The crowd was a mixed gathering of politicians and peers, bookies and tipsters, bowler-hatted city gents and cloth-capped dockers. King Amanullah of Afghanistan was there, together with his beautiful Queen Suriya shivering inside a heavy sable coat. Large numbers of Americans, too, had crossed the Atlantic to the Mecca of steeplechasing. One entry commanded their exclusive support: the American chaser Billy Barton, winner two years before of the Maryland Hunt Cup. Could he become the only horse ever to win both Britain's and the United States' supreme test of jumping ability and courage? The official odds were 33-to-1 against.
Some half-dozen other horses were outstanding: Master Billie, 5-to-1 favorite; Trump Card, antepost favorite at 11-to-2; the French mare Maguelonne, Amberwave and Sprig, the 1927 winner. Not least was the handsome chestnut Easter Hero, recently bought by Captain Alfred Lowenstein, the Belgian millionaire financier, for the then astronomical sum of �7,000 ($33,600), plus a contingency of �3,000 ($14,400), should he win the National. Here was quite the most spectacular horse to be seen at Aintree for years: he was handicapped accordingly with the tough weight of 12 stone five pounds.
The 42 runners milled impatiently at the start; a single line of tape went up. It was a false start and half the field had gone 100 yards before they were recalled. Then, after a second breakaway, the National began at seven minutes after the scheduled hour. Keep Cool was first away, Amberwave the last. Ahead, spread over a left-handed, triangular course, stood 16 fenches of spruce, gorse or fir, all but two of which had to be jumped twice.
In traditional style, there was a mad charge over the long, clear run of almost half a mile to the first fence, but despite the scramble no horse failed to take this low hurdle. Amberwave, after jumping three fences like a novice, refused the fourth. Sprig was eliminated at the fifth.
The next jump, slanting diagonally across the course, was the dreaded Bee tier's Brook, a hedge five feet high and three inches wide in front of a natural brook five feet six inches wide. Here, in the first National, one Captain Becher came unstuck on Conrad, crawling into the brook for safety and quipping, "Water should never be taken without brandy." This time Koko was the faller, and they needed ropes to haul him out.
So far the number of casualties was not excessive, and, though the going was treacherous and the visibility bad, the rain at least was holding off. Still well in the running were Master Billie, Billy Barton and Easter Hero, and surprisingly only one horse, Bright's Boy, failed at the seventh fence, an awkward five-footer approached at an angle with the horses veering left as they jump and left again as they land. Then came the catastrophe at the Canal Turn. Easter Hero was seen through the mist to be leading at the time. Some say he slipped, others that he stood too far back for his angled leap. Whatever happened, this normally elegant chestnut ended like a wrecked windmill in the ditch and was immediately joined by his nearest rivals, Grackle and Darracq. To those close in their wake they presented an insurmountable equine wall.
Most prominent of the nine who survived the pileup were Billy Barton, now surging strongly into the lead, Maguelonne. May King and De Comfort. Way behind them, plodding firmly but with all the grace of a rampant elephant, was the surefooted Tipperary Tim.
Tim, the outsider, was, of course, incapable of maintaining the fast pace set at the start. Rider Dutton, content just to stay in the race, kept him wide on the far side of the course where the turf was firmest, and when he came to the Canal Turn, much of the wreckage had been scrambled away. The graceless Tim heaved himself over at leisure.
As the field entered the final lap, heavy-footed Tim was one of only five of the 42 starters still running. America's Billy Barton was leading all the way. Safely over the Canal Turn a second time, he next cleared Valentine's—a five-foot-high fence before a six-foot-wide brook—two lengths ahead of Great Span.
At the following fence, the 26th, both Maguelonne and May King fell, and Billy's prospects positively soared. It was, everyone agreed, now a straight duel between the American challenger and Great Span, just a length behind. After all, only one other horse was left: the inevitable Tipperary Tim, lumbering some six lengths behind, a gallant but seemingly irrelevant survivor.