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DISASTER AT A THORNY BARRICADE
Whitney Tower
April 17, 1967
The Grand National at Aintree was a solid British steeplechase until the 23rd fence. There it turned into a Wild West rodeo that let Foinavon, an unloved 100-to-1 shot, slide past the favorites to victory
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April 17, 1967

Disaster At A Thorny Barricade

The Grand National at Aintree was a solid British steeplechase until the 23rd fence. There it turned into a Wild West rodeo that let Foinavon, an unloved 100-to-1 shot, slide past the favorites to victory

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At dawn on race day the rain and mist swept in to make the dismal city of Liverpool even more so. By midmorning, with the temperature in the 30s, this gray blanket covered the area for miles around. It smothered the sprawling acreage that is Aintree race course, where through the night extra uniformed constables with watchdogs kept an eye on the stables, the rambling old stands and the course of the Grand National Steeplechase itself (Easter vandals had played havoc with many of racing's most famous and difficult obstacles). The blanket also covered Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel, where the hunt-and-jump set of many nations had danced and gaily boozed its way through the suspenseful hours before what most of them believe to be the greatest horse race in the world.

As the dampness settled in to establish the tone of a day whose traditions go back to 1837, when the Grand National was first run, the lives of the people moved at different gaits. At Aintree most of the 44 runners left their stalls for final short gallops over the firm turf, which by post time would become somewhat softer and vastly more slippery. Some 20,000 citizens of Liverpool were bundling up for a journey to see the soccer heroes of their own Everton play Nottingham Forest. At the Adelphi Hotel, where revelers' hangovers were duly nursed in appropriate fashion, the morning was spent digging through an avalanche of sporting papers. British papers go whole hog on racing news, particularly in the field of handicapping and selections, and on National Day the hungry punter can choose from a menu of at least two dozen remarkably dissimilar opinions.

Most of the prerace talk centered on a small group of lukewarm favorites. Such horses as Bassnet, Honey End, The Fossa and What A Myth found themselves in this group through proven ability, while others drew large backing for a variety of reasons, sentimentality not being the least of them. There was, for instance, Freddie, runner-up to Jay Trump in 1965 and to Anglo last year. Surely, said some, it must be Freddie's turn now. And there was defending champion Anglo himself. Last year he carried the colors of the late Stuart Levy and beat Freddie by some 20 lengths. After Levy's death in June, Anglo was sold to Sidney Terry for $14,000, and two months ago Terry sold him to Lexington Horseman John Gaines for $42,000. Gaines subsequently found a partner in James J. Houlahan, honorary chairman of the board of New York's William Esty advertising agency and a newcomer to racing. But sentiment for Anglo was based not so much on hopes for a repeat victory by this 9-year-old chestnut gelding, or even for a victory by American ownership, as it was on the popularity of the horse's trainer, Fred Winter. In a remarkable career Winter had ridden two National winners (in 1957 and 1962) and then in 1965, his first year of training, had popped up to win with the American horse Jay Trump. He won again with Anglo the very next time around.

Sentiment drooled heavily, too, in the direction of Different Class, owned by Movie Star Gregory Peck and trained by hard-luck Peter Cazelet, who had had the race won in 1956 with the Queen Mother's Devon Loch when his horse spread-eagled from fright or utter exhaustion only 50 yards from the winning post. Peck had seen his first National in 1950 and had watched his Owens Sedge come in seventh in 1963. Dancing with his wife, Veronique, at the Adelphi the night before this year's race, Peck was warmly greeted by Owner John Gaines, who knows a thing or two about winning big pots when there are no jumps (his Gun Bow nosed out Kelso in the 1964 Woodward, and last August his Kerry Way won The Hambletonian). "What about a $500 side bet, horse against horse?" proposed Gaines to Peck. "If neither horse finishes, the bet is off." Millionaire Peck smiled down on Millionaire Gaines and put out his hand. "You're on," he said. Neither man collected $500 the next afternoon.

