‘It was like a battlefield’ – 50 years on from Foinavon’s sensational National win

Chris Cook
Foinavon, a 100-1 shot ridden by John Buckingham, wins the 1967 Grand National at Aintree. Photograph: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images

‘It’s not that kind of race any more, things don’t happen like they did years ago.” Ah, the familiar lament of the old-time jockey when the “softened-up” Grand National comes round again. Except that these words were uttered by Eddie Harty half a century ago, mere months before the most extraordinary of all Aintree stories, the 23rd fence mayhem that gifted victory to the 100-1 shot Foinavon.

Harty laughs as he recalls his assessment of the race, intended to convince an owner that their horse, which had just won a minor prize at Plumpton, was not really good enough for a modern National. There was no point going there hoping for luck; there wouldn’t be enough drama to stop one of the classier animals from scooting ahead.

So imagine the surprise, not to say dismay, of the 29-year-old Harty when he saw the race essentially being brought to a halt as he approached the smallest fence aboard Solbina. Two loose horses, who had just delivered perfectly competent leaps as they led the field over Becher’s Brook, slowed suddenly on approach to the next obstacle, turned right as they reached it and ran along the take-off side, piling up almost every remaining runner as they did so. “They folded up in front of me like a pack of cards,” Harty recalls. “You know the way a gambler does it, when they pick one card off the table and it turns all the others over? They did that.”

When the field for this year’s National lines up on Saturday, it will be 50 years to the day since Harty learned that the famous old race still had teeth. This week, a handful of the jockeys of 1967 shared their memories with The Observer of an event that became part of British sporting folklore, a tortoise and the hares for the TV age. “It’s my only claim to fame,” says Johnny Leech, who rode Rutherfords. “I’m on the telly every year.” Leech, leading when everything went wrong, was first to be unshipped, being thrown forward over his mount’s shoulder as Rutherfords sensibly slammed on the brakes.

“I’d been a bit worried about those loose horses, going down to Becher’s,” Leech says. “I thought: ‘I hope these don’t do anything stupid’. They jumped it and I thought: ‘Oh, that’s it now.’ Then at the next, they stuffed us all.”

Stan Hayhurst, who was alongside Leech on Castle Falls, says: “My fella got stuck on top of the fence. He made a gallant effort but he couldn’t get over it. Then, with the horses coming behind, he got pushed over.” Hayhurst had beaten his mount to the landing side by several seconds. “ I made off like a sprinter, ’cos I thought: ‘Christ, 40 horses are coming.’ I ran off to the side, turned round and thought: ‘Hello! What’s going on?’”

Of the first 20 runners to reach the fence, not one made it over with their jockey still aboard at the first attempt. What Hayhurst saw over on the take-off side was a baffled blend of people and horses getting in each other’s way. “One of the unsettling things about it was that people were screaming and shouting, the noise they were making … ”

“It was like a battlefield,” says Nobby Howard, an amateur jockey and Grand National enthusiast, who had bought Scottish Final to give himself a ride in the race and modelled his silks on those worn by Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. “It was a dull old day and it was as if you were in a fog, with the steam rising from the horses. You couldn’t see.”

“It was like Ballinasloe Horse Fair,” is Harty’s version. “There were people riding horses and people chasing horses and horses being held.”

“One minute I’m going into the fence and fancying me chance,” recalls Stan Mellor, who rode The Fossa. “The next, I was sat in the middle of the fence with all these horses coming on.” Having extricated himself, Mellor chased after the wrong horse, fooled by the sight of ‘his’ bespoke tack that in fact another jockey had copied. “I was literally buried in the fence,” says David Mould, who had the burden of riding for Hollywood royalty, Gregory Peck, present in Liverpool to cheer for Different Class. “I climbed out and couldn’t find the horse anywhere. It was something unbelievable. There were horses galloping up and down everywhere.”

Most of them were moving faster than Foinavon but the old lag’s steady pace served him well as he picked his way through equine flotsam and became the first runner to clear the fence with his jockey, John Buckingham, still on top. By the time Terry Biddlecombe got Greek Scholar to trample over the remains of the 23rd, yelling: “Come on, boys, there’s only one gone on!”, Foinavon had a lead of about 200 yards.

Nimrod Wilkinson, who had pulled up Forecastle after the 16th fence, remembers he was alongside Buckingham at the time. “I told him: ‘I’ll jump this one and not any more, we’re too far behind’. He said: ‘I want to jump Becher’s again...’”

The Foinavon legend declares he was so unfancied that neither his trainer nor owner made the effort to be at Aintree. This, it can be revealed, has always irritated John Kempton, the trainer in question. He would have ridden Foinavon if the horse had been given just a few pounds more to carry; as it was, he felt obliged to go to Worcester to partner a promising young horse of his who duly won. Foinavon’s owner, Kempton reports, was a pools concessionaire whose work prevented him from getting to the races on a Saturday in early April.

“We did think he had a chance, or we wouldn’t have run him,” adds Kempton, whose moment of glory was marked once more by celebrations yesterday in the tiny Berkshire village of Compton where Foinavon was trained. “We bought the horse especially for the National and worked very hard to get him jumping better. He was massively lucky, of course.”

And the unlucky ones? Half the field had some sort of claim to that status. Richard Pitman, whose race ended at the third, recalls other jockeys being “like kids in a chocolate factory” afterwards as they gaily swapped stories of being knocked over at “the one after Becher’s”.

“My horse, Kapeno, had a bad record of falling at Becher’s,” recalls Nick Gaselee. “When we got over it that last time, I thought, here we go …”

“I would have won,” says Stan Murphy, rider of Leedsy. “I was only cantering, really going well.” In similar vein, Mould adds: “I came back saying I’d have won. I was cantering, absolutely cantering.”

In another sense, all were lucky because the worst injury recorded was a couple of nicks to the back of a hock. On his way to the racecourse stables to check over Scottish Final that evening, Howard was asked to help an owner find his horse. It was Gregory Peck, wanting to know if Howard had seen Different Class in the ruckus and was he OK?

“He was a lovely person from what I saw of him,” Howard says. “People were coming up and talking to him, he was very gracious. There was a great romance about the Grand National in those days.”

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