‘On the Flat he was like driving a good car – he had all the gears’
Peter Thomas on the Cheltenham and York hero
First published on Tuesday, March 18, 2014
The film may be a little grainy by now and the crowd look like extras from Life On Mars, but Peter Easterby remembers Cheltenham 1981 as though it were yesterday. Festivals and horses come and go, but Sea Pigeon was one in a million – perhaps the finest dual-purpose racehorse of all time – and disinclined to fade meekly into racing’s wallpaper.
“My memory’s not fading, at least not when it concerns him,” says the former Great Habton trainer, now a tack-sharp 84-year-old. “Jonjo O’Neill and John Francome both said he was the best horse they’ve ever ridden, and that’s from two champion jockeys, so it means something.” The riders’ names have to be dredged from the darker recesses of the brain, but the strapping brown beast springs vividly to mind.
These, moreover, are not sepia-tinted memories turned to gold by the misty-eyed reminiscences of a senior citizen. Easterby remains a bluff, down-to-earth Yorkshireman and the two riders corroborate his story; anyone old enough to have seen Sea Pigeon bestride a golden generation of hurdling talent will nod in sage agreement.
Francome, who rode him on that epic day in 1981, when the 11-year-old and the curly-topped jockey achieved the status of Cheltenham legends, is unequivocal in his assessment: “I rode Bird’s Nest, Beacon Light, Bula, Lanzarote and Celtic Ryde and he was easily the best I ever sat on. Celtic Ryde was closest to him, but I never rode anything at Cheltenham who carried me the way he did.
“With most horses in a Champion Hurdle you’re lucky if you’re on the bridle going down to the start, but he was always in cruise mode. I always had him just settled and no more, and when he took off at a flight he was athletic and straight as an arrow.”
O’Neill wouldn’t care to differ. Having ridden Sea Pigeon to perhaps his most famous victory, in the sanity-testing Ebor of 1979, and also to his first Champion Hurdle win, the former colossus of the weighing room is perhaps best placed to pass judgement, and his verdict leaves little room for argument.
“He was the fastest horse I ever rode,” says the man who passed into the history books as the partner of the legendary Dawn Run. “He had a great cruising speed that meant you were always cantering on him and as long as you timed it right he’d produce the goods for you. On the Flat he was like driving a good car. He had all the gears – you just didn’t have to use them up too quick.”
What made him great He had the fast-finishing hold-up style, the soundness and character to be a very good Flat horse, an exceptional jumps horse and a public favourite for the best part of a decade
What they said I was at the Derby Awards dinner before the 1981 Champion Hurdle and Jonjo didn’t look like riding him, and I’m sat next to Lester, so I said to him ‘would you ride Sea Pigeon in the Champion Hurdle?’ and he said he definitely would. He’d have won a short head and put the fear of God up you, wouldn’t he? But Francome was champion jockey and he gave him a good ride.
If he’d been human he’d have been a middleweight boxer – strong, big shoulders on him. Physically he was tough, a proper bruiser, but like lightning over hurdles and by the time I got to ride him he was an absolute joy. John Francome
Peter told me not to hit the front too soon. People say that a lot with horses but with him he had the gears that even if you got in and missed the last he’d still pick up again. Francome again
He was one you didn’t move your hands on too quickly or he’d be gone. He had lots of speed but could make you look fantastic or stupid. He was probably harder to ride over hurdles because he was quite keen and on the Flat you were always going a sensible gallop, so you could settle him right in. Jonjo O’Neill
It’s the old man Sea Pigeon, he’s won it at last. Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary on the 1980 Champion Hurdle
Relive it Sea Pigeon – Dual Champion Hurdler on YouTube
It’s a ringing endorsement, but in O’Neill’s eulogy lie hints of the idiosyncrasies that frustrated those who tried to coax the son of Sea-Bird to realise his full potential early in his career and continued to occupy the minds of those who enjoyed the best of his talents in later years. He wasn’t always easy, but then greatness very rarely is.
Sea Pigeon was born in 1970 at Jock Whitney’s Greentree Stud in Kentucky, the product of a union between the mighty Sea-Bird and the useful Round Table mare Around The Roses, but his destiny lay in England, where he began his career with Jeremy Tree.
After winning the Duke of Edinburgh Stakes at Ascot under Lester Piggott in the October of his two-year-old season, he emerged as a realistic contender for the 1973 Classics, but could finish only seventh behind Morston in the Derby and ended the year with a reputation for being irresolute, nervy and an all-round tricky customer.
It was a reputation that swiftly saw him gelded and sold for £8,000 to Scottish businessman Pat Muldoon, who sent him to be trained by Gordon Richards in Cumbria, where O’Neill found him to be “a very hot and agitated horse who only settled down as he got older and stronger”.
Remaining a moderate performer on the Flat, Sea Pigeon was sent over hurdles, in which milieu he steadily began to resemble the horse who would go on to secure an eternal place in the hearts of the British racing public. He proved himself a winner and also established himself as worthy to go toe-to-toe with top animals like Bird’s Nest and Lanzarote, although not yet their equal.
In 1976, however, Muldoon moved him from Richards, after a falling out, to Great Habton, near Malton, North Yorkshire, where his journey to the exalted peaks started in earnest. Easterby knew a talent when he saw one and set about ironing out the wrinkles in the horse’s psyche.
“He had a squiggle on Timeform and it was a long time before they took it off,” recalls the trainer. “The brakes were no good, that was all it was, but it was his mind, not his honesty, that was the trouble. They couldn’t relax him until I got him, but I got him switched off and he was a different horse.
“There was only one trick to it. The same day, every day, we gave him the same gallop, same routine. Never mind changes, that’s a lot of balls, that. That don’t work. Same routine every day and he got the message – it settled his mind.
