How close did Night Nurse come to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
The short answer is agonisingly close. Of course, Dawn Run remains the one and only horse to have completed the Champion Hurdle – Cheltenham Gold Cup double but, five years before her historic victory over Wayward Lad in 1986, Night Nurse had his own shot at Cheltenham Festival immortality.
Trained by Peter Easterby in Great Habton, near Malton, North Yorkshire, Night Nurse won the Champion Hurdle twice, in 1976 and 1977. On the second occasion, he defeated such luminaries as Monksfield, Sea Pigeon and Bird’s Nest and, three weeks later, became the highest-rated hurdler in the history of Timeform when dead-heating with Monksfield in the Templegate Hurdle at Aintree.
Sent over fences at the start of the 1978/79 season, Night Nurse flopped badly in the 1979 Cheltenham Gold Cup, won by stable companion Alverton, and subsequently suffered a serious tendon injury, which kept him off the course for just over a year. Nevertheless, he returned, as a 9-year-old in 1980/81 and, having looked an unlucky loser when unseating rider at the final fence in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, won by Silver Buck, was sent off 6/1 joint-second favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Having put in what Timeform called ‘one of the best rounds of jumping ever seen in the race’, Night Nurse led stable companion Little Owl and Silver Buck over the third-last fence. However, he was relegated to third place at the second-last and, although he battled back past the weakening Silver Buck on the run-in, he couldn’t reel in Little Owl, who went on to win by 1½ lengths.