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.
WINNERS ARE MADE ON THE HUNTING FIELD
My father Roddy, a professional trainer, won the Aintree Fox Hunters’ 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 Fox Hunters’. 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 before eventually finishing second.
For years any horse finishing in the first four in the Aintree Fox Hunters’ 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 Fox Hunters’ 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 Fox Hunters’. Now 40,000 come, there’s a tremendous atmosphere and the fences still need jumping.”