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Rich story of National losers
Jonathan Doidge looks at the remarkable Grand National stories in Chris Pitt’s new book Go Down To The Beaten.
By Jonathan Doidge
Last Updated: 04/04/11 3:05pm
The Grand National, a race apart. The rich history. The glory of victory. The derring-do. We’ve all tried to back a winner. Some of us succeed and live to regale friends with such stories at this time each year. Most of us fail. No story in that? Think again.
Sometimes the tales of those who didn’t make it are even more remarkable than those who did.
Take, for example, Peter Cullis. It’s 1973. Red Rum and Crisp have already fought-out perhaps the most dramatic Grand National finale of them all and are making their way into the winner’s enclosure to a tumult of applause when no one notices Cullis and his mount Mill Door, a point-to-pointer, crossing the line in 17th and last place.
The jockey, firmly in his 40s, had waited 28 years – that’s more than twice the length of most National Hunt riding careers – to get a ride in the big race.
So ashamed was Cullis that he was riding a rank outsider, he booked the week off work and did not tell anyone, despite the fact that he worked for the sponsors of the contest. How the current marketers would have loved him.
After all of that, he nearly didn’t even make it to the start, having woken up on the morning of the race blind in one eye with a horse hair lodged in his eye socket. It prevented him from driving to the track, but didn’t stop him from winning £300 for getting the horse around.
It’s a similarly one-eyed approach to the great race that is prevalent in a new book “Go Down To The Beaten”, written by racing journalist and historian Chris Pitt.
The author has had a great love of the race ever since he saw the grainy broadcast of Kilmore winning the 1962 running, and he tells us tales from the many jockeys who set out for, but failed to experience Aintree glory. His regard for the race is wholly evident.
There are stories of Tom Doyle, the jockey who didn’t know he was riding in the National until half an hour before the race, Brod Munro-Wilson, the amateur who was leading the field when his stirrup snapped and catapulted him out of the saddle, but most of all the heart goes out to Chris Grant.
‘Rambo’, as he was nicknamed in the weighing room, suffered the heartbreak of finishing second in three renewals of the National. To rub it in remorselessly, the racecourse itself staged five other contests over the big fences in which the jockey was second.
He never won around there once.
After the third of those runners-up rides, when Mr Frisk beat his mount Durham Edition in a course record time in 1990, he simply said “It’s Kelso on Monday”. These men are hard to the core.
Over a dozen of Pitt’s subjects are pilots who were second. Some have struggled ever since to overcome their frustration and disappointment at going so close, others still recall the exhilaration at what was a thrilling experience and are grateful to have been part of it.
Champion jockeys Stan Mellor, John Francome and Peter Scudamore never got their names on the National roll of honour.
We hear what it was like for them, and how Mellor got stopped for speeding on his way back to Aintree for dinner as a guest of trainer Fred Rimell.
In his attempt to get off, the record-breaking rider told the policeman that he’d just ridden in that day’s Grand National and finished eighth. The policeman booked him, with the words “You know your trouble son? You went too slow this afternoon and too fast tonight”.
The famous pile-up at the 23rd fence in Foinavon’s year, 1967, is given a new slant by the men who were leading the race at the time. We hear the riders’ take on how the void race fiasco of ’93 could have been avoided and then in the sort of twist only this race can provide, Tony McCoy, who waited 15 years before finally achieving his 2010 win on Don’t Push It, helps tie up the loose ends as the only success story.
Pitt would love to see featured pilots Paul Moloney or Sam Waley-Cohen win this weekend’s big one, even though either result would make their stories of defeat rather redundant. Whatever the outcome, one suspects that he will be a busy man at around 4.30 on Saturday.
Go Down To The Beaten is published by the Racing Post.