Re­mem­ber­ing the mag­nif­i­cent sev­ens

Mar­cus Army­tage cel­e­brates the no­table Grand Na­tional anniversaries and ex­plains why there will never be another Red Rum

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Mar­cus Army­tage cel­e­brates the no­table Grand Na­tional anniversaries

IF the past half-cen­tury tells us any­thing about years end­ing in a seven, we should hold on to our hats when the run­ners line up for Satur­day’s Ran­dox Health Grand Na­tional at Ain­tree, be­cause some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary might hap­pen.

There may have been noth­ing un­to­ward about Sil­ver Birch’s 2007 vic­tory, apart from the fact that his trainer Gor­don El­liott hadn’t even pro­duced a win­ner in his na­tive Ire­land and is now, a decade later, poised to win his first Ir­ish train­ers’ cham­pi­onship, but, 20 years ago, there was the ‘Bomb Scare Na­tional’. Then, in a feat of lo­gis­tics rarely seen in peace­time Bri­tain, the race­course was evac­u­ated into Liver­pool and the race re­ar­ranged for two days later, when the Mon­day Na­tional was won by Lord Gyl­lene.

The year 1997 also marked Sir Peter O’sull­e­van’s 50th and fi­nal Grand Na­tional as com­men­ta­tor and the cur­rent cham­pion jockey Richard John­son’s first ride in the race (he was un­seated at the 15th fence) —20 years on, John­son is still look­ing for his first vic­tory, but wher­ever he fin­ishes on Satur­day, he will set a record for the most rides (21).

Although I con­cede that it’s not re­ally of his­toric sig­nif­i­cance, I will re­mem­ber Maori Ven­ture’s Na­tional vic­tory 30 years ago for nonage­rian owner Jim Joel more than most be­cause I was hav­ing my first, and what I then as­sumed would be my only, ride in the race on a 200–1 outsider, Brown Veil (we pulled up at the 23rd fence, of which more later).

Forty years ago, Red Rum, the great­est Na­tional horse of all time, tran­scended his sport and earned his place in the na­tion’s col­lec­tive heart by be­com­ing the first and only horse since the race was first run in 1839 to win it for a third time. In the same year, 21-year-old Char­lotte Brew at­tracted enor­mous pub­lic­ity as the first woman to ride in the race (she got as far as four from home when Barony Fort re­fused).

The Na­tional that re­ally caught the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion and ce­mented Ain­tree’s po­si­tion as the home of

sport­ing drama on an epic—and I mean epic in the sense of its Homeric scale rather than the over-used de­scrip­tion of some­thing a bit big­ger than nor­mal —was 50 years ago when it was won by the 100–1 outsider Foinavon. This was pre­cisely why I couldn’t sleep for two nights be­fore my first ride; thanks to Foinavon, in my own mind I had a chance equal to that of the favourite.

Steered by John Buck­ing­ham, the no-hoper, whose owner, Cyril Watkins, hadn’t both­ered to turn up and whose trainer, John Kemp­ton, pre­ferred to be rid­ing at Worces­ter, wove a pas­sage through a pile-up at the in­nocu­ous 23rd fence—iron­i­cally, at 4ft 6in, the small­est one on the course—to win the most re­mark­able Na­tional ever run.

In as much the 1956 race pro­vided the sport­ing tem­plate—to do ‘a Devon Loch’—for steal­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory, when the Queen Mother’s horse did a bizarre belly flop yards from the win­ning post, so ‘a Foinavon’ has be­come com­mon par­lance for the un­ex­pected.

It was still early days for tele­vised sport—the drama of pre­vi­ous Grand Na­tion­als was some­thing most peo­ple only read about in their Sun­day news­pa­pers, caught up with in the cinema on Pathé news or saw as specks through binoc­u­lars if they were lucky enough to be there—but the full drama of this calamity was broad­cast in black and white into the na­tion’s liv­ing rooms.

What riv­et­ing view­ing it made as Michael O’hehir de­scribed the un­fold­ing spec­ta­cle in an iconic sport­ing com­men­tary as the blink­ered loose horse Popham Down swerved across the field and, in the words of jour­nal­ist John Oak­sey, ‘cut down the lead­ers like a row of this­tles’.

In the may­hem, 29 of the 30 horses still stand­ing ei­ther fell, un­seated their jock­eys or re­fused—some did all three. Spruce, gorse and jock­eys went in all di­rec­tions, but, hav­ing been 100 yards be­hind the lead­ers, Buck­ing­ham could pick his way through the car­nage of loose horses and jock­eys run­ning to catch them. He ‘showjumped’ the fence and was soon 100 yards ahead.