“He was very genuine, never ever dodgy, just a little bit highly strung and – no disrespect to Gordon – they hadn’t got him harnessed. Once you’d got his head right, he’d beat anything.”
With his head on straight and his physique strengthening all the time, he was never likely to go to seed in his box through the summer, however. His trainer wasn’t given to wasting natural resources but, although one could spend an age pontificating on whether, why and when a horse should be prepared for a dual-purpose career, for Easterby it was a simple matter.
“How did I decide?” he asks rhetorically. “I was hungry for the money, that’s all. He was a good horse on the Flat and there were races to be won.”
Top handicaps fell his way with regularity, including Chester Cups in 1977 and 1978 under stable jockey Mark Birch, followed in 1979 by an Ebor win that cemented his relationship with regular jumps partner O’Neill, but not before it almost ended O’Neill’s relationship with Easterby.
Despite Sea Pigeon’s mind now being a place of tranquility, he still had his idiosyncrasies, one of them being a tendency to believe his work was done once he hit the front in a race. As Easterby himself admits: “You couldn’t come too late on him – that was impossible, he’d quicken in two strides – but you could come too early.”
Which was what O’Neill did. Both men still inwardly shudder at the memory, although an ITV strike meant those of us who weren’t on the Knavesmire that day will never have the chance to share their torment.
“Thank God there was no telly,” smiles O’Neill, who was on the outsider of Easterby’s three runners. “It had rained the night before, which we thought was going to go against us, but despite that he travelled through the race very well and moved out very easily, too easily in a way, and I got there a bit too quick and he stopped very quickly.
“I kept pushing and kicking as Donegal Prince of Paul Kelleway’s came flying at me, and I thought I’d held on, but Graham Lockerbie, Peter’s travelling head lad, led me in and said ‘you got beat, you ****’.
“I went into the old enclosure and I could see by Peter’s face he thought I’d got beat as well, so I thought there’s only one way to face him: to tell him I’d won, even though I wasn’t too sure by this stage. I couldn’t get the bloody saddle off quick enough and get out the way. It felt like ten minutes in the weighing room waiting for the result, but he won and we were all happy.”
Easterby is still scarred by the memory. “My heart stopped beating, without a doubt,” he recalls. “There was only Jonjo thought he’d won in all of Yorkshire. Even the stewards had him in after, even though he’d won.”
Francome, meanwhile, isn’t convinced the footage doesn’t exist. “[Channel 4’s] Andrew Franklin told me there was a recording but it went missing and I think probably Jonjo took it,” he says. O’Neill is unavailable for comment.
Alongside these Flat exploits, Sea Pigeon fell in his only steeplechase, a bold raid on the Colonial Cup in Camden, South Carolina (“bold but stupid – the fences were bigger than we’d been told and he left the biggest hole in one of them that you’ve ever seen in your life,” says Easterby). He recovered to land two Fighting Fifths and finish second to Monksfield in the 1978 Champion Hurdle, before winning a second Scottish Champion Hurdle in a race marred by the fatal fall of Golden Cygnet.
The following year he was beaten again by Monksfield at Cheltenham, but, as Easterby explains, it was a defeat that owed more to human fallibility than it did to equine failings.
“Pat Muldoon told me he’d had a lot of money on the horse and not to leave it too late,” says O’Neill, “and I went too early and that’s what got him beat. The next year, Peter said ‘don’t you take any notice of the owner, ride him like you should do’, so we sat him in longer and he won.
The improving ten-year-old was finally inching his way towards immortality, but it was his performance the following year, while O’Neill was recovering from a broken leg, that sealed his place in racing folklore. Ridden by Francome with a restraint that beggared belief, he cruised into contention at the final flight, with his pilot taking an audacious tug on the reins on the final hill before allowing Sea Pigeon to cruise past a helpless Pollardstown.
Francome, for his part, is typically self-effacing about the victory, handing all credit to the horse. Having already ridden him to victory at Sandown, he was happy that his mount was sound of both mind and body and rode him like the good thing he was.
“I remember going to the first, there was a horse in front of me who was a bit of a dodgy jumper and I was wondering which side of him to go, so I went one side and he fell the other way. That’s just the way your luck goes. Another day and you get brought down.
“People talk about what a great ride I gave him, but if you’re on the best horse it’s easy. If you’re on one who’s struggling and doesn’t want to hit the front too soon, it’s difficult, but not with him.
“In fact, I took a pull up the run-in, which tells you I didn’t actually do a very good job – I got there too soon, but he was an amazing horse.”
Sea Pigeon was amazing, but not invincible. Easterby was persistently baffled by the Flat stayer’s failure to get two and a half miles over hurdles, and O’Neill has a theory as to why the horse finally came good at Cheltenham. “He didn’t win the Champion Hurdle until they’d stopped going right up by the hostel during the race,” he says. “They cut across in front of the stands by that stage and when they changed the course he won the next two. That was the key. He needed a decent pace over not too far and he didn’t want to be there too long.”
There were to be no further highlights for the great horse. He contracted a virus leading up to Aintree and was never quite the same, being retired on the run-up to the 1982 Cheltenham Festival.
He spent his retirement with Pat Rohan in the neighbouring village of Norton and then in the care of Polly Perkins in Slingsby. He lived the life of a celebrity on occasion, being paraded until old age caught up with him. He died in October 2000 at the age of 30.
“He’s buried here with Night Nurse. The wife died the year before last and wanted her ashes spreading with the pair of them, so we did that, all fenced off and two beech trees over them,” says Easterby. “It was just right.”
O’Neill, like the rest of us, takes a wistful glance back at the glory years of Sea Pigeon. “I’m still looking for one like that to train or possibly a couple,” he says. “What a horse he was.”
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