There are 494 yards between the last fence and the winning post in the Grand National at Aintree – and, for about 480 of them, I was, last Saturday afternoon, the happiest man in the world. But the last battle is the only one to count – and for that, for those final, ghastly 14 yards, Carrickbeg and I had nothing left. So there, in a split second, the dream of glory became a nightmare and Pat Buckley swept past on Mr P. B. Raymond’s Ayala to win the great steeplechase.
The pair of them won it fair and square because, together, with certain defeat staring them between the eyes, they had the courage and endurance to go on fighting what was an apparently hopeless battle.
A horse with slightly less bottomless stamina than Ayala, or a man slightly less strong, fit and determined than Buckley, would never have been able to seize the chance when it came.
At the time – at that bitter moment when Ayala’s head appeared at my knee – I wished them both at the bottom of the deep, blue sea. Now, with admiration and only a little envy, I salute them for winning, deservedly, a truly wonderful race – a race, I think, as thrilling and spectacular as any Grand National since the war.
But besides the winner there was another hero. At the age of seven, in only his second season as a ‘chaser, Carrickbeg had outjumped and outgalloped 46 older, more experienced horses for nearly 4 ½ miles.
Steady as the rock of Gibraltar from the first fence to the last, he was never for one single moment in danger of falling and, until his last reserves gave out ten strides before the end, he had answered my every call with cheerful, unhesitating obedience.
Unless he gives it me, I never expect to have a better ride at Aintree or anywhere else, and for those 9½ unforgettable minutes I offer him my heartfelt thanks.
They had begun as, with the long, nerve-racking preliminaries over at last, Mr Alec Marsh got the huge field off to a perfect start.
A bitter, biting wind had greeted us as we left the weighing room and, by the time we turned in front of the stands to canter down, my spirits for one were at their lowest ebb.
Carrickbeg restored them slightly – striding out like a lion on the way to the post – but the last moments before a National will never be anything but a dreadful, goldfish-bowl ordeal and only
when the first few fences are safely crossed can you begin to forget how much is at stake and settle down to enjoy the greatest thrill the sport of steeplechasing has to offer.
After our dismal experience together at Cheltenham, those first few fences were, for Carrickbeg and me, especially important. But if he felt the same misgivings as his rider, Carrickbeg concealed them well. He measured the first to an inch and, even more encouraging, hit the top of the open ditch quite hard – and somehow made it feel no stiffer than a soft French hurdle.
As expected, Out And About had led from the start, but Josh Gifford held him well and the pace they set was nothing extraordinary. As the red and white flag fluttered its awe-inspiring warning over Becher’s Brook, Jonjo, French Lawyer, Forty Secrets, Chavara and Dandy Tim were in the leading group – and Carrickbeg sailed over like a bird not far behind to land far out beyond the ditch and gallop on without a check.
Good Gracious fell at Becher’s, Magic Tricks had gone at the first, Look Happy at the second, Merganser and Wingless at the third and Solonace somewhere thereabouts. But for most, as we swung round the Canal Turn, the fences were setting no great problems.
I personally had not seen one faller until Connie II ploughed through the tenth beside me, but the sickening crash she made was a violent reminder that this is still Aintree, where to take one liberty too many can mean a sudden end to all your hopes.
Ayala, never far from the leaders, had, in fact, taken one at the Canal – carving a huge chunk from the fence, but failing completely to disturb either his own or Pat Buckley’s equilibrium.
I watched, with admiration, their recovery – and little knew how dear it was to cost me by and by.
On the long run back towards the stands, loose horses began to be a problem. Merganser, riderless, was a serious thorn in Josh Gifford’s flesh, constantly unsettling Out And About and making
him pull harder than ever, and, as we galloped towards the Chair – never an enjoyable moment – Wingless, dodging gaily about in front of Carrickbeg, made the towering cliff of the great fence an
even less welcoming prospect than usual.
But all was well and now, with the water safely crossed, I found myself, for the first time ever, in a position from which the National had to be considered as a race – not merely as a struggle
for survival. And the next 100 yards – swinging out into the country – were, in a way, more exciting than any in the whole 4½ miles.
There, deciding that the moment had come to get a bit closer, I picked Carrickbeg up for the first time - and the effortless power with which he surged up towards the leaders suddenly brought
home the unbelievable truth that we were in the race with a real chance.
At Becher’s the second time, in nine Grand Nationals out of ten, the shape of the finish can already be seen. And so it was now, for although Out And About was still in front together with Loyal Tan, French Lawyer and Dandy Tim, Ayala was close behind them, Springbok was improving steadily and, as Carrickbeg landed over the Brook, the leaders were not ten lengths ahead of us.
