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