Graham Buddry recalls Celtic Ryde, the hurdler who would surely have scored at Cheltenham but for breaking a leg
Graham Buddry looks back at the tragic career of Celtic Ryde
For those lucky enough to have seen him in the flesh, or even on television, Celtic Ryde was a very popular horse.He had a big following but not winning the only race that really lends itself to posterity means he is sadly lost to all except those who thrilled to his exploits at the time.
In his first season as a juvenile hurdler in 1978/79, the Peter Cundell trained Celtic Ryde passed the post first on five occasions. Along with victories at Wolverhampton, Worcester, Towcester and Newbury, it is interesting to note that Celtic Ryde also won at Kempton Park before being demoted to second place by the stewards.
The culmination of this first season was the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham.Here Pollardstown was always racing near the front and had a clear run while Celtic Ryde had to weave through other runners from further back. Pollardstown took up the running two out with a later chasing legend in Badsworth Boy going clear with him. Celtic Ryde made huge gains from a long way back to draw level at the last and take the lead on the run for home only for Pollardstown to prove the stronger and regain the lead late on. Needless to say these were the two highest rated juvenile hurdlers of the season.
His debut the following season saw Celtic Ryde pitted against older horses for the first time and over 2½ miles at Chepstow in mid November ’79 the smart Lumen went off the 4/7 favourite. Racing close to the pace, jockey Martin O’Halloran only had to shake up his mount after the last to win far easier than the half length margin looks as Lumen had no chance against the talented youngster.
Only eight days later the combination reverted to two miles back at Newbury and a clash with the ’78 Triumph Hurdle winner, Connaught Ranger, in the Berkshire Hurdle. Receiving a useful eight pounds, Celtic Ryde was heavily backed into favouritism and, coming from off the pace as usual, he again scored by a cosy half length.
Next stop was the prestigious Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham where Connaught Ranger was one pound better off, but still finished half a length adrift of Celtic Ryde. Three quarters of a length further back in third that day was the mercurial Birds Nest, the odds-on favourite who led two out before Celtic Ryde challenged at the last to go clear. Connaught Ranger finished fast after looking held early in the straight and Birds Nest hung badly left handed on the run in, but Celtic Ryde was clearly the better horse on the day.
After the Champion Hurdle the most important two mile hurdle race in the calendar is the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton which produced one of the best races of the entire season. In what was being billed as a two-horse race the fouryear-old Celtic Ryde was backed into 5/6 while the nine-year-old Birds Nest went off at 6/4. Birds Nest often raced prominently while Celtic Ryde liked to track his opponents before delivering a devastating late burst of speed and that was how this seemed to be playing out. Birds Nest led three out and maintained a telling gallop all the way to the last flight where Celtic Ryde went past looking all over the winner, only for Birds Nest to rally and run on again strongly as the winning post loomed.
The two horses, giving their all, came close and bumped but to all who saw this wonderful race the best horse won as Celtic Ryde passed the post a bare short head in front.
Decent Fellow was a very good hurdler in his own right but as he passed the post in third place, around 40 lengths behind the front pair, a steward’s enquiry was announced over the tannoy. The closing stages were no better or worse that seen many times before and almost to a man the result was expected to stand but the stewards somehow thought otherwise. Even the formbooks stated that Celtic Ryde was “unlucky to lose the race in the stewards room”.
On February 11 1980 Celtic Ryde and
Birds Nest lined up atWolverhampton for a Champion Hurdle Trial on heavy ground.Connaught Ranger finished third again that day, confirming that no matter how good he was, he wasn’t in the same class. In yet another thriller Celtic Ryde came from behind to lead at the last flight only for Birds Nest to again fight back for all he was worth, getting up in the last strides to score by a short head, confirming that at their best there was hardly anything between the pair.
Celtic Ryde then missed the rest of the season with a niggling leg injury while Birds Nest, Pollardstown and Connaught Ranger finished third, fifth and sixth to Sea Pigeon and Monksfield in the Champion Hurdle in March.
