This year’s Grand National isn’t the first to be called off – bomb scares and wars have played their part, too. Hannah Lemieux looks back on others that didn’t go to plan
On the first Saturday of April this year, the Grand National’s traditional date, the gates of Aintree Racecourse remained closed. No horses graced the famous turf, primed for the biggest race of their lives, no jockeys dazzled in brightly coloured silks and no excited racegoers bustled into the historic Liverpool venue.
It was the first time in 75 years that the Aintree grandstands have fallen silent on the day of the world’s greatest steeplechase. Not since the end of World War II has the Grand National not taken place, but this time it was due to a pandemic that has halted the globe.
The race began in 1839 and even continued through World War I. During these years, three Nationals took place at Gatwick Racecourse, an old course that has since become part of Gatwick Airport. The National was then officially suspended from 1941 until 1945 during World War II.
Lord Gyllene: 1997 Grand National
In the Grand National’s long history there have only been a handful of times the spectacle has not quite gone to plan. Aside from the loss of the 2020 renewal, the most fresh in people’s mind is the 1997 Grand National, when a suspected IRA bomb threat meant that the National was postponed by two days.
Two warnings with recognised IRA code words were received just before the jockeys mounted. The threat led to the largest ever evacuation of a sporting event as 60,000 people were removed from Aintree, while 100 horses had to be left unattended for four hours.
Journalist, TV presenter and former jockey Brough Scott was writing for the Sunday Telegraph, shadowing legendary commentator Peter O’Sullevan for the day, when the commotion kicked off. Due to the threat, all mobile phone signals had been cut, so Brough and his Telegraph colleague Marcus Armytage were frantically looking for a home phone so they could file their copy.
“We ran down Melling Road, looking into each house to see if people were inside that we could ask to borrow their phone,” reflects Brough. “We found a couple, John and Anne North, who welcomed us in and we were dictating our copy over the phone.”
Marcus also remembers that day vividly.
“The foreign secretary at the time, Robin Cook, also joined us at the house on Melling Road,” adds Marcus. “I have kept in touch with the Norths ever since, and they still allow me to park my car on their driveway each Grand National day.”
Police carried out two controlled explosions at Aintree that day, and the National was re-run on Monday, 7 April. Jockey Tony Dobbin won on Lord Gyllene by an emphatic 25 lengths.
“The Saturday started like any other Grand National day, the atmosphere was second to none and I felt lucky to be a part of it,” remembers Tony. “We had already had our jockey briefing in the weighing room, the horses had been saddled, our colours were on and our hat silks were being tied when an alarm went off. We thought it was just a drunken racegoer setting the fire alarm off, then we were told to leave the weighing room.
“After realising it was something more serious, we all got taken out of the racecourse, still in our breeches and boots. At that point we believed the National had been cancelled. It was devastating. I was playing golf on the Sunday when my agent rang and told me the National was running the next day – I was shocked but obviously very excited,” said Tony.
With free entry to racegoers on the Monday, people flocked through the gates.
“Usually, you have a couple of races to warm up for the big one, but not this time. I made all the running on Lord Gyllene. It was his first Grand National, he wasn’t an amazing jumper but he just took to the Aintree fences. We had one scary moment at the water jump, when we were nearly taken out by a loose horse, but Lord Gyllene wanted to stay in the race – you could just tell. I was knackered at the finish but then it suddenly hit me that I had won, I couldn’t believe it.”
The void race: 1993 Grand National
The dramas of 1997 came just four years after another unusual incident in the history of the Grand National – the only time the big race has yet been declared void.
Anti-race protestors had caused havoc at the first fence beforehand. When the 39-runner field did line up, there was an initial false start, then a second. Unfortunately on this attempt, just nine of the 39 jockeys understood it to be a second false start and the others set off without realising.
Eleven combinations completed the first circuit, before the jockeys became aware of the mistake and pulled up their mounts. A total of seven riders continued, despite shouts from the crowd and officials waving flags, completing the four-mile contest. Esha Ness, ridden by John White and trained by Jenny Pitman, was the first horse to “win” the Grand National that never was.
Former jockey Carl Llewellyn, now assistant to trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, remembers the void Grand National with a heavy heart. He was riding the previous year’s victor, the Nick Gaselee-trained Party Politics, and believed he was on the winner once again.