There was backing also for such tips as Leedsy, Kilburn, Solbina, Rutherfords, Greek Scholar, Red Alligator and even Packed Home, owned by Raymond Guest, the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, whose Larkspur won the 1962 Epsom Derby. Sentiment was carried to its extreme with bets placed on the combination of 67-year-old Rider Tim Durant from Beverly Hills, Calif. and his 11-year-old gelding, Aerial III. A year ago Durant had ridden King Pin in the National and the pair had lasted until King Pin ran out of gas and pulled himself up at the 20th fence. This time, before he faced possible amputation of his right leg because of cancerous tumors or, as he preferred to joke about it, "before my daughter has me committed for being insane," Durant was determined to make it all the way. A price of 25,000 to 1 was being quoted he wouldn't finish, and he was offered a case of champagne if he could get over Becher's Brook the second time around, the 22nd fence of the 30 to be jumped. The "galloping grandfather," as the British press has nicknamed Durant, gave it a galloping good try before falling at the 19th fence.

In spite of the encouragingly nice things being said about most of the 44 Grand National starters, a few managed to get the back-of-the-hand treatment from the London experts. Charles Benson, of the Daily Express , analyzing each horse, had this to say about an obscure 100-to-l shot named Foinavon, winless in 14 starts: "Has no chance. Not the boldest of jumpers. He can be safely ignored, even in a race noted for shocks." It sounded like a sensible analysis, considering that Foinavon had been 1,000 to 1 in a future book the Thursday before the race. Among the people who completely agreed with Benson were, curiously enough, both Foinavon's owner, Cyril Watkins, and his trainer, John Kempton. Watkins thought so little of his horse's chances that he decided to stay home and get a better and more sheltered view of the miseries on television. Trainer Kempton also was having none of it. He packed his father, Jack, off to Aintree to saddle the unloved 9-year-old bay, while he himself buzzed off to ride Three Dons, another horse he trains, in the first at Worcester.

Kempton won the first at Worcester, all right. And an hour and a quarter later, in front of some 50,000 drenched spectators (and another 200 million watching on the BBC Eurovision band), Foinavon captured one of the weirdest Grand Nationals ever run. Coming in at 100 to 1 (444 to 1 on the tote) under the nervous guiding hands of little-known 26-year-old Jockey Johnny Buckingham, Foinavon reached the winning post 15 lengths ahead of post-time favorite Honey End (15 to 2), who beat out 30-to-l-shot Red Alligator by another three lengths. Greek Scholar (20 to 1) was fourth, just ahead of Raymond Guest's long shot, Packed Home. The longest-shot National winner in 20 years led home a forlorn parade of only 18 finishers. A massive pileup at the 23rd fence had dashed the hopes of more than 20 runners, including most of the favorites.

Disasters have a way of striking with little or no warning, and that's the way it happened at Aintree. The first time around in this four-mile 856-yard grind was relatively peaceful, although Bassnet had been unlucky enough to go down at the first fence. Then, at the 15th, known as The Chair, John Gaines's Anglo slammed into another horse and was finished. Long shot Popham Down lost his rider early but continued running, weaving his way in and out of the front-runners and posing the very sort of threat that jumping riders abhor. Shortly after the field, now spreading out, completed the first 16 barriers with a minimum of losses, the riderless Popham Down took the lead. He got by Becher's the second time, followed by Ruther-fords, whose trainer, Tim Molony, had been so desperate to start him that he had sent the horse out with slivers of glass in one foot, which was protected only by a leather covering.

No great damage at Becher's, but now, as the audience awaited possible trouble at always dangerous Canal Turn, two fences away, the 1967 Grand National was about to make the history books. Aintree's 23rd fence (it is also the seventh) is no awesome backbreaker. It is a typical thorn fence, slightly more than four feet high and nearly three and a half feet thick. It is not the sort of fence to bother even a run-of-the-mill fox hunter, and to a Grand National rider it represents something of a refreshing pause between Becher's and Canal Turn. But riderless horses can change that, and in the space of approximately 10 seconds that is exactly what the darting, nimble Popham Down proceeded to do.

Tiring of his lonely journey, Popham Down reached the thorny 23rd fence and stopped dead. He turned sideways and then met another riderless horse. The two of them formed an eight-legged blockade directly in the path of the oncoming herd. Rutherfords and Castle Falls were the first to hit the blockade, followed by Limeking—and the gruesome battle for survival was on. Horse after horse piled into the fence's takeoff point, stopping in bewilderment because there was no room to jump. Horses were flying into the fence so fast that at least four jockeys sailed clear over it as though shot from a catapult. Landing roughly on the other side, they picked themselves up and sprinted desperately for safety. Gregory Peck's Different Class was among those who finished the race at the 23rd.

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