Sunday, 11 April 2010

Grand National, redux

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It's nuts, really, running a race over four and half miles and thirty enormous fences. The only nuttier race is the Pardubice in the Czech Republic, which is so various and labyrinthine and terrifying that you get vertigo just watching it.

I think there is something terribly British about the Grand National. It is anchored in ancient tradition, going back to 1839. It leaves room for a departure from the usual racing professionalism. Because of the curious nature of the event, the idiosyncratic fences, the huge field, the need for luck in running, amateurs get their chance. I remember getting keen pleasure out of watching 54 year old John Thorne finishing a gallant second on Spartan Missile, which he had bred himself. My dad, also an amateur rider, never got round the course. He had broken his back and his neck for the second time when the doctors told him he must never ride again. Even if he fell off at a walk, he might be paralysed for life. He lay for months in a steel cage. The next year, against all medical orders, he lined up at Aintree.

'What happened?' I said, breathless, when I was old enough to understand this story. 

'Fell off at the third,' said my father, laconically.

In 1963, he was injured again, and so could not ride his horse Carrickbeg. His friend John Lawrence, another amateur jockey, rode instead. Carrickbeg jumped like a dream, and steamed round The Elbow in front. 'Go on, John, you've got it won,' said Pat Buckley, who was riding Ayala, as Carrickbeg sailed past him. As the winning post was in sight, and the roar of the crowd was in his ears, Lawrence sensed something wrong. It was Ayala's head, coming up beside him. After four and half miles of hard riding, Buckley flashed past, winning by a mere three quarters of a length. I remember a haunting photograph of the finish from my childhood: Ayala and Buckley, with their heads up in delight and victory, while Carrickbeg and Lawrence, so close, have both their heads down, slumped in last minute defeat.

The National also pleases the great British desire for an underdog fairytale. There was the rank outsider Foinavon, who was cantering round the back at 100-1 when a loose horse ran across the Canal Turn, and everything behind it fell, refused, or catapulted the jockey over its head. Old footage shows a Keystone Cops style pile-up, with unseated jockeys running around like headless chickens and horses going everywhere except over the fence, while commentator Michael O'Hehir desperately tried to make some sense of it. Foinavon was so far behind the field that he managed to pick his way round the chaos, neatly jump the fence like a cat, and gallop on to win, followed by a disconsolate string of remounted horses.

The greatest fairy story of all was of Bob Champion and Aldaniti. Champion was diagnosed with cancer and given four months to live. Meanwhile, Aldaniti suffered injury after injury, and it was touch and go whether he would be put down. While Champion underwent experimental and extreme chemotherapy, Aldaniti was slowly rehabilitated. The two crocks came together, managed somehow to get fit enough to race, and romped home by four lengths as grown men cried (and women too).

Even Red Rum, the legend who won three times, was not an obvious candidate for heroic status. He only cost four hundred guineas, was trained in a tiny, unfashionable yard on Merseyside rather than one of the mighty operations in Lambourn, and had a fatal tendency to go lame. Ginger McCain, his trainer, managed to get him sound by galloping him along the Southport Sands. From that unlikely seaside, he ran into racing history.

Yesterday was a combination of the high professional and the plucky amateur. AP McCoy, the steeliest, toughest pro you can imagine, finally won his race after fourteen tries, with a perfectly timed ride. The hard man broke down in tears, and said that he hoped now his two year old daughter would be proud of him when she grew up. (Cue: not a dry eye in the house.) But for me, the sweetest story was of the seventeen-year-old Sam Twiston-Davies, having his first ride in the race, despite being still at school. Sam hunted round on the lovely, honest Hello Bud, who jumped like a stag. He was up with the leaders the whole way; for a sweet moment he was in front, and it must have flashed across his young rider's mind that he might emulate the great Bruce Hobbs, who won at the same age on Battleship, many years ago.

In the end, Hello Bud just ran out of steam, and finished an honourable fifth, but he gave the determined and talented  jockey a ride he will remember for the rest of his life.

Here are your pictures of the day:

Dear old Carrickbeg at the last:

Carrickbeg at the last in the 1963 Grand National

Sam Twiston-Davies on Hello Bud:

Hello Bud Sam Twiston-Davies

Grand National 2010 - And they're off:

The start of the 2010 Grand National by  Tom Jenkins

The tremendous Comply or Die, who won in 2008 (backed by me, I braggingly add), jumps The Chair:

Comply or Die jumps the Chair by Tom Jenkins

AP on Don't Push It starts to smile as he sees the winning post:

Smiling AP McCoy heads for the winning post by Tom Jenkins


(Last three photographs by Tom Jenkins; first two, photographer unknown.)

There we are, my darlings. Now I must pull my head out of the clouds and get back to the election.


  1. Thank you for the Pardubice shout-out - I am from there! And I love you racing posts, they read like a fairy tale. More please! Sabina

  2. Sabina - how thrilling that I have Czech readers. I heard tales of the Pardubice all through my childhood; it was the one of the great races that haunted the imagination of the racing people where I grew up. Then I finally saw it and understood what they were all talking about.

  3. I'm not that interesting in racing, but you really made all these characters live and breathe!

    Lovely writing, Tania.

    BTW - how's the pig?!


  4. Argh wasn't it fabulous? I had money on Dream Alliance for a 'seabiscuit-type' ending but it was not to be. My husband went all non-mathematical about it and went for anything pregnancy-related, put a few quid on Don't Push It (???) and came out a good 'un. It was a fabulous race. And my heart leapt for joy for Tony McCoy (which wasn't meant to rhyme, but hey.)

  5. Alison - what a high compliment. Thank you. I am always terrified of boring readers to death by talking about something they neither know nor care about, so you are most reassuring. Poor old pig is still with us, but only just. I hope for a miracle.

    Jo - the thing about Dream Alliance made me cry. Was very glad he came home safe, at least. AMAZED at your husband's cleverness. I looked at Don't Push It, saw 'doubts about his jumping', and crossed him off my list, for all AP's genius. Shows how much I know.

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