Marcus Armytage looks back at Foinavon's 100-1 victory in the 1967 Grand National, perhaps the craziest and most dramatic ever staged.
The Grand National that really caught the public imagination and cemented Aintree’s position as the home of sporting drama on an epic – and I mean epic in the sense of its Homeric scale rather than the over-used description of something a bit bigger than normal – was 50 years ago when it was won by the 100–1 outsider Foinavon.
This was precisely why I couldn’t sleep for two nights before my first ride some 20 years later in 1987; thanks to Foinavon, in my own mind I had a chance equal to that of the favourite in what I then assumed would be my only ride in the race on 200–1 outsider Brown Veil. (We pulled up at the 23rd fence.)
Foinavon was a no-hoper. The horse’s owner, Cyril Watkins, hadn’t even bothered to turn up and the trainer, John Kempton, preferred to be riding at Worcester. Yet the horse, steered by John Buckingham, wove a passage through a pile-up at the innocuous 23rd fence – ironically, at 4ft 6in, the smallest one on the course – to win the most remarkable National ever run.
In as much the 1956 race provided the sporting template – to do ‘a Devon Loch’ – for stealing defeat from the jaws of victory, when the Queen Mother’s horse did a bizarre belly flop yards from the winning post, so ‘a Foinavon’ has become common parlance for the unexpected.
It was still early days for televised sport – the drama of previous Grand Nationals was something most people only read about in their Sunday newspapers, caught up with in the cinema on Pathé news or saw as specks through binoculars if they were lucky enough to be there – but the full drama of this calamity was broadcast in black and white into the nation’s living rooms.
What riveting viewing it made as Michael O’Hehir described the unfolding spectacle in an iconic sporting commentary as the blinkered loose horse Popham Down swerved across the field and, in the words of journalist John Oaksey, ‘cut down the leaders like a row of thistles’.
In the mayhem, 29 of the 30 horses still standing either fell, unseated their jockeys or refused – some did all three. Spruce, gorse and jockeys went in all directions, but, having been 100 yards behind the leaders, Buckingham could pick his way through the carnage of loose horses and jockeys running to catch them. He ‘showjumped’ the fence and was soon 100 yards ahead.
Seventeen horses set off in forlorn pursuit and it’s a measure of Foinavon’s honesty and Buckingham’s horsemanship that the pair kept going to come home 15 lengths clear of the favourite, Honey End, and the following year’s winner, Red Alligator, ridden by a young Brian Fletcher. Remarkably, all horses and jockeys returned injury free and, although some described the race as a ‘farce’, the fact is that it stimulated calls to ‘save the National’, which was under threat from development.