“One more try,” Charles “Charlie” Fenwick Jr. vowed as he came off the Aintree Racecourse in 1979. He and his horse Ben Nevis II had done their homework and built their resume leading up to their journey to Liverpool, England. But on their first introduction, the English Grand National claimed victory over them.
And while the British-bred Thoroughbred gelding (Casmiri—Ben Trumiss, Hop Bridge) never achieved success in his homeland before being imported to Maryland in 1974 by Redmond Stewart Jr., he’d told a different story in his five years partnered with Fenwick.
“He was sort of a runaway I think [in England],” said Fenwick. “He was difficult pretty much the whole time. He was difficult—I think that’s the politest way to put it.”
But despite his strong personality—he would frequently display his unruliness making his way the paddock—Fenwick and “Ben” were practically unbeatable Stateside. They set a track record in ’77 at the Grand National (Maryland) as well as winning the Maryland Hunt Cup, a race they won again the following year in record-breaking time.
So with these victories, they returned to Ben’s homeland in 1979 to face the notorious 4-plus mile course established in 1839. Temporarily relocating his entire family of his wife and three kids, Fenwick practiced and trained in England for 4 1/2 months. And on the last day of March, a large Maryland contingent crossed the pond to watch them.
But The Chair, the 15th fence on the 30-jumping effort course, brought them, and their months of preparation, down.
“Nine horses came to grief at The Chair that year,” said Fenwick. “The Chair is a big fence, and there’s a ditch in front of it. So when we got to the fence, there was a horse in the ditch, so you had to jump the ditch, the horse and the fence. He couldn’t do it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced frustration like that before or since,” he continued. “We’d been over there for 4 and 1/2 months and dedicated everything to this race. And it wasn’t that we just got beat. We got brought down by loose horses. It was just everything we’d done was naught for all intents and purposes. That was a real challenge.”
But with the welcoming of a new decade, they started fresh. Ben stayed in England with Tim Forster at his yard in Letcombe Bassett, while Fenwick traveled back and forth about six times preparing for the second go-around. But none of the races leading up to the Grand National showed anything extraordinary from the then-12-year-old horse.
“We get to the Grand National, and we haven’t done anything particularly exciting. He’s at 40-1. So nobody was giving him much regard,” said Fenwick. “The odds are terrible. And it also had been raining a lot, and we thought he only liked firm ground. But the facts were he liked everything. He performed well on all grounds. So anyway that race got to be an endurance test of sorts.”
Little by little, the 30 entries dwindled, and as Ben and Fenwick approached Becher’s Brook for the second time, they surpassed leader Gerry Newman and Delmoss, who fell at the fence’s famous 6′ landing drop.
“[We] passed the grandstand, and you turn to go back out into the country, and we jumped six fences all in a row. Boom, boom, boom, boom—right after the other,” said Fenwick. “Becher’s Brook is the sixth and last fence there, and then you make a turn and start coming back. So Gerry and I jump all of those fences together, head and head. And then we get to Becher’s, and he fell. And then all of a sudden Ben’s in front. And it was the first time he’d been in front in an English race, period. Almost like he didn’t know where to go.”
And after clearing the eight remaining jumps, Ben won by 20 lengths, with only three other horses finishing the race behind him. (Fenwick’s great friend Wallace Lanahan won 40,000 pounds that day for betting on Ben. Luckily the betting office honored a Xerox copy of his ticket since a pickpocket stole his wallet before he could collect his earnings.)
Ben trailered to Letcombe Bassett the next morning.
“Ben returned back to the village where he had been trained, and everybody turned out on the streets for him,” said Fenwick. “There’s only two streets on the town, but it was crowded. He paraded through there. He loved it. It was all very special.”
The victory marked Ben’s swan song, as Fenwick retired him to Meadow Run in Butler, Maryland, where Ben lived until he was 27 years old.
“He was 12, and he did not need to do anything else,” said Fenwick. “He got to the top, so why in the world would we need to prove anything else by running him anywhere else?
“It’s definitely for me something that—it was 39 years ago—and I remember it just as well now as I did then,” he continued. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful experience.”