Post-war Peter Pans who made the Champion Hurdle
Nicholas Godfrey on the rivalry between Hatton’s Grace and National Spirit
First published on Thursday, March 20, 2014
Between them, National Spirit and Hatton’s Grace won five consecutive Champion Hurdles, a formerly nondescript race they did much to popularise in the post-war years, preparing the ground for its emergence as a true championship event in the second half of the 20th century.
Their exploits over hurdles are the stuff of folklore. National Spirit became a national hero as he dominated the hurdling scene in 1947 and 1948, but he was to be eclipsed by Hatton’s Grace, who took his hurdling crown in 1949 and went on to become the first horse to win three Champion Hurdles.
A long-term rivalry between this immensely popular pair lit up the post-war period and laid the groundwork for the Champion Hurdle, previously no more than a testing ground for future chasers, to become the race it is today. National Spirit ran in six consecutive championships (winning two) and in his heyday between the spring of 1946 and February 1950 was beaten only four times in 20 races over hurdles, while Hatton’s Grace helped to start the Vincent O’Brien legend after Ireland’s training genius wrought an extraordinary transformation in this unprepossessing, cheaply bought gelding in the autumn of his career.
When Hatton’s Grace dethroned the seemingly invincible National Spirit in 1949, the result was an uncanny precursor to Arkle and Mill House; in 1951, when he completed his Champion Hurdle hat-trick, he became the first 11-year-old to win the race; the only other has been Sea Pigeon in 1981.
Racing career July 1946 to January 1953
Number of wins 18 (6 Flat, 11 hurdles, 1 chase)
Career highlights Won Champion Hurdle (1949, 1950, 1951), Irish Lincolnshire (1949), Irish Cesarewitch (1949, 1950), Scalp Hurdle (1950)
What made him great Ugly duckling who became first horse to win Champion Hurdle three times; the Irish equivalent of Sea Pigeon, a remarkable dual-purpose performer who helped to start the Vincent O’Brien legend.
What they said He was a great little horse, only a pony and full of courage. He was the perfect horse to train and easy to ride. He was regarded as too old but he never knew that, so I nicknamed him Peter Pan. Vincent O’Brien
National Spirit has a Grade 2 hurdle named after him at Fontwell, where he was a standing dish and recorded a hat-trick in the Rank Challenge Cup (1948-50, a decent hurdle in those days); Hatton’s Grace is commemorated in a Grade 1 hurdle at Fairyhouse and a function room at Cheltenham.
They are both jumping legends. Less well documented, however, is that they were also both remarkable dual-purpose performers, each of them winning a string of high-quality handicaps on the Flat at a time when such races carried rather more prestige. Hatton’s Grace twice won the Irish Cesarewitch and also an Irish Lincolnshire, while National Spirit regularly supplemented his jumping successes with races like the now-forgotten Croyden Stakes and the King George VI Stakes, each of which he won twice among 13 career victories on the Flat.
Bred and owned by Len Abelson and sent into training with Epsom-based Vic Smyth, National Spirit was a character, prone to dropping his rider at home by whipping round without warning; he often wore a hood. A huge, long-striding chestnut with a distinctive white blaze, he was tried over hurdles and fences (ran out and fell in two chase attempts) in his first season with little obvious success until he finally won a novice hurdle at Fontwell in May 1946. He went on to record a hat-trick in minor events at the Sussex track, before his trainer established what was to become a routine by keeping him on the go in the summer, when he scored on the Flat at Nottingham, Doncaster and Thirsk.
National Spirit carried that form back over hurdles, where he recorded two easy victories in the autumn before heading straight to the Champion Hurdle, held in April in 1947 after an arctic winter that resulted in 52 blank days. Sent off a 7-1 chance against the likes of French-trained favourite Le Paillon and defending champion Distel, National Spirit hugged the inside under a canny ride from Danny Morgan. He scored by a length from Le Paillon, who later that year won the French Champion Hurdle and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Back on the Flat, National Spirit registered wins in the King George VI Stakes at Liverpool plus the Cosmopolitan Cup and the Croydon Stakes, both at Lingfield; under big weights, he was fourth in the Northumberland Plate and fifth in the Ebor. Although he suffered the odd defeat over hurdles conceding stacks of weight in the 1947-48 season, he was untouchable at Cheltenham in an impressive two-length win under his trainer’s nephew Ron Smyth. According to The Sporting Life, National Spirit was “a real champion in every way” – yet he never won again at the Cheltenham Festival.
National Spirit enjoyed his best season on the Flat in 1948, winning five times from seven starts, including races at Newmarket and Epsom. Little could his supporters have guessed, though, that a nemesis lay in wait across the Irish Sea in the shape of a scrappy gelding, once sold at Goffs for a paltry 18gns, who had finished an undistinguished fifth as an eight-year-old in the 1948 Champion Hurdle.
Racing career November 1945 to March 1953
Number of wins 32 (13 Flat, 19 hurdles)
Career highlights Won Champion Hurdle (1947, 1948), Princess Elizabeth Hurdle (1946, 1949), Cosmopolitan Cup (1947), King George VI Stakes (1947, 1948), Rank Challenge Cup (1948, 1949, 1950), Oteley Hurdle (1949, 1950), Cheltenham Hurdle (1949), Trespasser Hurdle (1949)
What made him great A public darling in his post-war heyday, when he won a pair of Champion Hurdles and played a key role in development of hurdling as a proper discipline in its own right.
What they said If ever a horse became the living embodiment of his name it was National Spirit. Michael Tanner, author of The Champion Hurdle
That was the plain-looking, pony-sized Hatton’s Grace, who had spent his early years in obscurity, passing though a number of hands before joining Vincent O’Brien at his Churchtown stable in County Cork. Long before he set about revolutionising the world of Flat racing from Ballydoyle, the greatest trainer in the history of the sport etched an indelible mark over jumps, where he was to record hat-tricks in the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Grand National.
O’Brien came to prominence in Britain when Cottage Rake won the first of his Gold Cups in 1948. Hatton’s Grace, who joined O’Brien later that year, was a small, unimposing individual, traits that were to enhance his popularity with the public, who grew to adore the horse. According to racing’s foremost historian John Randall, he was “the Irish equivalent of Sea Pigeon, winning top-class handicaps on the Flat while proving himself a champion over jumps . . . a David capable of slaying Goliaths at both the Curragh and Cheltenham”.
Not that such would have been apparent before he joined O’Brien, when his record stood at only five wins from 23 starts in a career that did not start until he was a six-year-old because of wartime restrictions.
Hatton’s Grace carried the colours of Moya Keogh, whose husband Harry was a major-league punter, and Hatton’s Grace looked for all the world like a ‘gambling horse’. In May 1947, for example, he was down the field in a small handicap hurdle at Naas. He won next time out as a well-backed favourite at Leopardstown – and then scored under a 10lb penalty back at Naas.
O’Brien, also renowned for a tilt at the bookmakers, continued in a similar vein. Hatton’s Grace was unplaced at 20-1 in a Naas handicap hurdle before scoring at the same venue in a better race as a 7-4 shot. As Julian Wilson noted drily: “It is staggering what the Irish stewards were prepared to overlook at the time!”
Hatton’s Grace flourished under the master trainer, as his jockey Aubrey Brabazon reported in his autobiography. “You would never believe the improvement the boss gave this horse,” said ‘the Brab’. “It went to two of the best trainers at the time but only after Vincent had worked his magic did the horse produce a miraculous transformation, it was like riding a different horse.”
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