“We had no idea it was another false start when we jumped off, especially those of us sat on the outside,” reflects Carl. “I did a circuit and was sitting in about sixth, before pulling up after the water jump when I saw someone from Nick’s yard shouting at me to stop.
“Having to pull up was the worst feeling. Party Politics had always had breathing problems, but he’d had an operation and won impressively on his last start before Aintree that year,” muses Carl. “So I felt particularly confident in his ability, especially having survived the first circuit, which is always the most chaotic. Party Politics was an exceptional jumper and I have every reason to believe that I would have won the National again that year.”
Red Marauder: 2001 Grand National
In 2001, there were concerns over whether that year’s Grand National would go ahead because of foot-and-mouth disease. The outbreak had led to the Cheltenham Festival in March and many other fixtures being abandoned in the run-up to the National.
The Aintree meeting did get the green light from the authorities and went ahead, despite adverse weather on the day, with high winds and very heavy going.
The ground conditions played a part in the high number of fallers that year, with just four runners crossing the finish line – two of whom had been remounted by their jockeys.
The 33/1 shot Red Marauder was victorious under Richard Guest, who also had a pivotal role in training the horse for owner/trainer Norman Mason.
At the eighth fence, the Canal Turn, a loose horse caused carnage, ending that year’s National for nine combinations. By the second circuit, the field was depleted and only eight horses remained. At the 19th fence, more drama ensued with loose horses hampering Papillon and Blowing Wind. Having been unseated, AP McCoy (Blowing Wind) and Ruby Walsh (Papillon) had seen on the large screen that only two horses remained. Ruby shouted across to AP, “Come on, let’s get back up,” so the pair remounted (no longer permitted) and continued the course, with Blowing Wind finishing third and Papillon fourth.
Red Marauder and Smarty had battled it out over the last few fences, but Red Marauder ultimately won by a long distance. It was recorded as the slowest Grand National-winning time for over 100 years.
Devon Loch: 1956 Grand National
The fall of Devon Loch remains one of the greatest Grand National mysteries of all time. Owned by the late Queen Mother and ridden by Dick Francis, Devon Loch had a commanding lead in the 1956 renewal when, in front of the Royal Box, just 40 yards from the winning post and five lengths ahead, he inexplicably jumped and landed on his stomach – allowing E.S.B. to overtake and win.
To this day, it is still unknown what caused Devon Loch to jump like that. Some suggest he suffered cramp in the hindquarters, while others believe it was caused by a shadow from the water jump, which is bypassed on the home run, and Devon Loch thinking it was to be jumped. Suggestions that the horse had suffered a heart attack were dismissed because Devon Loch recovered far too quickly. His jockey believed it was caused by a loud cheer from the crowd, which distracted the horse. No one will ever know the answer.
Foinavon: 1967 Grand National
Foinavon was a 100/1 shot in the 1967 Grand National, and the horse’s trainer John Kempton was hoping to ride him in the big race. However, being over six foot, making the weight was impossible, and so three days before, Grand National debutant John Buckingham took the ride.
The race turned into an historic one at the 23rd fence, when riderless horse Popham Down veered to his right, running across the fence and causing a huge pile-up. As horses crashed into one another and refused, Foinavon slowed, found a gap in the chaos and cleared the fence, continuing with his jockey and leaving the carnage in their wake.
At the next fence, John realised he was riding solo, with 17 horses – many remounted – giving a distant chase. The pair battled on to win by approximately 20 lengths from Honey End.
The winning trainer had opted to ride another horse of his at Worcester Racecourse instead of going to Aintree with Foinavon, where he thought the rank outsider had little chance.
“I was riding at Worcester on the day of the 1967 Grand National,” remembers Brough Scott. “We were packed into the small weighing room there, watching the National on a tiny television screen. After the pile-up, we were all shouting John Buckingham home on Foinavon; he was a popular rider and journeyman jockey – we were all routing for him to win.
“Suddenly, someone started shouting louder than anyone else – going nuts at the TV – but none of us really knew him; he was a small, unknown trainer,” adds Brough. “Turned out that he was the winning trainer, John Kempton.”
In 1984, the jump – the seventh and 23rd on course – was officially named the “Foinavon” fence.
It is the unpredictability of the Grand National that makes it such a unique and special contest. Without doubt, it will be back and continue to provide drama and heart-warming stories for many years to come.
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