Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf the Day of Fallers

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf the Day of Fallers

Article excerpt

On a grey October morning, along a Berkshire lane leading up to the Ridgeway amid fields stuffed with pheasant, 30 of us joined a mini-pilgrimage. The former champion jockeys Graham Thorner and Stan Mellor had made it along with Marcus Armytage, who won the Grand National on Mr Frisk.

There, too, were a cluster of racing historians including Chris Pitt and John Pinfold.

More importantly, the former trainer John Kempton and the former jockey John Buckingham were present with the author David Owen for the unveiling of a plaque to a horse whose name will never be forgotten in jump racing: Foinavon was the 100-1 winner of the 1967 Grand National after he and jockey Buckingham alone avoided the 23rd fence pile-up that devastated the field. Until then commentators only ever referred to the 23rd as 'the fence after Becher's'. Since then it has been 'the Foinavon fence'.

It was in the Grey Ladies livery yard near Compton, in those days known as Chatham Stables, that Foinavon shared a box with a goat called Susie (who accompanied him to Aintree) and where his body lies buried. For all of us the ceremony triggered memories of that 1967 National. John Kempton, Foinavon's young trainer who later quit racing to run diving boats, did not go with Foinavon to Aintree that day. He preferred to ride the stable's best hope, the hurdler Three Dons, in a race at Worcester. At least he won. Head lad Colin Hemsley also chose Worcester. So did box driver Geoff Stocker. In 1967, he told us, he had tossed with colleague Tony Hutt over who should drive to Aintree. Stocker won - and chose Worcester. Stable lad Clifford Booth led up the National winner and suffered a real hard-luck story. After letting go horse and jockey for the start, he joined the Tote queue to back Foinavon - and was still queuing when the tapes went up.

'I'm here to represent the jockeys who got out of the way, ' said Stan Mellor. His mount, The Fossa, put on the brakes amid the melee and ejected him on to the top of the fence. He recalls now, 'I was the only one who didn't find his horse afterwards.'

He thought he saw The Fossa's distinctive blue saddlecloth and ran to the Canal Turn to catch him and remount, only to discover it was the wrong animal. His recollection prompted Graham Thorner's memory of a day of many fallers in a Wincanton novice chase. Swiftly up again on his feet, he grabbed the horse waiting nearby and rode him into third place - only to discover that it was not the mount he had started with but another jockey's horse. …

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