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Friday, 14 December, 2018

From Monksfield to Master Oats: relive vintage Cheltenham Festival races

Ten Racing Post writers on the festival race they can watch again and again

Sea Pigeon and John Francome clear the last en route to victory in the 1981 Champion Hurdle
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Steve Dennis - Sea Pigeon, 1981 Champion Hurdle

If you want a hectic finish, blood and thunder, then Canny Danny against Torreon in the 1983 Sun Alliance Chase is the one, with Jonjo O'Neill on Torreon pretending he is Lester Piggott riding Roberto. But one race that never diminishes through repetition is Sea Pigeon's second victory in the Champion Hurdle, the last gilding of the Golden Age of hurdling, when John Francome waited longer than a wallflower at the senior prom before letting the old man have his head. Sea Pigeon accelerates like one of those Italian sports cars you can't afford, mowing down Pollardstown and Daring Run; if that doesn't lift the hairs on the back of your neck you're no friend of mine.

Peter Thomas - Viking Flagship, 1994 Champion Chase

It’s a moot point whether or not any horse ‘knows when it’s beaten’, but in the case of Viking Flagship we can say for sure that he never did. He was the epitome of the hard-as-nails two-mile chaser, with legs full of speed and a belly full of fire, and this was his day. Coming to the last, Adrian Maguire was hard at work on Viking Flagship with his closest rivals, the 1993 Arkle winner Travado and the reigning champion Deep Sensation seemingly travelling better, but Maguire, menacing beneath his black crash hat, was a match for anyone and his mount a brutal opponent to face. This was speed, grace and psychological cruelty in one equine package and the result was somehow inevitable. 

Richard Forristal - Imperial Call, 1996 Gold Cup

As a 15-year-old kid who was working for Imperial Call's owners Lisselan Farms, there is an emotional bias at play here, but this is still a seminal moment that makes for an enthralling watch. In a race that featured such equine luminaries as One Man, Rough Quest, Dublin Flyer, Barton Bank and more, Fergie Sutherland's charge oozed class under Conor O'Dwyer.

From the moment he began eye-balling the pace-setters down the back the final time, he stamped his authority all over the opposition to end a ten-year Irish Gold Cup drought. It makes for hair-raising viewing, every time.

Graham Dench - Golden Cygnet, 1978 Supreme Novices'

A golden era of hurdling was dominated by the likes of Sea Pigeon, Night Nurse, Monksfield and personal favourite Birds Nest. Younger racing fans are unlikely to be so familiar with Golden Cygnet, yet he was arguably the best of them all.

Watch him win in the 1978 Supreme Novices' and marvel at the most extraordinary talent. Then watch the closing stages of the Scottish Champion Hurdle and weep.

Unbeaten in Ireland for Edward O'Grady, Golden Cygnet was still pulling double, absolutely running away, as the leaders jumped the second-last, and when given the merest shake of the reins by Niall Madden on the home turn the response was instant. He burst right away, pinged the last, and stormed up the hill 15 lengths clear, looking a certain future champion.

A month later he was gone, fatally injured in a last-flight fall at Ayr when upsides Night Nurse (received 5lb) and a couple of lengths clear of Sea Pigeon (gave just a pound). Be in no doubt that he would have won again, and won well.

John Randall - Derring Rose, 1981 Stayers' Hurdle

Derring Rose running away with the 1981 Stayers' Hurdle. This temperamental sort was only just in front at the final flight but produced an astonishing sprint up the hill to triumph by 30 lengths. This hold-up John Francome ride deserves to be even more celebrated than the one he had executed on Sea Pigeon in the Champion Hurdle 35 minutes before. Watch the whole race on YouTube.

Bruce Jackson - Make A Stand, 1997 Champion Hurdle

I Still get a tingle when reliving this little terrier’s amazing performance in always leading a big field a merry dance. Having been wowed by his clear enthusiasm for jumping hurdles at daredevil speed when first seeing him the year before I financially followed his career closely. One of Martin Pipe’s most astute claims off the Flat, he did not let anyone down with as good a round of hurdling seen at the festival and, while the form of the race can be crabbed, there was never a doubt. Tony McCoy was in more danger of a cricked neck so often did he look round in disbelief for a non-existent challenger. The fast time confirmed what the eye spied.

David Carr - Dawn Run, 1986 Gold Cup

This is more than just a piece of history, astonishing though Dawn Run's feat in becoming the first Champion Hurdle winner to land the Gold Cup was.

It's also the most amazing race – 'the mare has shot her bolt' in the words of Peter Bromley's thrilling radio commentary, yet still she gets back up to nail the luckless Wayward Lad, who may have been just short of his best after a frost-hampered preparation.

