The following is an excerpt from David Owen’s book, Foinavon: The Story of the Grand National’s Biggest Upset, which was honored last week with the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award at Shane Ryan’s Castleton Lyons.
Owen topped fellow finalists Shelley Lee Riley, whod ocumented her 1992 classic quest in Casual Lies: A Triple Crown Adventure; and Dorothy Ours, for her historical look back at the 1938 Grand National Steeplechase winner in Battleship: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey, and America’s Horse. Owen won $10,000 and a Tipperary crystal trophy in the form of the Lexington-based farm’s landmark stone tower.
Special thanks to Owen and publisher A&C Black for the excerpt:
The atmosphere was building as Foinavon’s jockey John Buckingham crossed the Ormskirk Road and re-entered the racecourse. A succession of special trains, including one, from Grimsby and Cleethorpes, that was steam-hauled, had pulled into the nearby railway station and disgorged groups of Scots, Geordies, Londoners and Brummies who joined local race-goers milling around the sodden facilities.Trilby-hatted bookies under large umbrellas vied for bets on the first race of the day, the Liverpool Hurdle. Though it was hardly the weather for high fashion, trouser-suits were numerous among the more traditional headscarves and sheepskin coats. Colours were as varied as the Grand National parade itself: citron-yellow to navy blue, lime-green to orange.
It was lunchtime for any normal human being, but there are sound, practical reasons why jump jockeys don’t really do lunch. As Buckingham explained some time later, ‘I never have lunch when I’m riding. I don’t think anybody does…If you have an accident, you see, you have probably got to have some sort of an operation – and anyway, you couldn’t ride on a full stomach.’ Ten of the 44 Grand National jockeys, including most of the big names, had mounts in the curtain-raising hurdle race, but Buckingham was not one of them. So he waited.
He spent the final tense minutes before the race formalities began collecting autographs on behalf of a female race-goer. He went around all 43 of his fellow Grand National jockeys – no easy task when conditions were so cramped that, according to Richard Pitman who, like Buckingham, was about to ride in the great race for the first time, ‘you only had enough room for one buttock on the bench.’ Like others before and since, Buckingham was struck by the unaccustomed quiet. ‘The lads were all sitting down,’ he recalled, ‘whereas they’d normally be larking about.’ Pitman, though ‘not very religious,' says he always went to church on the way to the course. ‘I don’t know why really,’ he adds – although, ‘no end of jockeys, even the blasphemers, will ask for the good Lord’s help at some stage in a race. “Just let me get over the next and I’ll be good for the rest of my life."
The air in the confined space was heady with the mingled aromas of sweat and leather, cigarette smoke and embrocation. John Lawrence may have been indulging in his pre-race regimen of glucose and orange quarters. Demand for the toilet would undoubtedly have been heavy. According to Terry Biddlecombe, ‘I have never seen so many trying to have a last “go” – if you had held a tablespoon under them they could not have filled it.’ How the valets tending the jockeys managed to ensure that everyone was equipped with the correct colours and gear in such circumstances is a mystery, one suspects, known only to them.
Finally, it was time to weigh out and the 44, in full racing attire, trooped over to await their turn on the scales. It was at this point that Michael O’Hehir, the Irish commentator assigned by the BBC to Becher’s Brook and the other fences at the far end of the course, caught sight of a set of racing colours that, for all his exhaustive preparations, he did not recognise. Ashe later recalled, ‘I have a habit that through the years I go into the weigh-room at Aintree, with permission of the stewards there, and I stand for about an hour before the National checking off each jockey’s colours as that jockey gets into the weighing scales. I’ve been working for two months beforehand on paper…but to actually see these colours, you know, the shade of blue, the tinge of red. It can make all the difference.
‘I saw this man standing in a line of jockeys with a black jacket and the yellow-and-red braces effect on him and I went down my list and I went to the race card and I couldn’t make out what [it was]. I said, “Oh to hell with it, I’ll go over.” And I went over and I said, “Johnny, what’s this you’re riding?”
“Oh I’m riding Foinavon,” he said…“The owner thought that green was unlucky and they decided that today they’d use these new colours."
