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Brilliant 1977 Aintree Hurdle demonstrates the amazing racing on Grand National Thursday

The G1 Betway Aintree Hurdle holds fond memories for Monksfield’s trainer Des McDonogh, 40 years on from the horse’s never-to-be-forgotten dead-heat with Night Nurse in 1977.

Night Nurse and Monksfield, two legendary hurdlers, had clashed a month earlier in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, with Night Nurse successfully defending his crown by two lengths, but the extra distance of the Aintree Hurdle and a 6lb penalty for six-year-old Night Nurse left the door open at Aintree for the year younger Monksfield.

What unfolded is still regarded by many as the greatest hurdle race of all time, with Monksfield and Night Nurse inseparable after a prolonged and epic tussle over the last three hurdles. It was fitting that the judge could not separate them at the line.

Monksfield, who cost only 740 guineas as a yearling, took over as the top hurdler in 1978 and 1979, gaining two Champion Hurdles and capturing two more Aintree Hurdles.

McDonogh, who turned 71 in April, recalls: “It was absolutely wonderful to be at Aintree that day, with Monksfield and Night Nurse dead-heating and then Red Rum winning his third Grand National later- one day you never forget.

“Going into the race, we were hoping that Monksfield would run well. We did not know a whole lot really because it was so early on [in his training career] and we were just happy to be there.

“I remember the Aintree Hurdle back then was two miles, five and a bit furlongs, and they really turned it on early from halfway down the back straight. Monksfield and Night Nurse both had the heart as well as the class and you saw that up the home straight. It was just a wonderful horse race.

“I had never had a horse dead-heat before so it was a new experience. The only disappointing thing about it was that Monksfield didn’t get into the winner’s enclosure – he went into the number two spot!

“It has to be right up there [with the best hurdle races], although some would say the Champion Hurdles of that era were just as good. When Monksfield beat Sea Pigeon at Cheltenham in 1978, you could tell he did it with a bit in hand because he stood right off the last hurdle.

“I think he was at his peak in the 1978 and 1979 seasons when he won those Champion Hurdles and Aintree Hurdles back-to-back. They are all outstanding memories – he was just a wonderful horse.

“After the dead-heat in 1977, we were taken upstairs in the grandstand for some refreshments. The Grand National was the next race and I remember the atmosphere and crowd was unbelievable.

“The one thing that struck was that Brian Fletcher (who had ridden Red Rum to his previous two Grand National victories) was also in the room with us. He was sat in front of a small TV watching the race and I remember seeing tears running down his face. It was just pure delight for the horse, although you do wonder what was going through his mind.”

Night Nurse and Monksfield are among nine horses, including other magnificent performers such as Dawn Run and Istabraq, to win the Champion Hurdle and Betway Aintree Hurdle in the same season. The full list is as follows:

*Night Nurse (1977)

Monksfield (1978, 1979)

Gaye Brief (1983)

Dawn Run (1984)

Beech Road (1989)

Morley Street (1991)

Istabraq (1999)

Annie Power (2016)

Buveur D’Air (2017)

*dead-heated with Monksfield at Aintree

The G1 Betway Aintree Hurdle, run over two and a half miles, forms part of Grand National Thursday, April 12, which kick-starts the three-day Randox Health Grand National Festival in 2018.

From 1977, when the Randox Health Grand National Festival became an all-Jump meeting, Grand National Thursday has developed into an outstanding day of racing action, a true Day for Champions.

It is one of just three racedays during the entire British Jump season to offer four Grade One (G1) contests.

Uniquely, Grand National Thursday is the only day of the year with two open G1 races and two G1 contests for novices.

The G1 chase action on Grand National Thursday is headlined by the Betway Bowl, staged over three miles and a furlong of the Mildmay Course.

The fabulous roll of honour boasts the names of some of the very best chasers of the modern era with Wayward Lad, Desert Orchid, See More Business, Florida Pearl, Siliviniaco Conti and Cue Card all having been successful.

Lizzie Kelly created history in 2017 when becoming the first female jockey to win the Betway Bowl aboard Tea For Two.

Novice chase action on Grand National Thursday is provided by the G1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase, first run in 2009 and staged over two and a half miles.

This race commemorates an Aintree legend in Manifesto, who ran in eight Grand Nationals between 1895 and 1904, winning in both 1897 and 1899. The list of G1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase winners already includes Wishfull Thinking (2011), Menorah (2012), Captain Conan (2013) and Uxizandre (2014).

The G1 Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle over two miles and a furlong is the natural next target for horses who competed in the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Last season Defi Du Seuil followed in the footsteps of Pollardstown, Detroit City, Katchit and Zarkandar by winning both the JCB Triumph Hurdle and the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle.

Racegoers also get an opportunity to see racing over the Grand National fences for the first time at the meeting, with the two mile, five furlong Randox Health Fox Hunters’ Chase taking place on Grand National Thursday.

Restricted to horses who have run in point-to-points and hunter chases and ridden by amateur riders, the Randox Health Fox Hunters’ Chase is a good race for multiple winners, with Katarino (2005 & 2006) and On The Fringe (2015 & 2016) both having scored twice since the turn of the century.

Ultra-competitive handicap action comes courtesy of the two-mile G3 Betway Red Rum Handicap Chase which commemorates Aintree’s greatest-ever horse, the three-time Grand National winner Red Rum.

Stars of the future can be found in the concluding race, the G2 Goffs Nickel Coin Mares’ Bumper, which is the richest mares’ bumper run in the UK. Its title derives from the last mare to win the Grand National, the 1951 heroine Nickel Coin.

First staged as a Listed contest in 2013, the Goffs Nickel Coin Mares’ Bumper has rapidly established its place in the expanding British programme for mares and was upgraded to G2 status in 2016.

To sum up, Grand National Thursday is a day to savour, with racing of the highest class, led by four G1 contests plus a G2 race, a G3 event and the Randox Health Fox Hunters’ Chase over the Grand National course.

The evolving success of Grand National Thursday – A Day for Champions – is demonstrated by its growing popularity. During the 1980s, the attendance was below the 10,000 mark but has risen substantially, with the crowd figure now around 35,000.

Grand National Thursday on April 12, 2018 includes a Champions of Merseyside dimension, with a number of sporting champions involved in celebrating the best of Merseyside sport at all levels and all ages. There will also be a military theme, with Aintree helping the RAF celebrate their Centenary Year in style.

Aintree’s Preview Night returns on Wednesday, April 11 and features 2015 Grand National winning trainer, Oliver Sherwood, the most successful female jockey in the Grand National, Katie Walsh, and two other racing giants to be announced.