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.
Behind the first flight of runners in any Grand National are those whose trainers do not adhere to the get-out-in-front theory. "Fox-hunt it around the first time," they tell their riders. "Stay back, pick your spot and avoid trouble. You'll have more room, less competition and more speed left the second time around." Among the riders who were doing their best to follow such instructions was young Johnny Buckingham on Foinavon. "He was jumping super all the time," said the bewildered jockey later, "but after Becher's we were still at least 25 lengths behind the pack. I saw everything stopping in front of me, and I had the time to go to the outside, to the right of the trouble, and we just hobbled over the fence. But, to tell the truth, I had been so far behind I didn't realize I was now in front!"
Away Foinavon flew, but it was not until Valentine's, two jumps later, that Buckingham looked up and saw there was nothing at all in front of him. Incredibly, Foinavon and Buckingham, who only seconds before had been in 22nd place, were now a full fence in front of the entire field. Some horses and riders were frantically struggling to regain their footing and either get out of the way or start up again, and the confusion was maddening. As some later runners came into the 23rd desperately looking for takeoff room, they had to avoid other mounts retreating for a second try at the jump, which by now was all but demolished. One horse, two-time runner-up Freddie, refused the obstacle twice before finally making it and going on to be the 17th of the 18 finishers.
Jockey Josh Gifford aboard Honey End was a little luckier. Like Foinavon, Honey End was in the last flight approaching the 23rd. Honey End refused at the pileup, but Gifford wheeled him around and galloped him a good 50 yards back before turning around for a successful jump and then an unsuccessful chase of the 100-to-l shot who was now a good 200 yards in front and virtually home free. "We were going like a bomb the rest of the way," said Gifford afterward, "but when you're that far behind you know you've not much chance. I was just hoping John would fall off."
But Johnny Buckingham, who had been over the National course (or part of it) only once before, in a shorter steeplechase last year, did not fall off. He watched Gifford and Honey End close the gap during the last half mile but, he remembers, "I just kept kicking on all the way. Then at the very last I let my horse sort of fiddle and didn't even bother to look back." A few moments later, when a new fan asked him for his autograph, Buckingham nervously replied, "I've got to do it on a table because I'm shaking like a leaf. Nobody is more surprised than me!" The youngster, who had only gotten the mount on Foinavon four days before the race, had made history on an inconsistent plodder who is so habitually off his feed that his box stall at Trainer Kempton's yard in Compton, Berkshire is shared by a goat named Susie—his inspiration. Last week Susie saw to it that Foinavon fueled up enough to win the world's toughest race.
In the years to come—or even this week, for that matter—few horsemen will claim that the best horse won the 1967 Grand National. There will be the usual arguments about cruelty (although, miraculously, only one horse, Vulcano, was seriously injured and destroyed) and a good deal of talk about the inferior quality of much of the field. Be that as it may, the National is a unique race with a rich tradition, and part of that tradition is the role that sheer luck plays in its outcome. But luck isn't everything. As Rider-Author John Lawrence aptly puts it, "To win a modern National a horse needs a combination of qualities which very few possess. These qualities are safe, economical jumping (flamboyant brilliance, if not actually undesirable, is unnecessary), the stamina to last every yard of four and a half miles and the courage to go on galloping and jumping despite discomfort, interference and the constant threat of danger."
Last Saturday, not with just a little bit of luck but with a great deal, Foinavon met those qualifications. Whether he or any other steeplechaser will have similar opportunities to put himself to this demanding test in the future remains to be seen. Aintree Entrepreneur Mrs. Mirabel Topham has probably overseen her last National. She has talked of selling the land to a housing developer, but hope is strong and the chances are excellent that the Lancashire County Council will take over Aintree. In that case the future of a race that would surely wither and die if an attempt were made to move it, fence by fence, to any other location would depend, according to Lawrence, "On the ability of the racing world to fit a successful racecourse into whatever development scheme the local authority adopts."
If the admissions—paying British public has slackened off in attendance at the Grand National—and at other races, too—the horsemen have lost none of their personal enthusiasm for the great steeplechase. Much of the public has found it more convenient to stay home, bet over the telephone and watch the race on TV, the coverage of which is excellent. For its Grand National program the BBC used 18 cameras, some of them on cars speeding along the outside of the track and just ahead of the jumpers. The announcing by such professional racing authorities as Peter O'Sullevan, Clive Graham and Michael O'Hehir gives the show tremendous impact, far more than anything yet seen on an American screen. But for hunt-and-jump horsemen the screen is not the answer. The thing is to be there, and to participate. And in recent years more and more Americans have been participating.
Although, in the past, National victories by the late F. Ambrose Clark and Mrs. Marion duPont Scott made news of a sort in America, it remained for the spectacular success in 1965 of Mrs. Mary Stephenson's Jay Trump, with Tommy Smith up, to give more of a boost to U.S. steeplechasing than all the triumphs that had preceded it. Shortly before Jay Trump, America had shared in a less heralded victory. Ron Woodard, a 53-year-old Indianapolis investment executive, spent two years during World War II directing troop movements in Liverpool. He was billeted, of all places, under the grandstand at Aintree. Reading through various steeplechase-racing histories, he became a racing fan and set a goal for himself: to win the Grand National someday. When his Team Spirit won in 1964, Ron Woodard was there on his old home ground to accept the trophy, along with Co-Owners Gamble North and J. K. Goodman. Now Gregory Peck wants his turn. And so does John Gaines. And so will many more Americans in the years ahead. Though the Grand National may be worth only ¬£17,500 to the winner, it will always be the greatest of all days for him. And don't think that for the rest of his life Trainer John Kempton won't regret that on April 8, 1967 he chose the first race at Worcester over the third at Liverpool.