Race Histories 9 – The Fighting Fifth Hurdle

Bird's Nest

It was Christmas Day in the trenches
In Spain int' Peninsular War,
And Sam Small was cleaning his musket,
A thing that he’d ne’er done before.

The monologue written by Edgar Marriott for the fine entertainer Stanley Holloway about Sam Small’s Christmas Day in the Trenches doesn’t specifically record which regiment of Fusiliers he served in, though it is almost certainly the Lancashires. Look at their cap badge, and it really could be the Christmas pudding with which Sam Small brought down the bastion at Badajoz to launch victory over the French and Spanish defences.

The 5th (Northumberland) Regiment of Foot fought alongside the Lancashires in 1812 at the Battle of Badajoz under Wellington’s overall command, and it was in the Peninsular War, if not in this particular engagement, that they earned their nickname of “The Fighting Fifth.” At Badajoz, the Northumberlands were engaged in a diversionary attack to the North of the stronghold, and it took a full night of fighting before they were able to gain a foothold in the city and loin up with the other divisions that had carried out the main attack.

Such was the intensity of fighting, that 73 Fusiliers were awarded the Military Service Medal during the three-day siege.

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One thing this year’s Stan James.com Fighting Fifth Hurdle will have in common with the Regiment’s Peninsula War experience is that there will be plenty of mud about. But with only six runners in there should be no major skirmishes, which hasn’t always been the case.

Only seven runners contested the 1980 running, which saw Pollardstown attempt to make all the running on heavy ground. Bird’s Nest was attempting to win for the fourth time, and appeared to have done just that, putting his nose in front on the line.

Sea Pigeon

The stewards had other ideas, and after an enquiry, they relegated him to second place, surely one of the greatest injustices ever to take place in the secrecy of the stewards’ room. Their decision gave the race to Sea Pigeon, who thus recaptured that particular trophy, and at the age of 10 became the oldest winner of the race.

This left Bird’s Nest to share the accolade of winning-most horse in the race with Comedy Of Errors. The two horses dominated the event during the 1970s, and as it was only introduced to the calendar in 1969, the contests between them helped to establish the race as the top two-mile contest of the autumn.

Stan James took over sponsorship in 2010, making the race the first leg of their series of The Road to Cheltenham, culminating in the Champion Hurdle each season. It isn’t, though, a great pointer to Cheltenham, as just three horses, Sea Pigeon (1980), Kribensis (1989) and Punjabi (2009) have gone on the take the Champion Hurdle in the same season.

As for this year, we’ll leave the last word to the Northumberland Fusiliers, and their motto: Quo Fata Vocant (Whither the Fates call).

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