Amateur jockeys have played a huge part in making the Grand National the race it is today, with their courage and determination providing moments of pure gold says Marcus Armytage
There are very few major sports in which amateurs can compete against professionals at the highest level and, occasionally, win. But jump racing is one of them, as Sam Waley- Cohen (or Mr Sam Waley-Cohen as he was in the racecard) reminded us in April 2022 when he became the first amateur for 32 years to win the Grand National. The course at Aintree may have evolved over the decades to something less testing than it once was, but the National nevertheless still takes a lot of winning: you still have to negotiate 30 fences, beat 39 other starters and the handicapper swears it is a ‘better race’ these days. (How could you get a better race than Red Rum versus Crisp in 1973?) But from Captain Martin Becher, after whom the eponymous brook was named after he fell into the ditch from Conrad in the first running, to Waley- Cohen 183 years later, amateurs have played a huge part in the rich tradition of the world’s greatest race. Until stiffer riding qualifications were introduced in 1989, which have been ratcheted up ever since, amateurs with no earthly chance of winning, riding little more than a hunter chaser bought for a three-figure sum for a bet or a challenge, provided the race with many of its most colourful moments.
HOW AMATEUR JOCKEYS MADE THE GRAND NATIONAL THE RACE IT IS TODAY
Though Waley-Cohen, a full-time businessman at the helm of a dentistry empire and a ‘proper’ amateur riding his own Noble Yeats, was only the sixth member of the unpaid ranks to win the National since World War II, the part-timers have a pretty good record in it. He was actually the 41st amateur to win (in 174 runnings) since Captain Becher’s ducking in the ditch, from which he is supposed to have emerged saying, “Water should never be taken without brandy.”
During the early years up until World War II, in the era of gentlemen and players, amateurs won the race nearly as often as the professionals – beginning with Bartholomew Bretherton, who was victorious in the second running on Jerry in 1840. Indeed, from 1839 until 1842 it was a stipulation of the race that horses had to be ridden by ‘gentlemen riders’. It was a rule that was totally ignored. Lottery, the first winner, was ridden by a professional named Jem Mason.
Throughout the 19th century honours were pretty even, with professionals winning 35 to the 26 won by amateurs, four of whom were serving Army officers. Three amateurs – Thomas Pickernell, Tommy Beasley and Jack Anthony – are among the ‘magnificent seven’ jockeys to have taken the honours three times apiece.
Pickernell (Anatis, 1860; The Lamb, 1871; and Pathfinder, 1875) had emigrated to Tasmania as a sheep farmer, took up steeplechasing, got bored with the sheep (who can blame him?) returned home, rode under the alias Mr Thomas and competed in 17 Nationals. He only retired aged 43 after a fall that left him blind in one eye. Beasley (Empress, 1880; Woodbrook, 1881; and Frigate, 1889) was one of four Irish brothers who rode in 34 Nationals between them. He’d won the Irish Derby three times before he took up jumping. Amateurs cannot ride against professionals on the Flat now. The Welshman Anthony rode his three winners (Glenside, 1911; Ally Sloper, 1915; and Troytown, 1920) in his first five rides in the race. Ironically, having survived the annual insanity that was then the National, he died as a result of falling from his hack in 1954.
But, as racing has become ever more professional, the balance has swung in favour of paid jockeys, so much so that had Noble Yeats not won last spring and Waley-Cohen had retired with only some notable near misses to his name, then the wait for the 41st might have been interminable. That is as much to do with how people use amateur riding now as the race itself. Back in the 1980s and 1990s there was a core of amateurs, like myself, who were experienced, reasonably competent and never had any intention of turning pro. Four or five of us would ride in each National (10% of the field) and we would win it roughly every 10 years – what you would statistically expect.
Today, apart from a few hardcore Irish amateurs who predominantly ride in point-to-points, as soon as an amateur rides a few winners in Britain his inclination is to turn professional, and very few amateurs ever get experienced enough to ride around Aintree. If only one rides in the race, then amateurs winning it once every 40 or 50 years is what might be termed par for the course now.
But in the years when I was growing up it was not just the American banker Charlie Fenwick, who I backed at 40/1 in 1980 and who won after setting off on Ben Nevis with the instructions “keep remounting” ringing in his ears, or, two years later, 48-year-old farmer (the oldest winning jockey) Dick Saunders on Grittar who inspired me (and employed me as his farm student on £29 a week). It was the cast of amateurs who annually kept the BBC’s Sportsnight previews of the race in business that made me want to be part of the Grand National. These included the 6ft 4in Malcolm Batters, who rode Martinstown in the 1981 race, and the flamboyant Irishman Aidan O’Connell.
