The Grand National: Tears and tantrums

dark ivyTHE scream was piercing. Then there was silence. The remaining horses had already streamed over the Canal Turn but most people’s thoughts and hearts were back at Becher’s Brook. The screaming woman was now in tears. Real, stinging tears. And she was not alone… This was 1987. It was my first Grand National. But to this day I’ve never been back. I was 16 and excited was not the word. My favourite race in the world and I was going to be there. I wasn’t bothered about having a bet: I just wanted to take in the atmosphere and be part of history. The Grand National had already moved me to tears. My earliest memory of the race was my favourite horse Red Rum being collared at the elbow by Rag Trade. I hated Rag Trade. He spoiled everything.

There were more tears the following year. Andy Pandy was my favourite children’s show so my loyalties were firmly with one horse in 1977 (even above Red Rum). Miles clear at Becher’s on the second circuit, everything was going beautifully until disaster struck. Andy Pandy crumpled on landing and despite his best efforts John Burke couldn’t sit tight. Red Rum’s subsequent third National victory hardly registered to this devastated six-year-old.

One that got away

The National continued to transfix. Each year I devoured every minute of the build-up on Grand National Grandstand, watching Frank Bough make a great fist of pretending he knew lots about racing, wishing that one day I could be there. I had £1 on 40/1 winner Ben Nevis in 1980… or so I thought: my brother forgot to put the bet on. This time there were tantrums amid the tears.

Champion's Day: Aldaniti wins in 1981 (Pic: Daily Mail)

Champion’s Day: Aldaniti wins the Grand National in 1981 (Pic: Daily Mail)

I was a quivering wreck when the wonderful story of Aldaniti and Bob Champion unfolded in 1981 and then there was the majestic Corbiere and the tearful Aintree matriarch Jenny Pitman in 1983. To this young lad there was nothing to compare to the National. It was my favourite day of the year. I got so nervous before the race and emotional during it, and still do.

Back to 1987. It seemed a perfect day. My football team Everton were closing in on another league title and I was at the Grand National. My favourite National horse of the 80s, West Tip, was backed off the boards to repeat his stylish success of 1986 under Richard Dunwoody. He went off at 5/1, one of the shortest-priced favourites in recent history.

Elegant and imposing grey

The Aintree atmosphere was mischievous but good-natured. I couldn’t see much. No, I couldn’t see anything, apart from the big screen. I didn’t care. I was there. The opening race on the Saturday saw the enigmatic but brilliant-on-his-day Little Bay fall in the handicap chase. He was in the same ownership of one of the leading Grand National contenders. A bad omen, perhaps?

The first thing I recall about the big race was Guy Landau, the young jockey on Stan Mellor’s Lean Ar Aghaidh, setting off at what seemed a breakneck pace on the decent ground. But as they approached Becher’s first time one horse stood out. Lobbing along majestically in sixth or seventh was Dark Ivy, the elegant and imposing grey in those Little Bay colours of Adare and Stewart Catherwood, who had caught everybody’s eye in the paddock and who had captured the imagination of the betting public. In the build-up many column inches were devoted to Dark Ivy, ridden by Phil Tuck and trained by Gordon Richards, the master of Greystoke Castle in Cumbria.

But just before the fence Irish raider Attitude Adjuster, with his unmissable yellow blinkers, veered slightly left. It seemed to distract Dark Ivy who barely took off. The ensuing fall seemed to happen in slow motion, and as he landed on his neck, death looked to be almost instant. Watching on the big screen and as the TV picture panned away, I could see that the big grey mass of horse on the ground was lying stock still. Dead. As the rest of the field streamed over the Foinavon fence, the screams had subsided but people were in tears all around me… There were no doubts about the demise of this lovely horse.

Strutted around the paddock

This beautiful creature had mesmerised millions because of his colour and because he had a great chance of becoming the first grey winner since Nicolaus Silver in 1961. He was gorgeous: the most handsome horse in the race. I recall punters watching in awe as he strutted around the paddock and languidly trotted down to the start. So the shock of his fall was palpable and the rest of the race continued in a blur. I was dreading Becher’s second time round and the sight of a green blanket draped over the corpse of Dark Ivy to the side of the fence still lives in the mind.

The fact that Maori Venture outstayed The Tsarevich to give veteran owner Jim Joel his finest moment barely registered. There was an empty feeling among the crowd that the National may never quite be the same again.

A sporting behemoth

But the National is a sporting behemoth. Untouchable. Incomparable. Despite the inevitable outcry and hand-wringing, the race continued to survive, but not always thrive. The void race in 1993 was one of the biggest sporting disasters of all time although that catastrophe was almost usurped by the bomb scare and evacuation of 1997.

Muddy marvel: Red Marauder wins the Grand National in 2001 (Pic: Virgin Media)

Muddy marvel: Red Marauder wins in 2001 (Pic: Virgin Media)

But then there are the stories. The wonderful stories. Rough Quest and Mick Fitzgerald’s famous quip in 1996; Red Marauder’s mudbath in 2001 and the racing world willing home AP McCoy on Don’t Push It in 2010.

But the desolation I felt over Dark Ivy returned last year. We should have been celebrating the closest finish in history and lauding Neptune Collonges’ lung-bursting lunge that broke the heart of Sunnyhillboy. But the aftermath was dominated by the fallout from the deaths of Gold Cup winner Synchronised and the adorable According To Pete.

The Grand National has the ability to play with the emotions like no other sporting event. The highs and indescribable lows are a part of why it is so special. Rag Trade, the horse I hated in 1976, died during the race in 1978.

Ill-fated heroes

The roll-call of equine luminaries who have suffered  a similar fate include Grey Sombrero (1973), Zeta’s Son (1977), Gold Cup winner Alverton (1979), The Last Fling (2002) and Ornais (2011).

Nobody loves horses more than genuine lovers of racing. Nobody feels the loss of a horse more than the owners, trainers, jockeys, and proper racing people. Despite the safety modifications the Grand National will continue to thrill, but it will also continue to kill. Racing people know that. They also know that virtually every horse who takes part relishes the challenge that Aintree presents. These animals are bred to jump and they love the thrill of the chase.

Amid the tumult and high emotion of Dark Ivy’s death, his distraught jockey Phil Tuck said simply:  “He was a lovely horse, and what happened to him broke my heart. But I still believe in what we do.”

 

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