Night Nurse

Night Nurse Champion Hurdle in 1976 and 1977

  • b g (1971) by Falcon – Florence Nightingale (Above Suspicion)
  • Breeder: Cloghran Stud
  • Trainer: Peter Easterby
  • Owner: Reg Spencer
  • Races: 64 Wins: 32
  • Prizemoney: £132,000

Night Nurse an Irish-bred English-trained National Hunt Racehorse

Remembering Night Nurse in his heyday is recalling a horse at the height of his powers. A jumping icon, whose legendary achievements in nine seasons of top-class racing made him a household name which was never forgotten throughout 15 years of retirement. But in November 1998, just two months short of his 28th birthday, the former Ryedale superstar was laid to rest in familiar surroundings at Great Habton.

Peter Easterby, who bought him as a yearling, trained him so brilliantly, and cared for him in retirement, had this extra-special horse buried in a paddock near his house.

“There’s a space left beside him for Sea Pigeon, when he eventually goes,” revealed Easterby, referring to his other dual Champion Hurdle winner, now aged 29.

Continue reading about Night Nurse

Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon were leading lights in that golden age of hurdling in the 1970s when horses like Monksfield Bird’s Nest, Flash Imp and Dramatist were thrillingly treading the boards of the National Hunt stage. Twice, in 1976 and 1977, Night Nurse wore the title crown as the Champion Hurdle winner, and, on both occasions, was voted National Hunt Horse of the Year. It was a richly deserved accolade. In his first season as champion, he was remarkably unbeaten in eight races, a roll of honour which included the Scottish and Welsh Champion Hurdles, not to mention the Irish Sweeps Hurdle. And, having triumphantly defended his title the following season, he went on to Aintree to finish in a dead-heat with Monksfield in the Templegate Hurdle in what is still remembered by many purists as being one of the greatest hurdle races of all time.

“It was a hell of a race,” recalls Peter Easterby, who has no doubt what made Night Nurse so special.

“He was a natural jumper – brilliant from the first time we ever schooled him. And he was a very brave horse, hard and brave,” he declared.

Easterby recalls with a chuckle how he had struggled to find an owner for Night Nurse after he’d bought him as a yearling for 1100 guineas. “I couldn’t sell him to anyone. The first seven people I showed him to turned him down. And,” he jokes, “I only sold him to the eighth because he couldn’t see very well and wore thick glasses!”

Night Nurse subsequently changed hands again being fortuitously bought by York-based Reg Spencer just before he switched from Flat to hurdles, as a three-year-old. “Reg bought him the week before he won his first hurdle race at Market Rasen,” said Easterby.

Night Nurse, who was looked after at home, and ridden almost daily by Keith Stone, then Easterby’s head lad, was partnered throughout his hurdling career by Paddy Broderick. After his hurdling career finished, Night Nurse went on to scale further heady heights over fences, again reaching the top of the tree.

“The one mistake I made was in not switching him to fences earlier than I did,” admits Easterby. “I don’t know why I didn’t. But he missed one year, maybe even two, when he could have been chasing.”

That said, Night Nurse proved to be a formidable performer over the major obstacles. In 1981, in the hands of Alan Brown, he only just failed to become the first horse to complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double when he finished second in the Blue Riband of steeplechasing to Little Owl – somewhat ironically also trained by Peter Easterby.

Delighted, though he obviously was to win the Gold Cup, Easterby would have loved to see Night Nurse, then a ten-year-old, as the victor.

“He was running out of time, whereas Little Owl was only a seven-year-old and, you would have thought, would have had other chances to win it,” he recalls. “But it’s funny how it goes, Little Owl never won another race afterwards.”

Night Nurse, who was retired on New Year’s Day 1983 on his 12th birthday, ran in 64 races over jumps, winning a remarkable 32 and just over £132,000 in prize money. Happy and content in retirement, he remained in good health right up until the end.

“He’d been grand,” confirmed Easterby. “He was eating his head off, and he’d have a roll out in the paddock every day of his life. But then he got a bad stoppage, and the kindest thing was to put him down.”

One of jump racing’s legends, Night Nurse is gone, but will never be forgotten. Not by anyone who followed and supported him, and certainly not by Peter Easterby.

“He was a great horse, who had a great life,” he said, before adding his own tender touch of gratitude. ‘And we had a great life because of him…”

A Century of Hurdlers (from the Racing Post)

Several horses have claims to the title ‘greatest hurdler’ but Night Nurse’s are the strongest because he was the best during the golden age of hurdling. He won the Champion Hurdle in 1976 and 1977, proving himself superior to two other dual champions, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon (his stablemate).