Seventeen horses set off in for­lorn pur­suit and it’s a mea­sure of Foinavon’s hon­esty and Buck­ing­ham’s horse­man­ship that the pair kept go­ing to come home 15 lengths clear of the favourite, Honey End, and the fol­low­ing year’s win­ner, Red Al­li­ga­tor, rid­den by a young Brian Fletcher. Re­mark­ably, all horses and jock­eys re­turned in­jury free and, although some de­scribed the race as a ‘farce’, the fact is that it stim­u­lated calls to ‘save the Na­tional’, which was un­der threat from de­vel­op­ment.

Fears that the course would soon be buried un­der hous­ing in­creased in 1973, when Mirabel Topham, whose fam­ily had owned the course, sold it to a prop­erty de­vel­oper, Bill Davies. Ear­lier that year, as an im­pres­sion­able eight year old, I paid my first visit to Ain­tree with my fa­ther, who had two run­ners. I stood be­hind the cham­pion trainer Fred Win­ter on the County Stand be­cause he was the only per­son I had any chance of see­ing over.

We watched his gal­lant horse Crisp, 30 lengths clear at the last as he had been most of the way, nabbed on the line by Red Rum and Fletcher, who was to be­come the most suc­cess­ful postSe­cond World War Na­tional jockey. If a de­sire to win the race ever needed feed­ing, then it was to be on that stand that day, but what ‘Rummy’ went on to achieve made Crisp’s feat un­der 12st even more Her­culean in hind­sight. At the time, I and many oth­ers thought Win­ter would be back to win other Na­tion­als and that it would be Red Rum’s trainer ‘Gin­ger’ Mccain’s day in the sun, but the sec­ond-hand car sales­man from South­port, who gal­loped his horses up the sands, be­came Ain­tree roy­alty. The coun­try loves noth­ing more than a horse that can take Becher’s Brook, the Canal Turn, Valen­tine’s, The Chair and even the lit­tle fence now known as Foinavon in their un­bro­ken stride— and he trained it. The larger-than-life Mccain and his horse be­came Na­tional trea­sures, win­ning it again in 1974, fin­ish­ing sec­ond in 1975 and 1976 be­fore re­turn­ing for a record third tri­umph 40 years ago. ‘You’ve never heard one [a re­cep­tion] like it at Liver­pool,’

‘I couldn’t sleep for two nights be­fore my ride thanks to Foinavon’

an­nounced Sir Peter hoarsely. When Red Rum died, aged 30 in 1995—and was buried by the win­ning post early one morn­ing be­fore Liver­pool had wo­ken and be­fore a man from the Min­istry had a chance to in­voke the rules for­bid­ding live­stock burial—it was front-page news; he’s still the na­tion’s favourite race­horse.

Rummy had in­spired the req­ui­site fundrais­ing to en­able the Jockey Club to buy the course in 1984, en­sur­ing the race’s fu­ture for fur­ther Foinavons and Red Rums. How­ever, although there’s al­ways a chance of the ghost of Popham Down spook­ing a loose horse into do­ing some­thing calami­tous—for­mer cham­pion jockey A. P. Mccoy was twice car­ried out by loose horses when in with a win­ning chance—there will never be another triple-win­ning horse.

Buck­ing­ham and Fletcher, two jock­eys who wrote them­selves into the his­tory books for the same re­sult, al­beit achieved in very dif­fer­ent ways, have both died re­cently, but they leave be­hind horses and jock­eys that will con­tinue to be in­spired to up their game over those big green spruce fences.

How­ever, the mod­ern Na­tional is a slightly deeper race—on Satur­day, all 40 slots in the hand­i­cap will be filled, not just a dozen like there were in Red Rum’s day, which means there are many more horses in with a chance of win­ning.

Per­versely, how­ever, the big­gest ob­sta­cle to a horse gain­ing im­mor­tal­ity is the un­doubt­edly eas­ier course in­tro­duced three years ago. This means that horses can make mis­takes that they would never have got away with in Red Rum’s day— his al­most cat-like ath­leti­cism and sixth sense of avoid­ing trou­ble were what made him the ul­ti­mate Ain­tree spe­cial­ist.

Mar­cus Army­tage is rac­ing correspondent for the ‘Daily Tele­graph’. He is the last am­a­teur jockey to win the Grand Na­tional, which he did in 1990 on Mr Frisk —their time of eight min­utes, 47 sec­onds is still a record. The three-day Ran­dox Health Ain­tree Fes­ti­val starts to­mor­row; the Ran­dox Health Grand Na­tional will be run at 5.15pm on Satur­day, April 8. Tick­ets from £27 (0344 579 3001; http:// ain­tree.the­jock­ey­club.co.uk)

Red Rum, rid­den by Tommy Stack, wins the Grand Na­tional for the third time on April 2, 1977

Among the field in 1977 was 21-year-old Char­lotte Brew, the first woman to ride in the Grand Na­tional (top left). That year was also the 50th and fi­nal time that Sir Peter O’sull­e­van com­men­tated on the race (above)

Foinavon won the 1967 Na­tional af­ter a huge pile-up at the 23rd fence —amaz­ingly all the horses and jock­eys were un­in­jured

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