Robin Oakley

The turf | 12 April 2017

The past 60 years of the sport offer a cornucopia of jaw-dropping anecdotes

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.

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