The latest instalment from the home of jump racing takes place on Friday and Saturday with Cheltenham’s International Meeting.
A feast of quality racing over the two days includes the showpiece StanJames.com International Hurdle. The Grade 2 regularly attracts aspiring Champion Hurdlers, and has a stunning roll of honour.
The New One secured the last two renewals, and in recent times the race went to other classy types including Binocular, Detroit City, Harchibald and Rooster Booster. But it was the 1970’s; the golden era of two-mile hurdling, that saw the prestigious event go to some of the all-time greats.
Bula was one such Champion, and he took the International (then known as the Cheltenham Trial) as a seven-year-old in 1972. Trained by Jump racing legend Fred Winter, the horse had a long and illustrious career, both over hurdles and fences. But it was as a hurdler that he made his name, twice winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. He defeated Comedy Of Errors to win the International, though three months later he was unable to confirm that form when down the field behind the new Champion.
Comedy Of errors had taken over the mantle and set about dominating the two mile hurdle division. The huge gelding took the International in 1973 and again in 1974. He won the fighting Fifth three years in a row from 72 to 74, and he twice won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Those victories in 1973 and 1975 were split by a runners-up spot behind the front-running Lanzarote.
To those involved in those glorious years it was hard to imagine that two mile hurdling could get any better. Little did they know that this was merely the beginning of a golden period? Sea Pigeon, Birds Nest, Monksfield, and Night Nurse were about to burst onto the scene, leaving an indelible mark on Jump racing history.
Birds Nest dominated affairs in the International Hurdle (by then known as the Bula) winning back to back in 1977 and 78. He also took the race as a 10-year-old in 1980. He was never able to get his head in front in the Champion Hurdle though he got mighty close to Night Nurse in 1976, with Comedy Of Errors and Lanzarote trailing behind.
And so to Sea Pigeon who won the International just once as a five-year-old in 1975. In a truly amazing career, both over obstacles and on the flat, the terrific gelding ran 85 times, winning an incredible 37 races. Seventh in the Epsom Derby of 1973 he was thought to be ungenuine and tricky to handle. As a youngster he struggled to master his illustrious adversaries over the sticks, though by the latter part of the 70’s he was getting mighty close to the top of the tree.
Runner-up to Monksfield in the Champion Hurdles of 1978 and 79, he finally got his head in front in 1980, repeating the feat in 1981. That defeat to Monksfield in 79 was particularly painful having looked the likely winner throughout, before being ‘worried out of it’ by his terrier-like opponent.
As time sweeps by it’s easy to reminisce and believe that races of yesteryear were of an infinitely superior level to those of recent times. Nevertheless, that was surely the case during the 1970’s, when legends of the sport took two-mile hurdling to the Stratosphere and beyond.