The Randox Health Grand National weights are published tomorrow. However there is no longer the pre-announcement excitement that there used to be when the weights were framed around previous Aintree form, and not just lifted directly from a horses official handicap mark. It was always good fun reading a trainer having a go at the handicapper for punishing his horse for running well the previous year. Nowadays, finishing in the places in the National is not even a guarantee of getting in the race the next year! As you can see from the 1986 weights, back then only a relatively small number of entries even made it into the handicap proper. It was not unusual on the day of the race for 10 or less runners to carry their allotted weight. Is that a good thing? Arguably yes, as the quality of the race has gone up dramatically. However, marry that to the sanitisation of the course and fences and I’m not sure I will ever experience the tension of waiting for the world’s greatest race again.
As Britain seems to be on the verge of panic over the possibility of a bit of winter weather, I am reminded of a day when the snow was simply not allowed to interfere with the blue riband of jumping, namely the Cheltenham Gold Cup. On March 19th 1987 the heavily laden clouds over Prestbury Park deposited a fairly large amount of cold white powder onto the home of jumping just as the fourteen runners were preparing to contest the big race – with a nice sum of £55,500 to the winner. The sun eventually shone through the murk and melted the offending snow and, after a delay of 83 minutes the field eventually got away, with victory going to the Arthur Stephenson trained gelding, The Thinker, providing 32-year-old jockey Ridley Lamb with the biggest win of his career. Sadly, Ridley was to lose his life along with fellow jockey and friend, Alan Merrigan, in a tragic car accident in July 1994.
The Thinker went on to finish third behind Little Polveir in the 1989 Grand National, proving what a classy chaser he was. Sadly, he broke a leg two days before the 1991 renewal while preparing at Aintree for one last crack at the National aged 13.
On the day when it was revealed that Walter Swinburn, who rode three Derby winners, died from head injuries sustained in a fall from his bathroom window, it is perhaps ironic that the inquest -which recorded a verdict of accidental death – has been taking place exactly 34 years since the sensational kidnapping of his most famous winner, the Aga Khan’s magnificent Shergar, from Ballymany Stud in Ireland, by IRA terrorists. Most racing enthusiasts will know the horrific result of this terrible incident. I remember coming home from school and seeing it on the news without fully taking in what was going on. You can read the Daily Express reporting of the kidnapping here and here.
Whilst going through my archive, searching for a particular race for someone, I found this little gem of a tale that made the front page of the dailies back in April 1986. Steve Smith-Eccles had had a few shandies and fell asleep in the back of his car, only for some chancer to nick it without realising he was asleep in the back!
Still not as scary as riding over the big fences though, as Steve did in the National on Saturday, finishing third on 22/1 shot Classified behind West Tip.
Steve was always one of my favourite jockeys who never seemed to take life too seriously.
I first got into horse racing when I became transfixed with the glorious and magnificent Red Rum. My first memory of him is watching my mother kick the TV screen as Tommy Carberry pulled away on L’Escargot on the run-in in the 1975 National. After that I used to wait desperately for the daily paper to drop through the letterbox so I could devour the racing pages. I soon became familiar with the top names of the day: Winter; Pitman; Gifford; Kelleway; Champion; King etc… and before long I was helping my dad pick out his selections for the ITV 7 on a Saturday afternoon. My mum made me a replica of Noel Le Mare’s famous maroon and yellow colours carried by Brian Fletcher on Rummy, and an old armchair made an excellent replica horse as I recreated imaginary races where Red Rum won by a distance, destroying Pendil and The Dikler and – most importantly – the evil L’Escargot, in my fantasy Gold Cup races.
One thing that hasn’t changed since my childhood is the dullness of a winter Monday, and here’s a snippet of Plumpton’s card on Monday February 7th 1977 to prove it. No big name horses, just hard working people doing their jobs and risking their necks for a paltry riding fee. I bet none of them would have swapped it for anything.
Welcome to Going Behind, an unashamedly nostalgic blog dedicated to horse racing’s golden days of the past. In this blog I will share vintage racecards, clippings and news stories plucked from the newspapers of the day. If you have any requests please contact me via the link at the top of the page and I’ll do my very best to dig them out. I can provide full racecards and newspaper pages as .pdf files for a negotiable fee. Again, please contact me for details. I have provided this service for a number of jockeys and trainers who were keen to recall their careers but hadn’t got access to old newspapers.
Comments and conversation are very welcome but please do not use the comments facility to criticise any jockeys or trainers. This site is for pure nostalgia.