By Marcus Amrytage of The Field
Thursday, 01 April 2010
The Aintree Foxhunters is the apex of the amateur's ambition. April sees Aintree alive with fun, fashion and the Aintree Foxhunters...the Grand National too...
Winning the Grand National may be the pinnacle of a professional jockey's career but as a race for fulfilling the hopes and aspirations of ordinary, everyday horsemen and huntsmen, it is the Aintree Foxhunters that satisfies more dreams. It is a fact of the modern sporting world that winning has become everything. The old amateur notion that taking part is more important than victory is often derided but with the National now virtually exclusive to the top 40 professional jockeys and winning it out of most people's reach, taking part in the Aintree Foxhunters remains a climbable everyman's Everest, open even to those with no pretensions to being a great jockey.
That is not to belittle the race, far from it. These days more store is set by winning the Aintree Foxhunters than any other race over Aintree's green spruce fences - apart from the National itself - and, ironically, nine times out of 10 more "mad amateurs" get round their "National" than practised professionals do in the Topham Trophy a day later.
Anyway, who remembers a Topham winner when an Aintree Foxhunters winner is often fêted back home in his hunting country for years if not decades. The race, especially when combined in a double with the Christies' Foxhunters at Cheltenham, remains the holy grail of hunter chasing, the peak of achievement for the graduate of the point-to-point field, the mark of a proper horse and horseman.
Though not run until 1923 - 84 years after the aptly named Lottery won the inaugural Grand National, but one year before the first Cheltenham Gold Cup - it has a history rich in romance like the National. Then run over the full National distance of four and a half miles, the first Aintree Foxhunters was won by Gracious Gift, ridden by Captain "Tuppy" Bennett, who won the same year's Grand National on Sergeant Murphy. The 1948 race was won by the formidable Sir Guy Cunard in whose memory today's winning rider's trophy is given but, with single-figure fields, it was decided in 1950 to shorten the race to just under three miles.
In 1954 the Aintree Foxhunters was won by Dark Stranger, ridden by the late John Bosley. I remember him telling me - apart from the fact that the popular pastime among jockeys on the eve of the National was to toboggan down the stairs at the Adelphi on a silver tray - how he had nearly turned down the ride.
He had just bought a farm at Bampton in Oxfordshire and conditions were perfect to start drilling spring corn for the first time on his own land. When he offered it up for an excuse the trainer, Len Colville, told him he had got his priorities wrong. Having thought about it he accepted the ride. Dark Stranger, whom he had never ridden, had a tendency to lose his races at the start so he organised the starter's assistant to give him a crack round the hocks with his Long Tom and this time the horse was first out of the gate. What was to have been the biggest day of his farming career turned out instead to be the biggest day of his riding career.
My father Roddy, a professional trainer, won the Aintree Foxhunters in 1965 with Aerial II ridden by John Daniell, who was a dairy farmer, for owner Mervyn Fear, another dairy farmer. Daniell, a life-long thruster with the Berkeley is, at 88, probably the oldest surviving winner of the Aintree Foxhunters. He had won the race a few years before on April Queen for the same owner.
"She ploughed through The Chair, dropped her legs in the water and was 20 lengths last at Becher's," he recalls. "The fences hadn't been modified then [they became less upright with the addition of an apron in 1961] and, God, they were big. She came down so vertically over Becher's that I felt her tail brush my face.
"A horse carried the rest very wide at The Canal and a whole heap of them fell at Valentine's, by which time I was left in second. We had hedges like that in the Berkeley's vale country but the thing about Aintree was that the landings and take-offs were on perfect ground."
Two Aintree Foxhunters winners, Merryman II and Grittar, went on to win the Grand National. Dick Saunders, who rode Grittar, got some useful practice in 1970, twice remounting Lady Kin in the Aintree Foxhunters before eventually finishing second.
For years any horse finishing in the first four in the Aintree Foxhunters' automatically qualified for the National and it was by this method that Charlotte Brew (now Mrs Jeremy Budd, who is running a Somerset catering business) qualified Barony Fort and became, at 21, the first female to ride in the National in 1977.