He was unbeaten in 1975/76 in eight races, including the Champion Hurdle and its equivalents in Ireland (Sweeps Hurdle), Scotland and Wales, and set the seal on his greatness with two brilliant displays in the spring of 1977. First he won the Champion Hurdle again, leading for most of the way and battling on to beat Monksfield by two lengths, with Dramatist, Sea Pigeon and Birds Nest next.

Each of them would have been a worthy winner in an average year, but this was the highest-quality Champion Hurdle ever run. In Liverpool’s Templegate Hurdle 17 days later, Night Nurse gave 6lb to Monksfield and dead-heated with him in an epic duel in which both horses gave their all, racing stride for stride from the third-last. Night Nurse’s display that day was the greatest single performance by any hurdler in the history of the sport. After being sent over fences, only his stablemate Little Owl prevented him winning the Gold Cup in 1981

One of the greats (From the Racing Post, November 1998)

PETER EASTERBY would not figure on the list of the five million most sentimental men in Britain, but he, more than anyone, knows that one of jumpings’ great post-war lights was finally dimmed yesterday. “He had a great life and we had a great life because of him,” was Easterby’s bluntly eloquent tribute yesterday, and the old warrior now lies in the paddock at Great Habton, with the adjacent plot reserved for the only other horse who is enough of a hero to share the same ground-Sea Pigeon.

It is tempting and all too easy to fall into the sentimentalist traps when a horse like Night Nurse dies. All the old nostalgic cliches get an airing and the rose-tinted spectacles of retrospection are pulled firmly on to the nose. But this big brute of a dual champion hurdler and top-class chaser deserves all the approbation that comes his way. He indeed made Peter Easterby’s life great, but his wider achievement was to make countless lesser racing lives just that little bit greater-up and down the country there will be folk this morning with a particular memory of the old-so-and-so, whether they saw him in the damp of a winter parade-ring doing his trademark impersonation of a comatose sheep, from the cold, stone steps of the stands, or merely heard his deeds and let their imaginations do the work in the smoke-laden fug of their local bookies.

It is not nostalgic indulgence to say Night Nurse cast his net in seriously stormy waters. He extracted the teeth of his two Champion Hurdles in one of the vintage periods of the post-war era-for once it is true to say that they were indeed “giants in those days”.

He took the crown in 1976, beating Bird’s Nest and Flash Imp. Bird’s Nest, then six, was still good enough to finish third four years later to Sea Pigeon and Monksfield, and Bob Turnell went to his grave still mystified that he never won the race; while Flash Imp had finished second the year before to another dual colossus in Comedy Of Errors.

In 1977, Night Nurse beat Monksfield and the hellish useful Dramatist, who picked a bad decade in which to ply his trade, and in 1978 Night Nurse finished third to Monksfield when the tungsten pony won the first of his two victories over Sea Pigeon, whose hours of glory were not to come until 1980 and ’81.

Old gimmers can argue until their zimmers buckle about which of half a dozen contenders was the greatest modern hurdler and the answer matters not. But to get a true understanding of Night Nurse’s stature you have to acknowledge that he was pitched in against ferocious competition during an exceptional era. Lazy at home-“he couldn’t beat me on the gallops,” Easterby once said-he was a tiger on the course where he loved to be up there. More often than not he was a repeller of challengers rather than a reeler-in of those in front, and his hurdling was awesome, breaking the heart of many who thought they had got to him over the last two.

HE WAS admirably served by Paddy Broderick, for whom the term `mounted policeman’ might well have been coined, and the sight of the pair in action sits indelibly in the mind-a team of horse and rider that could never be mistaken for any other. Perhaps what the public loved about Night Nurse most was his sheer indomitability. From the age of four to his retirement at 12 he gave his all, and in 1981 he put up one of the benchmark displays of guts allied to ability when second to Little Owl in the Gold Cup.

A typically huge jump three from home kept him just the master of Little Owl and Silver Buck, but that pair were three ahead of him at the second last and the old boy looked cooked and carded for a fading third.

But, as ever, when Alan Brown asked-and he could ask-Night Nurse found somewhere deeper to dig, and fought every foot up that vile hill to get within a length and a half of Little Owl, with Silver Buck 10 behind him. Easterby will always be nagged by the feeling that he should have switched the big horse to fences earlier, wondering whether, had he done so, it would have been Night Nurse rather than Dawn Run to be the first name chiselled into the granite roll of honour reserved for winners of both of the Festival’s holy grails. There have been greater horses, but very few in my lifetime, and still fewer who could match Night Nurse for sheer honest endeavour and longevity at the top.

To jumps lovers under 30 he will be little more than a name in the books or dated television footage. But to those of us sliding inexorably into middle age he was something that burned hot on the coldest afternoons, and we don’t expect to see many more of his ilk before the Reaper comes to make the ultimate deduction of everything in the pound.

Hallowed ground, indeed, up Great Habton way.