The British populace understands one certain universal truth: Nothing is certain at the Grand National. Established more than 180 years ago, the Aintree tradition occurs in Liverpool, England, every year in late March or early April.
With over 4 miles of track and 30 monstrous fences, the race carries the reputation as the hardest steeplechase in the world, and it has a history of dashing the hopes of the favorite and raising an underdog from obscurity.
“The Grand National always has a story to it,” said 1960 winning jockey Gerry Scott. “It’s never straightforward.”
The 2020 edition of the Grand National was supposed to take place on April 4, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the March/April Untacked article “The Grand National: A History Of Prestige And Unpredictability” looks at the history of the race in detail, we wanted to share a few additional stories to tide you over until this historic race runs again next year!
One End Of Island To The Other—1845
For 50 pounds, Lincolnshire farmer William Loft bought a dead lame horse. Cure-All’s reserve had been 260 pounds, but after a prospective buyer jumped him and had an accident, the horse’s price dropped, and he left the Horncastle Fair with Loft.
Loft’s under-groom “Kitty-Crisp” had a plan: walking and trotting in long grass. And with Kitty Crisp’s guidance, the horse found all four feet again. When another candidate for the 1845 Grand National withdrew, Cure-All took the spot. From one side of England to the other, Kitty-Crisp and Cure-All walked.
After traveling approximately 150 miles on foot, Cure-All won with Loft up. When the celebrations were over, Kitty-Crisp and Cure-All walked back home.
“If you look on a map of England, you’ll see that’s from one side of the country to the other,” said Aintree historian Jane Clarke. “[He] walked him back, and when he arrived back in the village, they had all the church bells ringing in his honor because he’d won the National.”
A Star Is Born—1884
For most horses, winning the Grand National is their crowning achievement, but Voluptuary earned additional fame in an unusual way. After his 1884 victory over HRH The Prince of Wales’ entry The Scot, Voluptuary was sold to well-known actor Leonard Boyne. With his new owner, he honed his craft for water jumps. Cast in the play “The Prodigal Daughter,” Voluptuary jumped the obstacle in front of crowds every night at the Drury Lane Theatre.
Watch some of the oldest video footage from the Grand National:
Butter Always Makes A Recipe Better—1901
When a mixture of sleet, rain and snow blanketed the course in 1901, the jockeys requested the Grand National be postponed. But the three stewards deemed the conditions safe enough for the race to continue as planned with spectators shivering in the stands, though the parade had to be skipped. However, before the jockeys mounted and headed to the track, one trainer made a grocery store run.
Bernard Bletsoe, owner, breeder and trainer of Grudon—son of former plough horse Old Buck—rushed to the local dairy and purchased a few pounds of butter. Upon returning, he lathered his investment into the horse’s hooves and sent jockey Arthur Nightingall on his way.
With the butter preventing the snow from balling up in his hooves, Grudon lead the entire way—at least as far the spectators could tell through the whiteout. It is rumored that Nightingall carried on a conversation with another jockey for much of the 30 fences only to leave him behind with the words, “Ta-ta old chap, I must now push a trifle faster.”
The British monarchy hadn’t won a Grand National since Ambush II honored the future King Edward VII in 1900. But with Mary of Teck aka “Queen Mum” entering two horses, M’as Tu Vu and Devon Loch, 1956 was looking good for the long-awaited win.
M’as Tu Vu fell on the second circuit at the 19th fence, but Devon Loch was coasting for the last mile with jockey Dick Francis (who would later become a famous racing writer). After the final fence, Devon Loch broke away from rival E.S.B. to lead the way to the finish.
“From the stands and enclosures came the loudest cheering ever heard on a racecourse as the crowds gave vent to their joy at the first Royal Grand National winner for fifty-six years,” wrote Reg Green in “The History of the Grand National: A Race Apart.” “The roar of applause increased with every stride Devon Loch took, for it brought him nearer to victory and further away from his weary pursuer.”
But 50 yards from the finish line post, the leader suddenly sprawled out on his belly, hind legs trailing behind him. To this day no one really knows what happened. One theory is that Devon Loch thought he needed to jump, lifted his front legs only to realize his mistake and fall to the ground. The boisterous stands hushed as E.S.B. passed him, creating one of the biggest upsets in Grand National History. To “do a Devon Loch” is still used to describe an unexpected and sudden failure.
Watch the British Pathé recap:
The Worst Jockey—1952-1976
For Beltrán Alfonso Osorio y Díez de Rivera, the “Iron Duke” of Alburquerque, the first day of his eighth year changed his life. It was on that birthday when he first saw footage of the Grand National.
“I said then that I would win that race one day,” he said.
The Spanish aristocrat entered the race several times starting with Brown Jack III in 1952. He made it over five fences before falling off at the sixth and woke up in the hospital with a cracked vertebra. In his next attempt, 1963, bookies offered 66/1 odds against him finishing. He fell at the fourth fence. In 1965, bad luck struck him again when his horse collapsed underneath him and left him with a broken leg. He failed to finish again in 1966. In 1973, his stirrup broke, and he clung on for eight fences before tumbling down yet again.
For his sixth attempt at the Grand National, the Duke rode in a plaster cast, as he’d broken his collarbone in a fall a week before the race. In spite of that, 1974 proved to be the only time the Duke completed the course, coming in eighth of eight finishers.
“I sat like a sack of potatoes and gave the horse no help,” he said.
At one point, after jumping the Canal Turn, he bumped into fellow jockey Ron Barry, who yelled what was he doing. According to the stories, the Duke replied: “My dear chap I haven’t a clue…I’ve never got this far before!”
In 1976, he reclaimed consistency as he was trampled by several horses, breaking ribs, a wrist and a thigh, fracturing several vertebrae, and sustaining a major concussion. He didn’t regain consciousness at the Royal Liverpool Infirmary—he apparently always booked a private room there before the event just in case—for two days. But that didn’t stop him, and at the age of 57 he announced he’d give it another go—and he would have, if the race officials hadn’t revoked his license. The Duke lived to see 75 as a result.
“We’ll Fight Them On The Becher’s”—1997
Everything started normally for the 1997 running of the Grand National, with the 60,000 spectators putting in their last-minute bets before the 3:45 p.m. race. But then at 2:49, a call was made to the Aintree University Hospital in Fazackerley, and then a second at 2:52 to a police control room in Bootle. Made during a highly charged election period, both calls used codewords associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army and threatened that a bomb had been planted on the racecourse.
By 3:22, the police asked the crowd to evacuate. Their cars had to remain at Aintree, so 20,000 racegoers were left with no way to travel home. As the police flooded the scene, carrying out two controlled explosions on suspicious packages, the Liverpool public opened their homes to stranded racegoers.
After headlines reading “We’ll Fight Them On The Becher’s,” in reference to Winston Churchill’s famous WWII speech “We Shall Fight On The Beaches,” the Grand National ran the following Monday and offered free admission. Lord Gyllene won with jockey Tony Dobbin.
The BBC coverage of the bomb threats:
To learn more about the Grand National, be sure to check out the March/April issue of Untacked, which comes free with your subscription to The Chronicle of the Horse.
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