It was still a few minutes before three o’clock, but already the Aintree parade-ring was filling up with National horses, walking clockwise around the perimeter. They were labelled for the benefit of the huddled spectators, their names on the paddock-sheets strapped to their backs and their numbers on the left arms of the handlers leading them.
Gregory Peck’s horse Different Class, a striking chestnut, gazed alertly into the crowd to his left, while Bassnet looked a picture as befitted a horse sired by Manet. The Scottish challenger Freddie, safely arrived from Haydock, had already started sticking out his tongue. The long-legged Honey End looked as calm as Forecastle, the only grey in the race, looked agitated, appearing quite unperturbed when the frisky Anglo, the 1966 winner, bowled into the ring in front of him. The eyes of spectators flicked from racecard to horse, horse to mud-flecked race-card, their shield-shaped badges tied prominently to their coats.
There had been a false start in the six-furlong Flat race that preceded the National, with one of the runners haring down the entire length of the course before his rider could pull him up. The resultant 16-minute delay looked like prolonging the agony of the steeplechase jockeys now itching to get underway. At 3 p.m., as the day’s four FA Cup soccer matches kicked off in Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds and London, the 44 men were released from their purgatory. Into the paddock they strode, eyes darting from group to group in search of their horse’s connections, some tipping the peak of their brightly coloured caps with due deference as they approached. Biddlecombe, dazzling as a tropical bird in the blue, yellow and cerise colours of Greek Scholar’s owner, was one of the first to mount. Soon, clumps of discarded sheets and rugs were littering the middle of the paddock as, one by one, the jockeys climbed aboard their conveyances. It was at this point that the BBC camera, which had been flitting from horse to horse as commentator Clive Graham outlined each runner’s form and prospects with a few deft phrases, alighted on Buckingham and Foinavon. ‘Thirty-eight in the blinkers Foinavon,’ Graham began. ‘His chance must be considered remote. He’s not won from 14 starts this season and it seems unlikely he will make an exception here.’
It was as the jockeys rode out in single file towards the racecourse, where they would parade in front of the grandstand before cantering down to the start, that their expressions and posture conveyed most poignantly the tensions raging inside them. For one of them, in all probability, these formalities would be the prelude to the most important race of his career. For many more, the day would end in disappointment; for one or two, more than likely, in disaster.
It was coming up to 3:15 p.m. as the top-weight What a Myth, at the head of the parade, led his 43 rivals past the winning-post, moving in the opposite direction to the one in which the winner would later gallop up to it. This was a moment of pure pageantry, like medieval knights saluting their patrons before some joustor tournament. But it could also be particularly nerve-racking for both horse and rider. What a Myth’s jockey Paul Kelleway, in the Eton blue-and-black colours of his patron, Lady Weir, the horse’s owner, assiduously stroked the horse along the base of his neck, aware that the rain would have improved his chances. At around this time, news was breaking that a half-share in another of Captain Ryan Price’s Sussex-trained horses, the placid Honey End, was in the process of changing hands. This appeared to change the tone of what had been an indecisive betting market. In the minutes remaining before the off, the odds offered on Josh Gifford’s already well-fancied mount tumbled, making him clear favourite.
Sitting in the grandstand as a guest of the executive was Marie Christine Ridgway, whose husband John had spent the previous summer accomplishing a feat which made even riding the Grand National course appear mundane: he had rowed across the Atlantic with a companion, Sergeant Chay Blyth. Blyth, who was also at Aintree that afternoon, had called his Scottish house Foinaven, after the mountain near where it stood. When he noticed that a horse of that name was running, it was hardly surprising that he could not resist having a small flutter.
Someone else on the course that day who was keen to have a bet on Foinavon was stable lad Clifford Booth. No sooner had he let go of the horse, leaving it to wheel away with Buckingham at the end of the parade, than he made his way to the Totewindows. ‘I had ten bob (50p) in my pocket,’ he says. ‘I was going to have four bob (20p) each way on him which would have left me two bob (10p) to get home for food.’ Sadly, when the National got underway a few minutes later - the signal for betting on the race to halt - Booth was still waiting in line to be served. ‘I couldn’t get a bet on,’ he says.