of his schedule. The Betfair Chase would have to suffer, but the sacrifice would be worth it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi- I've added you to my blogroll on Added Oliver Ecke too but can't see a way of contacting him? Good luck!



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