Merit Hurdle

The colourful history of Hurdles racing is enjoying a welcome renaissance, as Coral Brighton & Hove Stadium is leading the way in boosting the fortunes of this sphere of the sport. Hove’s enterprising racing manager Rob Abrey has been instrumental in resurrecting a famous jumps race of yesteryear – the “Merit Hurdle”.

The inaugural running of the “Merit Hurdle”, sponsored by the Greyhound Express newspaper, was held on Thursday September 5, 1957, and was devised as a hurdles equivalent to the “Juvenile Championship”, which was also first staged in 1957, and the “Select Stakes” – the inception of that prestigious flat race was five years earlier.

The 1957 “Merit Hurdle”, which carried a first prize of £40 and was an invitation race for the top hurdlers in training, was won by Jumping Pole and this new innovation received very favourable comment from the media and the greyhound racing fraternity.

greyhound jumping hurdle

(photo by Joshua Wellard)

In fact, host track White City advertised the eagerly-awaited “Merit Hurdle” on Page 8 of the Daily Herald, the highly successful daily British newspaper of the day, on Thursday September 5 1957 as a very good reason for racegoers to turn out in vast numbers at the famous old Wood Lane venue.

However, the Greyhound Express, founded in 1932, eventually ran into financial difficulties and ceased publication on Saturday 8 November 1969.

The Greyhound Express, the leader in coverage of the sport alongside The Sporting Life, was synonymous with a collection of outstanding sports journalists and greyhound racing correspondents.

The likes of Harry Carpenter, the legendary BBC TV sports commentator from the early-1950s until his retirement in 1994, Peter Shotton and subsequent famed Daily Mirror and Sporting Life greyhound racing journalist Harry Lloyd enjoyed spells with the Greyhound Express.

Peter Shotton, universally acclaimed as one of greyhound racing’s leading administrators and creator of ‘Formbank’, was appointed racing manager at Hove in 1964 and eventually became Wembley’s executive head of racing before returning to Coral as managing director of its stadia.

Racegoers savour the spectacle of greyhounds negotiating hurdles and variety has been a traditional winning recipe for stadia since the sport first opened its doors to the public in 1926.

Hurdles racing can trumpet a rich heritage, especially on the open-race scene with the Springbok, Champion Hurdle and Grand National taking pride of place in the Calendar, though there has been a depreciation of this sphere of the sport for well over a decade.

Painstaking care, patience and a steadfast willingness, coupled with a perseverance to nurture a greyhound that has a natural aptitude, are the requirements for a new influx of jumpers and previous Grand National winners hail from all sectors of the British Isles.

The principal London tracks – Harringay, Wembley, West Ham, White City and Wimbledon – were once lauded nurseries for hurdling stars of the future until their prosperity was compromised by the Betting and Gaming Act in 1960 and inflated land prices in the 1970s and 1980s.

(photo by Joshua Wellard)

The capital unveiled such outstanding Grand National winners as Barrowside (1955), Sherrys Prince (1970/71/72), Weston Pete (1976), Bobcol (1981) and El Tenor (1988).

John Coleman’s magnificent Stuart Captain, one-time track record holder for Hove’s 275 metres and rated one of the top sprinters in training in 1976, is unquestionably the best novice hurdler I’ve ever seen.

Springbok victor Stuart Captain, still a puppy, had broken track records at White City and Wembley in his previous two races prior to the Skol Lager Hurdles (475m) , screened live on ITV’s World Of Sport, at Harringay.

However, Stuart Captain, who reverted to the flat immediately afterwards and later plundered the Tyneside Scurry (299m) at Brough Park, jumped very early at the final flight and took a crashing fall, thus handing the prize on a plate to Norah McEllistrim’s Right Spirit.

Brighton & Hove graduated into a mecca for hurdling talent in the late-1970s – the late Peter Shotton was instrumental in raising the profile of the jumps game there with the foresight of designing the lighter, plastic brushdown type.

During that era no fewer than one in three greyhounds based at Albourne kennels with the five attached trainers – George Curtis, Gunner Smith, Doreen Walsh, Derek Knight and Gordon Hodson - enjoyed a spin over timber and this was predominantly the reason for a golden age of hurdling at Hove.

Such luminaries as Deneholme Valour, Bellini, Spiral Sonny, Westlands Steve, Westlands Bridge, Sir Winston, Scacely Unknown and Kilcoe Foxy carved big reputations and were household names over hurdles.

Many stalwarts consider three years of age to coincide with the peak of a hurdler – they have always lasted considerably longer than their counterparts on the flat – and quite often a greyhound that has lost its edge can be transformed by a spell over the jumps.

El Tenor, a dual-purpose greyhound, was the mainstay of the all-conquering Linda Mullins kennel in the second half of the 1990s and he won a staggering 102 opens from 186 races and he captured the 1996 Essex Vase, 1997 Crayford Vase, 1998 Grand National and 1998 Triumph Hurdle.

The demise of the high-profile London tracks was instrumental in the undoubted dip in overall quality and, since the closure of Wimbledon in 2017, Central Park and Crayford inherited the honour of playing host to the key competitions over hurdles.

In complete contrast to an affluent sprint division nationwide, an appreciable amount of gloss has been removed the hurdling scene and, in this scribe’s infinite wisdom, a gradual overhaul is required to revive memories of the halcyon days.

(photo by Joshua Wellard)

I’ve long fostered the view that the only way to reinvigorate hurdling on a long-term basis is for the majority of tracks to usher in their own new crop each year with an individual local novices’ hurdles championship akin to the Springbok.

Strength-in-depth would be conducive to competitive graded hurdles racing – a pool of around 30 hurdlers would be ideal to cater for H1, H2 and H3 events – and, affirming a collective view, it’s well overdue for an injection of new life into a deteriorating division.

The way forward perhaps is to embrace hurdling with quality - it would be astute for connections of top-class flat performers on the fringe of Category One-winning standard to seek major honours away from flat racing – and also school performers of A1, A2, class instead of the method of trialling moderate, ungenuine dogs.

An image of County Prince jumping a hurdle at Hove in the 1970s – it promoted itself as the showplace of greyhound racing – was an integral feature on the south coast track’s colourful racecard and an indicator to the importance of jumps racing there at that particular time.

My memorandum to track promoters, owners and trainers, is to rekindle the hurdling flame and resurrect its lofty position as a great shop window for the eternal thrill of live greyhound racing.

The Springbok was staged at Hove for the first time earlier this year and Rob Abrey, vehemently positive in a bid to improve further still the overall quality of the open-race competitions at Hove, recently announced the coup that Hove will inherit greyhound racing’s premier jumps’ competition – the Grand National.

Written by Patrick Kelly