Forty years since Champion Hurdle rated finest ever run
Tommy Kinane still thinks Monksfield should have won battle with Night Nurse in 1977 epic
Monksfield and Tommy Kinane (left) make a mistake at the final flight of the 1977 Champion Hurdle to let Night Nurse (right) snatch victory
Shorn of proven stars this is a Champion Hurdle widely dismissed as mediocre, a notable contrast to 40 years ago and the Champion Hurdle acclaimed as the best ever run.
It’s long odds that four decades from now reporters will be pestering the winning jockey from today’s feature for nostalgia, never mind the one who finished runner-up.
But if Timeform’s rating of Arkle is widely used as proof of the great chaser’s superiority, then the respected form company’s view that the 1977 Champion Hurdle is the greatest race ever run over flights is similarly hard to argue with.
Tommy Kinane’s argument isn’t with Timeform – just the result.
He’s 83 now, sharp, fit, and still allowing his legendary son, Michael, to believe he’s in charge of an estate earned on the back of the finest riding career Irish flat racing has ever known. And he still thinks he should have won on Monksfield 40 years ago instead of finishing second to Night Nurse.
The little stallion did win for Kinane a year later, and again under the late Dessie Hughes in 1979. Monksfield had to settle for second in 1980 to Sea Pigeon, the classic-bred star who won again in 1981, the year their 1977 conqueror, Night Nurse, came within an ace of winning the Gold Cup.
Night Nurse was the defending champion. His stable companion Sea Pigeon was fourth, a place behind Dramatist with Bird’s Nest in fifth. It could be argued even Beacon Light in sixth would have been a worthy winner at any other time.
Timeform’s 182 mark awarded to Night Nurse is still its highest over hurdles, a couple of pounds ahead of Monksfield on 180.
Istabraq at his peak got 180 too. He was a triple Champion Hurdle winner, and only foot and mouth disease denied him four. But Istabraq beat up second-raters in comparison to the depth that was there in 1977.
Perhaps the most startling proof of that is how none of the three legendary champions even started favourite.
Due to very testing ground, that honour fell to Bird’s Nest, a prolific winner who would have been a worthy champion at any other time. It was his misfortune to be foaled at the wrong time.
Instead it was Night Nurse who overcame doubts about his ability to act on very soft going under Mullingar-born jockey Paddy Broderick. Just behind him was Monksfield, the doughty little star whose front legs rotated like radar dishes searching for the winning post – and his frustrated jockey.
“The following year I told the owner and Des McDonogh [trainer] I wanted no instructions; just let me do my thing and I’d win. And we did. We beat Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon.
How Kinane was later “jocked-off” Monksfield in favour of Hughes doesn’t colour his fond memories either of the horse or his place at the centre of a golden era for hurdling.
“I used to do a bit of boxing, and racing against my fella must have been like getting into a ring with someone you think you should beat, but you can never get the better of him. He was so hardy, you could never get to the bottom of him.
“And there were some great horses around at that time. Sea Pigeon was a class horse. I’d rate him better than Night Nurse. Sea Pigeon was all speed, he ran in the Derby after all, while Night Nurse was a real stamina horse.
“Birds Nest was a speed horse too. He just couldn’t get up that hill at Cheltenham as well as the rest of us. But nine times out of 10 he’d have won a Champion Hurdle, no question,” he says.
That is backed up by Timeform, whose 176 rating for Bird’s Nest is one pound ahead of Sea Pigeon’s best. It means four of the top dozen horses in its all-time list of top hurdlers clashed on the one day four decades ago.
Even then Kinane says he was “long in the tooth”. At 43 he reckons he’s still the oldest jockey ever to win the Champion Hurdle. He doesn’t box any more. Now he dances, four nights a week, in four different counties. And still no bad judge, he reckons.
“O’Leary’s grey horse [Petit Mouchoir] impressed me the last day,” he says. “He stays, but he’s also got that bit of speed, which you need coming down that hill. He’d do me.”