The sprawling race course at Aintree, on the outskirts of the factory district of Liverpool, is neither pretty nor fashionable. From the infield it looks at first like a Churchill Downs without a roof and twin spires. There are few comforts: most stand to watch the races, and if anyone dared suggest that an escalator and a few more seats might be in order, he would be considered quite out of his mind. No change has been recommended for years.
Grand National Day last week was a typical one. In place of even a single ray of sunlight the sky let down a dark, dreary overcast curtain of solid haze. From atop the stands spectators could see—at the most—21 of the 30 jumps. The crowd flowed in and took positions all over the grounds. Many went to the fences, particularly to Becher's Brook and Valentine's Brook, two treacherous obstacles 5 feet high and over 3 feet wide, with water in the ditches on the drop side. Others lined up along the course's only water jump—15 feet wide and 2 feet deep—frightening enough from the stands, purely and simply murderous from up close.
Half an hour before the race the horses came to the paddock, a square walking ring brightened only by a circular tulip bed in the center. Only now did the real excitement of the day begin. Thirty-five horses walking peacefully around under the gaze of thousands—each animal displaying his name on a quarter-sheet—each looking more massive and beautiful than the next. Big-boned creatures with tremendous muscle, walking in the haze and wondering, perhaps, why all the fuss, why the intent faces, why the growing excitement. Then, finally, the entrance of the jockeys for a last-minute conference with owners and trainers. Many riders wore their overcoats or raincoats to the paddock as a brisk wind and mild drizzle set in.
The big moment drew near. A scurry now back to position in the stands, and then—even if you didn't know one horse from the other or had never seen them before—a completely swept-away feeling of deep emotion as the horses came one by one onto the track. Each was proudly led by his head lad as the rider sat stiffly upright looking out upon a tidal wave of humanity come to watch the jumping spectacle of all time. Past the stands they walked—slowly and majestically—35 horses in a row. High in the stands a lady neatly tailored in tweeds turned to a companion: "Aren't they beautiful and lovely? I almost feel like crying when you think that in a few minutes some of them might be dead or frightfully bashed up." She cried.
A few hundred yards past the stands the parade halted. Each horse wheeled gracefully and cantered down the line to the starting post. As they lined up, the 35 jockeys almost knee to knee, the white flag went up and an unemotional, explicitly clear loudspeaker voice broke the tension while at the same time propelling a new wave of excitement: "They are under starter's orders." Every field glass went into focus. Not a word was said. Maybe 150,000 people standing—ready—and waiting. And dead silence. In Lord Sefton's private box the American owner, Raymond Guest, standing beside Ambassador John Hay (Jock) Whitney, leveled his glasses on his 8-year-old gelding Virginius, and as he did the barrier flew up and 35 horses sprang away to meet the test.
A thundering horde stampeded an eighth of a mile on the flat to the first fence. Britain's champion jumping jockey, Fred Winter, and his 20-to-1 shot, Sundew, were in the first flight. Raymond Guest found Virginius as the charging wave of horses took the jump. All but three bobbed up on the other side. One of the three that went down was Virginius. Raymond Guest looked carefully again to make sure it was his horse. It was. He turned away, dropped his glasses. "It's a hell of a long run for a short slide," he said, and then went back to watching.
Sundew, an 11-year-old chestnut gelding, ran his own race in his own sweet time. At the fourth fence Armorial III, the leader up to that time, went down, and Sundew took over to do things his way—jumping unlike a great horse but popping over everything in sight and running on without the complication of any interference. Winter looked around him, and as the challengers went down one by one he might have become confident. But he didn't. Over the 15-foot water jump, and Sundew nearly had it. He caught himself and struggled on. "As we started the second time round," said Winter, "I never thought we'd do it. My horse wasn't jumping properly, and I kept thinking he was going to fold up on me if we ever had a serious challenge." The challenge came as they went into Valentine's the second time. Athenian ranged up to head the leader, but before Fred Winter could ready himself for a real duel the threat was over. Athenian went down, and Sundew was virtually home free. But even after crossing the last fence, Winter wasn't sure. "I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't," he said.
Sundew was rolling at the finish and could barely make it back to the unsaddling enclosure, where he stood panting and steaming while his owners, Mr. and Mrs. Geoffrey Kohn, gathered around. "You know," a friend reminded Fred Winter, "that horse was up for sale two weeks ago for $10,000, but there were no takers. Now you're both more famous than ever." Winter started peeling off his clothes in the weighing room by the fire. "I don't know about being more famous," he replied with a smile, "but I do know we were bloody lucky. Yes, sir, bloody lucky, that's what you've got to be to win the National." He looked about him for a waiter. "Say," he said, "I think it's about time we had a little champagne, don't you?"
This was a Grand National relatively without incident (although 24 horses fell), considering that since its inception at Liverpool in 1837 this event has provided just about every imaginable race course drama. More than once riders, like brave soldiers with a silent and yet mutual feeling of desperation, have helped each other stay seated on dead-tired but equally brave horses. And only a year ago came what was probably the National's everlasting moment of tragedy. Devon Loch, carrying the colors of the Queen Mother, cleared the 30th and last fence of this terrifying course of 4 miles and 856 yards with a long lead. As his jockey, Dick Francis, steered him toward the winning post just 495 yards away, the crowd of 200,000 doffed hats and roared a royal salute—as did millions of fellow Britishers throughout the Empire—but abruptly, with barely 100 yards to go, Devon Loch's stamina gave out and he collapsed directly in front of the stands. When Rider Francis got down and wept unashamedly a good part of the racing world felt like weeping with him.
There is no American counterpart to the Grand National, for steeplechasing is dwindling every year in the United States, whereas the jumping program of the National hunt is a major and integral part of the English racing calendar. British racegoers know—and study—form on jumpers with the same devout enthusiasm which they give to flat racers. Few of them agree on just what it is that constitutes a jumping champion, but everyone will concede that in the Grand National the element of pure chance plays the primary role. Favorites rarely win. The best horse does not always win. Loose horses run about causing havoc all over the course. But to win you must have a dead-fit horse running for you. He must be fit, yes, but he must be a good jumper, because the Aintree obstacles are tough.