A point-to-point rider who worked in a pub owned by Martinstown’s eccentric owner, Mita Easton, Batters worked as a diver on oil rigs in the summer so he could ride in the winter, and could only do 10st 7lb on a week’s notice.
In 1981, Martinstown was due to run at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day with Colin Tinkler booked to ride because of a low weight. At the end of evening stables the night before, Easton gave Batters £20, apologised that he was not riding the next day and told him to enjoy New Year’s Eve. The next morning he drove Martinstown to Cheltenham. When Easton declared Martinstown, the lady taking the declarations asked, “Same as usual?” to which she absent-mindedly replied, “Yes”. The misunderstanding meant Batters, the ‘usual’ jockey, was declared to ride. He was in the lads’ canteen when the call came over the public address for him to go to the weighing room. The Jockey Club insisted he had to ride because he had been declared, and Easton’s excuse that he could not because of a ‘broken leg’ was disproved when he walked in without a limp.
With Batters’ 7lb claim, Martinstown should have carried 9st 7lb. Instead the barman weighed out at 11st 3lb – 24lb overweight. He won in a photo finish, and the horse was consequently allotted 10st 7lb in the National, enabling Batters to ride him. He was on course for a clear round behind Aldaniti when a loose horse knocked him into the last ditch.
O’Connell, who hit the headlines by marrying his horse on Equality Day in Ireland in 2015 – “it’s not often a man gets to marry a partner 40 years younger” – had three attempts on horses that cost between £1 and £1,350, and always backed himself at big odds to get round. He never did.
Of course, no one better exemplified the courage and determination of amateur jockeys than the Spanish nobleman Beltrán, 18th Duke of Alburquerque, who dreamed of winning the race when he saw it on a cinema newsreel in Madrid aged eight. His life’s ambition may not have been fulfilled but it earned him a prominent chapter in Stephen Pile’s Book of Heroic Failures. He rode in it seven times, suffering an appalling catalogue of injuries. After a while, the nurses in Walton Hospital would reserve a bed for him on National day and he would normally fill it by mid-afternoon.
On his last ride, aged 57, the Duke set off on Nereo with a collarbone that he had broken only a week earlier. Despite this, he finally managed to complete the course in eighth behind Red Rum. It was joked that with only one arm he was less able to interfere with his mount.
The unluckiest man in National history was, surely, another amateur: Lord Mildmay, after whom Aintree’s park course is named. His legacy to racing was much more than that, however. It was he who charmed the young Princess Elizabeth and her mother into buying Monaveen, their first horse, who ran in the 1950 National for them. From then on, the Queen Mother, as she would become, stuck with jumpers, the future Queen to the Flat. Mildmay was 41, two months after his last National ride, when he drowned taking his daily swim in the sea at Mothecombe in Devon.
Twice, but for ill fortune, he would almost certainly have won the National. In 1936, riding 100/1 outsider Davy Jones, he led all the way and was still going strong when he pecked at the second last, the reins pinged undone and, with no means of steering apart from his whip, Mildmay was unable to keep him in at the last, presenting the race to Reynoldstown. In 1948, he was riding a more tactical race on Cromwell when he was paralysed by an attack of cramp in his neck crossing the Melling Road for the last time, the result of breaking it in a fall the year before. With his head slumped forward he was no help to Cromwell, who remarkably still finished third.
Waley-Cohen had a better record at Aintree than any professional, having won seven races over the fences. He was placed four times in the National before winning it on the 50/1 shot on what he had decided two days earlier would be his last ride. Way to go, as they say. Waley-Cohen is firmly of the belief that unlike all other races, there are advantages when it comes to the National or, rather, fewer disadvantages than there normally are when a part-timer rides against professionals.
“Because professional jockeys can only ride over the Grand National fences four times a year, relatively it is more of a level playing field with the amateurs,” he says. “They don’t know the course much better. At Cheltenham, which they have ridden a thousand times and where they know every blade of grass, they get a huge advantage. And because an amateur might not have many rides between Cheltenham and Aintree, there is more time for them to focus on the National. I think that’s helpful.
“I also think that point-to-point and hunting is quite a good foundation. Racing on a normal course is quite formulaic, everyone keeps in a straight line and knows the rules, but with 40 horses there are suddenly horses in all directions and you need to keep an eye on what’s happening around you.”
But the absolute key to his epic win, he insists, was being on the right horse. “People didn’t think he was the right horse, because it had been so long  since a seven-year-old had won it, but it was such a small sample I didn’t buy that. It’s a bit like saying a grey filly has never won it – because they have never run in it. The race is now more suited than ever to an up-and-coming youngster than an older horse on his way down.” A year on, has the enormity of his success sunk in? “Yes, but it still seems completely unbelievable at the same time – I have to remind myself it actually happened.”