Sandown Park was the venue on November 1 when Sea Pigeon and Celtic Ryde made their seasonal debuts. Half a length was the bare result at the line but although Celtic Ryde led at the last, Sea Pigeon was clearly the better and had far too much speed for his rival on the good ground.
The Bula Hurdle of 1980 saw the most recent Triumph Hurdle winner, Heighlin, and Connaught Ranger take third and fourth place respectively in the race – both within striking distance yet comfortably held by the main protagonists. These were Celtic Ryde, defending the title he won the previous year, and old adversary Birds Nest.
In yet another pulsating race from this pair Birds Nest led or disputed the lead all the way round, tracked as usual by Celtic Ryde who took up the running at the last obstacle and set sail for home only for Birds Nest to battle back as he had always done. At the line there was a whole neck in it this time as Birds Nest won the race for a record breaking third time before the doughty ten-year-old and the quicksilver five year old renewed rivalry back at Kempton Park.
Surprisingly Heighlin was sent off the favourite having recently won well at Ascot. Celtic Ryde was heavily backed as well.Turning in with two to jump, Birds Nest took the lead with Celtic Ryde cruising behind him on the rails while Heighlin also looked to be going well wider out until finding no more on the run to the last. Another thriller looked on the cards as they bore down on the last flight locked together as of old, Birds Nest under pressure and a bare nostril ahead of Celtic Ryde, John Francome giving Celtic Ryde a peach of a ride.
Birds Nest tried to shorten, met the hurdle wrong and ploughed through it, lucky not to fall. Try as he might on the short run in he had handed the race to Celtic Ryde who finally got his name on the roll of honour after his disqualification 12 months earlier.
Facile victories in good events at Windsor and Sandown then led to Cheltenham where Celtic Ryde ran an inexplicably bad race for the first and only time in his entire career. His sixth place to Sea Pigeon was summed up in the formbook comment;“disappointing – can do much better”.
The 1981/82 season got under way with Celtic Ryde comfortably winning at Sandown before yet another cracking encounter with Birds Nest. At level weights around Leicester at the end of
November, Birds Nest led after the last flight only for Celtic Ryde to claw past him on the run to the line and score by a head, again confirming how closely the pair were matched.
The Mecca Bookmakers handicap hurdle at Kempton was a tempting prize and Celtic Ryde was a well backed favourite despite top weight and turned the race into little more than a procession. Last of 15 in the early stages he made some progress down the back straight then switched wide round the home turn after jumping the third last. Once into the straight Francome moved his mount smoothly into contention, taking fourth place approaching two out on the stands side. A flick of the reins and Celtic Ryde cruised into the lead approaching the last and was never in danger of defeat.
In the form of his life the only thing capable of beating him was the weather and the loss of Kempton on Boxing Day surely cost Celtic Ryde another big win at his favourite course.
For the second year running Celtic Ryde took the New Years Day Hurdle at Windsor before heading to Haydock for their Champion Hurdle Trial and then a realistic chance of landing the big one. Making smooth progress and clearly all over the winner, Celtic Ryde fell for the only time in his career and suddenly the dreams of Cheltenham glory were gone as this shining star of the winter game sadly broke a leg and had to be put down.
The Champion Hurdle that season was strangely bereft of the class of previous seasons and many feel the eventual 40/1 winner For Auction would have been a gallant runner up if Celtic Ryde had only been able to fulfil his destiny.
Fourteen victories, twice disqualified from first place and second in virtually every other race, this was one helluva horse. So closely matched with Birds Nest, widely considered the best hurdler never to have won the Champion,his solitary Christmas Hurdle does scant justice to a popular and brilliant hurdler yet in what he still achieved, Celtic Ryde fully deserves a place in the pantheon of great hurdlers.
Celtic Ryde wins 1980 Christmas Hurdle ahead of Bird’s Nest