The Aintree Fox Hunters' Chase is the amateur's Grand National. Cheltenham may have its roar, but the Aintree fences are the biggest in the business.
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 Fox Hunters’ 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 Fox Hunters’ 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.
AINTREE FOX HUNTERS’ CHASE – THE HISTORY
Anyway, who remembers a Topham winner when an Aintree Fox Hunters’ 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’ Fox Hunters’ 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 Fox Hunters’ Chase 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 Fox Hunters’ 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.