And the fact that those scenes of joyous celebration were followed just months later by Dawn Run's tragic death in France lends the contest an almost unbearable poignancy.

Alan Sweetman - Monksfield, 1978 Champion Hurdle

I don't suppose I appreciated that golden era as such. I was a teenager after all. But I was captivated by the televised battles of the second-half of the 1970s. I had seen one of the protagonists many times in the flesh at tracks close to home. Des and Helen McDonogh were friends of my parents. As a small boy, Helen had put me on a pony for the first time.

I admired Night Nurse but was devastated when he beat my hero, the gallant little barrel of toughness that was Monskfield, in the 1977 Champion Hurdle. A year later Monksfield took his revenge, beating another of my favourites Sea Pigeon, with Night Nurse third. I never tire of watching the race, to see again three of the all-time greats of hurdling and to recall a day that meant so much to our great friends.

Nicholas Godfrey - Master Oats, 1995 Gold Cup

Everybody's got their favourites, haven't they? Or what's the point? Winning money, I suppose, both of which brings me to Master Oats. When I organised the Racing Post's popular '100 Favourite Racehorses' readers' ballot, he was my own number one, in front of Indian Skimmer, Tingle Creek, Mill Reef, Reference Point and Monkfield. (Kauto Star was barely a twinkle them, ditto Zenyatta, who would have been ineligible anyway).

With Master Oats, I got the best of both worlds. I loved him Master Oats and I won money on him as well, in the 1995 Gold Cup. The Kim Bailey-trained star endeared himself to me with his clumsy but effective way of getting from start to finish that resulted in a string of staying-chase victories prior to the Gold Cup, where he comfortably landed an ante-post dabble at 33-1. As I'd also backed his stablemate, the Champion Hurdle winner Alderbrook, at 40-1, it was quite a week. Never to be repeated, in fact.

Master Oats had his own method of getting over the fences: with him, it wasn't a case of if he'd hit a fence, it was when. He was never stylish, not fluent - but he fell only once, in the Grand National after his Greenalls win. "He was as thick as two short planks really but he was an out-and-out stayer who tried every single inch of the way for you," Bailey told me. "He was even schooled over poles the morning of the Gold Cup, which was a pretty hairy thing to do but it worked."

Even The Master's most ardent admirers would be forced to admit it could be a little stressful to watch him: just look at the Gold Cup in-race comments: "mistakes 8th and next, short of room and blundered 11th"; Norman Williamson deserves a medal for his efforts. "He absolutely head-butted the second-last with a circuit to go," he said.

Once he was pulled to the outside and got into his rhythm, though, you knew he'd win if he managed to get over the fences. The more pertinent comment is this: "led two out, ridden clear approaching last, stayed on strongly". He beat Dubacilla by 15 lengths; to say I was excited is an understatement.

I even threatened to have Alderbrook and Master Oats embossed on the left and right cheek of my bottom after the festival. Why is it you can never find a decent tattoo parlour when you need one?

Alastair Down - The Dikler, 1973 Gold Cup

Being asked to single out one festival video is like being asked to choose between your children.

Willie Wumpkins' third Coral Final is a thing of beauty and Dawn Run still surreal after all these years, but The Dikler retains a special place in heart and memory. He was a great chestnut brute of a beast standing 17 hands and made another hero, Denman, look like a polo pony.

Trained by Fulke Walwyn, he ran in seven consecutive Gold Cups, a colossal feat in itself. He finished third in 1971 and 1972, triumphed in 1973 and was runner-up 12 months later.

The field for the 1973 Gold Cup was a vintage one including L'Escargot, the brilliant tearaway Charlie Potheen, trouper of legend Spanish Steps but above all the favourite and top chaser in the land Pendil, who many believed had only to go down to come back.

When Pendil skipped ahead going to the second-last it looked all over. Pendil and Dick Pitman flew the fence and going to the last commentator Peter O'Sullevan said: "The crowd are hailing Pendil as the winner and he has surely only got to jump the last. This fence between Pendil and victory."

And right well Pendil jumped it but three lengths back lurked The Dikler, and Ron Barry gave him a right "now you old so-and-so" crack down the neck as he met the last.

Pendil still looked unassailable but Barry was conjuring a tremendous rattle out of the massive frame beneath him and from 150 yards out The Dikler suddenly began to close with all the inexorability of an incoming tide.

Pendil was pure class, a cheetah of a chaser, but The Dikler was a lion.

Throwing it down inexorably he led 30 yards out and battled his way on to victory. Just deserts for a magnificent career spent in the front line of the top flight. You could not but love him.

From the moment he began eye-balling the pace-setters down the back the final time, he stamped his authority all over the opposition
E.W. Terms
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