Every Grand National reminds me of a hero of my youth: Beltrán Alfonso Osorio y Díez de Rivera, the 18th Duke of Alburquerque, a Spanish amateur rider who became obsessed with the race but whose only entry in the record books is for breaking more bones in competing in the National than anybody else. I have spent much of the past year working with Edward Gillespie — managing director of Cheltenham for 32 years and the impresario supreme of its springtime Festival — on a book recording the highlights of jump racing over the past 60 years. It was Edward who unearthed an Alburquerque story I had not heard. In 1974, having just recovered from a broken leg, the Iron Duke smashed his collarbone and rode at Aintree in a plaster cast. At the Canal Turn second time around, he cannoned into leading professional Ron Barry who inquired abruptly, ‘What the fuck do you think you are doing?’ The Iron Duke’s reply was a classic: ‘My dear chap, I have no idea. I’ve never got this far before.’ At least that year he finished, defying the 66–1 odds against his doing so.
Following the quest for ‘the next great horse’ from Arkle to Desert Orchid, from Best Mate to Kauto Star, from One Man to Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre, and profiling the 14 winners of the National Hunt trainer’s title and the 13 champion jump jockeys over 60 years, the greatest joy was the weight and quality of jump racing’s anecdotage. Peter Cazalet, the old-school trainer credited with bringing the late Queen Mother and her daughter into racing, was an anti-smoking disciplinarian. When a cigarette butt was found in the yard and nobody owned up, he fired his entire staff then had to reinstate them when it transpired that the offender was the local postman.
The genius Michael Dickinson, the only man ever to train the first five home in the Gold Cup, had spent the previous year enlivening car journeys with his wife Joan by giving her a fence-by-fence radio commentary on the feat in advance. He told me, too, that when he recently decided to take out another licence to resume training Flat horses in America he went for a medical check-up. He passed nearly every test with flying colours but when the doctor asked him how he exercised, Michael replied: ‘I run a mile a day and then on Sundays I run ten miles with the local hunt.’ ‘You mean you ride ten miles with the local hunt?’ ‘No, I run ten miles with them’. ‘Well, in that case it is another kind of doctor you need!’
I was intrigued, too, to hear from former jockey Richard Pitman how a stable lad who had slept with the horse for ten days had implored him to pull out the great Pendil, trained by Fred Winter, at the start of the 1974 Gold Cup because the IRA had allegedly threatened to shoot the horse if he hit the front. Of course Richard couldn’t comply but sadly Pendil was brought down by the falling High Ken just at the point where it might have happened. ‘Fred must have thought initially that he had been shot. I told Terry Biddlecombe about it after the race and he said, “Hey, that’s not very nice. They could have missed you and got me!”’
What came as something of a surprise was being reminded by Michael Dickinson and by Nicky Henderson, who started as an assistant to Fred Winter, how few horses some of the great champions of the past had in their yards. Winter, Fulke Walwyn, Ryan Price, Peter Easterby, Michael Dickinson — and his parents Tony and Monica before and after him — rarely had more than 50 boxes filled compared with the massive multi-horsepower establishments maintained today by the likes of Henderson, Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Paul Nicholls.
As we have moved into more ruthlessly professional times, trainers such as Nicholls and Martin Pipe have been true game-changers as have jockeys like John Francome, Peter Scudamore, Richard Dunwoody and Sir Anthony McCoy, whose astonishing 20 years as champion will surely never be equalled. For jockeys, though, it is not just about technical excellence but also about courage and the will to win, an assertion supported by a typical McCoyism: ‘Getting injured doesn’t mess with your head in the same way that getting beaten does.’
Of course, no sooner does your volume reach the bookshops than you need to update. Future chroniclers of the sport will have to record Jessica Harrington’s arrival last month as the most successful woman trainer at the Cheltenham Festival. Back in the 1960s, our starting period, officialdom did not recognise the right of women to train racehorses at all. It was not until 1966, when Florence Nagle took the Jockey Club to court after being told to ‘get back to your knitting’, that they were even allowed to hold a licence.
Sixty Years of Jump Racing, by Robin Oakley with Edward Gillespie, is published by Bloomsbury at £25.