Joey Newton, now chairman of the panel of stewards at Aintree, and a mainstay of the Belvoir Hunt, was one of the Aintree Fochunter's more successful exponents, winning it on Credit Call in 1976 and 1977, the only horse to have won it three times. "The first time I very nearly fell off him at Becher's - how he kept me there in the saddle I don't know," remembers Newton. "Why was he so brilliant? He was unbelievably careful, always putting in a short stride. It was a great thrill but I have to say I'd probably get a bigger kick from a great hunt - perhaps due to the uncertainty of it; the fact that 90% of hunting is shit and 10% is extraordinary. The Belvoir has a run of fences from Hose Thorns to Long Clawson, five hedges before a road crossing and then eight more hedges. I suppose once every four or five years you'd get the whole lot in one go and that, for me, is the ultimate."
He continues: "When I won in 1976 it was the last year of Mrs Topham, the place was on its knees and 2,500 people turned up for the Aintree Foxhunters. Now 40,000 come, there's a tremendous atmosphere and the fences still need jumping."
He is not wrong on that score. They say you always remember your first ride round Aintree. I remember, in 1986, Rocamist giving me a wonderful, faultless introduction in the Aintree Foxhunters. The photo of us sailing over Becher's, the traditional cab being hailed, sits opposite me in my office. I still marvel at how much longer a horse seems to spend hanging in the air over Aintree's famous drops.
John Maxse, erstwhile director of communi-cations for the Jockey Club, has little memory of his first and only ride round the Aintree Foxhunters. He can recall getting to the start and then waking up in Fazackerley Hospital wondering how he got there.
It took Julian Seaman, an eventer who had completed Badminton, four attempts to get beyond the first fence. "Yes," he confirms. "The Aintree Foxhunters takesup a useful part of my after-dinner disaster speeches. I reasoned that if I could negotiate the Normandy bank I could negotiate Aintree. The first year I was going much too fast and wiped out in gratuitous fashion at the first. Only one good thing came out of it. At the time I was a fashion student so used to go to people like Vidal Sassoon to get my hair cut. Needing a haircut, thinking I'd be dead by Saturday, I went to the local Cypriot barber, had the best haircut I've ever had and have been going to him for 25 years since.
"The second year I was in control, saw the horse next to me go a purler and thought, ‘poor bugger - that's what happened to me last year' when, bang, he took the legs out from underneath me." The following year his mount, Boonabaroo, had a heart attack going into the fence.
His final - come what may - attempt was on Ballyvoneen in 1988. "As soon as we cleared the first I was into unknown territory. I remember going to The Chair and doing this pathetic Pony Club ‘hup' as we took off. At Becher's, in a panic attack, I stuck my feet in his ears, which probably did save me falling off and I finished ninth, the same position as I had at Badminton.
"Having had so many disappointments
I remember the huge elation at getting round. John Buckingham had been my valet for all four rides and when I came out of the shower he came over, tweaked my tits and said, ‘Well done Mr Seaman, you did it.' The man who rode Foinavon, tweaking my tits. ‘Yes', I thought, ‘Seaman, you've finally cracked it.'"
Dido Harding, now chief-executive of Talk-Talk, will be best known for owning 1998 Gold Cup winner Cool Dawn and her sometimes interesting attempts to steer him in the early days. "Without doubts, completing in the Aintree Foxhunters on Unlimited Free in 2004 was the best day of my racing life, even better than winning the Gold Cup as an owner because I always preferred participating to spectating," she explains.
"I hate dentists and when I had a crown fitted recently I tried to remember jumping each fence. I remember meeting the first on a perfect stride and the feeling of surprise coming up through the horse. We both went ‘ooh'. We met The Chair on a long stride and that's about as good as it will ever get. Mick Fitzgerald (‘better than sex') was right. Afterwards even the most hard-bitten riders were as high as kites on the experience, even those who had taken crashing falls were thrilled at having jumped half the course.
"If someone said I could do it again tomorrow I'd drop everything to - though, of course, my family would sit on me not to do it. The greatest sadness was that I didn't get a single decent photo. I've got one where I'm a dot from the stands but I think the racing photographers were missing a trick that day, I'd have paid good money for one."
Lord Daresbury, now chairman of Aintree, won the Aintree Foxhunters in 1982 on Lone Soldier and, apart from his other duties, now annually watches any number of sons, between one and four, taking part. Last year his eldest son Thomas won when deputising for his injured younger brother, Oliver.
"It is the biggest buzz," he said. "The Foxhunters at Cheltenham is great, too, but it is the bridesmaid race of the day whereas the Aintree Foxhunters it is the signature race of the Thursday; the amateurs are in the spotlight. It really is a magic race."
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