At the fence after Becher’s, Loyal Tan and Dandy Tim dropped out exhausted and by the Canal there were (although I certainly did not realise it at the time) only six left in the race with a real chance. They were Out And About, now disputing the lead with French Lawyer, Hawa’s Song, Springbok, Ayala and Carrickbeg.
This list may be wronging some who were, in fact, still close enough to win at the Canal, but the fact is that from Valentine’s on I saw only five horses.
And now it was a race in deadly earnest – no longer time to look about or manoeuvre for a clear run, but kick and push and get ground where you can.
The four fences from Valentine’s to Anchor Bridge were as exciting as any I ever jumped – and at one of them, the fourth from home, the dice rolled fractionally against Carrickbeg for the first time and only time in the whole race.
Understandably, having led almost all the way, Out And About was tiring now and, as French Lawyer went on, he crashed low through the fence and fell.
Perhaps three lengths behind, confronted with a gaping hole and a cloud of flying twigs, Carrickbeg hesitated for a split second, failed to take off when I asked, scrambled through the gap – and had then to swerve past his fallen rival.
These things happen so fast – and are so quickly driven from one’s mind by what comes after – that it is all too easy to exaggerate their importance.
The newsreel film does not, unfortunately, show the incident in full, but it does, I think, prove that whereas Carrickbeg was bang with the leaders five from home, one fence later, after Out
And About’s fall, he had definitely lost at least a couple of lengths. Whatever the truth I do not offer it as an excuse. Such things happen in all Grand Nationals and the winner is the one who best overcomes them.
Probably, in any case, I should have given Carrickbeg a better chance to recover before asking him to go and win. But, passing Anchor Bridge, with the second last in sight, I saw Gerry Scott go for his whip on Springbok, saw the favourite stagger sideways, beaten – and, with Carrickbeg strong under me, it seemed that the time had come.
Until you have tried to ride a finish up it no one, I think, can fully appreciate just how long and wearisome the run-in at Aintree can be after 4 miles and 30 fences.
In the back of my mind now, as I sent Carrickbeg past Ayala and Springbok to join Hawa’s Song at the second last, there was the foolish fear that something with a better tum of speed – Owen’s Sedge, for instance – would come from behind and beat us all.
In fact, of course, what I should have feared was the dreadful strain put upon any horse who, after jumping for 4 miles, finds himself in front with neither fence nor company to help him up that final desperate, staring straight.
Next time, perhaps, I shall know better, but now, as Carrickbeg swept gallantly over the last with Ayala at his quarters, it still seemed possible. His stride had still not faltered and, straightening round the elbow half-way home with the roar of the crowd rising to a crescendo in our ears, the only feeling I remember was one of wild, incredulous hope that the dream first dreamt on a nursery rocking horse long ago was really coming true.
Until this moment, sustained by my horse’s strength and by the heat of battle, I had felt no real physical strain, but now, all at once, the cold, clammy hand of exhaustion closed its grip on my thighs and arms.
Even to swing the whip had become an effort and the only thing that kept me going was the unbroken rhythm of Carrickbeg’s heroic head, nodding in time with his stride. And suddenly, even
that was gone.
With a hundred yards to go and still no sound of pursuit, the prize seemed within our grasp. Eighty, seventy, sixty perhaps – and then it happened. In the space of a single stride I felt the last
ounce of Carrickbeg’s energy drain away and my own with it. One moment we were a living, working combination, the next, a struggling, beaten pair. There was still hope – but not for long.
As we passed Ayala before the second last, Carrickbeg had, to Pat Buckley himself, looked the winner bar a fall. ‘Go on John,’ he found the breath and good nature to say, but saying it, did not
for one second relax his efforts. He had been riding hard for longer than I but, with the strength and determination of youth, managed to keep Ayala in the race.
Half-way up the run-in, still two lengths behind, it must have looked as hopeless to him as it did, I believe, from the stands. But he never gave up and, as Carrickbeg began to falter, pulled Ayala out for a final desperate effort.
The gallant chestnut cannot I think, have quickened much if at all, but the depths of his stamina were as yet unplumbed, and so abrupt and complete was Carrickbeg’s collapse that in half a dozen strides the gap was closed and the race over.
To my dying day I shall never forget the sight of Ayala’s head beside my knee. Two heartbeats later he was half a length in front and, although I dropped my hands before the post, I can honestly promise any aggrieved supporter that it made not one yard of difference.
A wonderful race had been gallantly won and, though perhaps it is not for me to say it, almost equally gallantly lost …
I hope I shall be forgiven for holding over description of other events last week to our next issue. Perhaps I am prejudiced, but it seems to me that the 1963 Grand National was big enough to fill these pages on its own!Back