Toby Balding

Toby Balding The late Gerald “Toby” Balding, who died in 2014 at the age of 78, had the distinction of winning the Grand National twice, with Highland Wedding in 1969 and Little Polveir in 1989. Indeed, in his long and distinguished career, he saddled over 2,000 winners, including Beech Road and Morley Street in the Champion Hurdle, in 1989 and 1991, respectively, and Cool Ground in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1992.

His first Grand National winner, Highland Wedding, had completed the National Course twice before, finishing eighth behind Anglo in 1966 and seventh behind Red Alligator in 1986. He arrived at Aintree in 1969 fresh from his third victory in four years – the 1968 renewal was abandoned – in the Eider Chase, over 4 miles and 122 yards at Newcastle in February and, in the absence of regular jockey Owen McNally, was ridden by Eddie Harty.

By now a 12-year-old, Highland Wedding was known to be as stubborn as a mule, on occasions, at home, but as Balding later explained, “He wasn’t a villain, just a bit independent so there was no question of us bullying him. We just had to wait for him.” In any event, on firm going, Highland Wedding consented to put his best foot forward and came home 12 lengths ahead of 50/1 outsider Steel Chance, ridden by Richard Pitman.

Little Polveir, too, had previous experience of the National Course, having finished ninth behind West Tip in 1986, but had fallen at the Chair and unseated his rider at Valentine’s Brook on the second circuit in two subsequent attempts. He didn’t join Toby Balding until January, 1989, but was ridden on his first two starts by young amateur rider Philip Fenton which, according to his trainer, “he enjoyed enormously after the pros had knocked lumps out of him in the past”.

Ridden in the National by professional Jimmy Frost, at 3lb overweight, Little Polveir took the lead at the final fence on the first circuit, the water jump, and led, or disputed the lead, for the rest of the way. In fact, after Becher’s Brook second time around he was never headed and, with a riderless horse for company, came home 7 lengths ahead of West Tip. Balding said later, “I don’t think any of my horses ever left for the races in better shape than Little Polveir as he headed for Aintree.”

Richard Pitman

Richard Pitman Richard Pitman, 75, has been involved with the Grand National, in one form or another for over five decades. He is, of course, the erstwhile husband of Jenny Pitman, who became the first woman to train a Grand National winner in 1983. However, Richard had his first ride in the Grand National aboard the 13-year-old Dorimont in 1967. Dorimont had won the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival three years earlier, but was a 100/1 outsider on the day. Replacing the injured William Shand Kydd, the 24-year-old Pitman, by his own admission, “forgot” about the open ditch guarding the third fence and his mount took a crashing fall, long before the mêlée at the twenty-third fence presented Foinavon with the race.

In 1973, Pitman was involved in one of the most famous, and heartbreaking, finishes in Grand National history when Crisp, ridden by Pitman, was caught in the dying strides by Red Rum, ridden by Brian Fletcher, having been 20 lengths ahead jumping Becher’s Brook on the second circuit. “The Black Kangaroo”, as Crisp was affectionately known, was attempting to concede 23lb to Red Rum and, while he may not have won the National, his bold, attacking style won the hearts of the racing public.

Pitman made his first television appearance for the BBC at the Grand National in 1976 and remained part of the team thereafter. He was involved in the coverage of the so-called “National that never was” – in which Esha Ness, trained by Jenny Pitman, was first past the post – in 1993 and the bomb scare, which led to the evacuation of Aintree and the only Monday National, in 1997. In 2018, Pitman featured on a panel of experts on an ITV Grand National Special, which included “The Grand National Race of Champions”; in the virtual race, Crisp finished fourth, behind L’Escargot, Red Rum and Hedgehunter.

Jonjo O’Neill

Jonjo O’Neill Jockey-turned-trainer John Joseph “Jonjo” O’Neill rode eight times in the Grand National, but never completed the course. In fact, he never got beyond Becher’s Brook on the second circuit.

His first ride in the National was aboard Glenkiln, the lesser fancied of two horses owned by Noel Le Mare, in 1973. Glenkiln fell at the Chair, while his stable companion, Red Rum, ridden by Brian Fletcher, pulled off a dramatic, last-gasp victory over the gallant Crisp. O’Neill had some well-fancied rides in the race, including the ill-fated favourites, Rag Trade and Alverton, in 1978 and 1979, respectively, although he later admitted, “Never at any stage did I think I was going to win any of them.”

O’Neill retired as a jockey in 1986, but even joining the training ranks did little, or nothing, to improve his fortune in the Grand National. In 2004, Clan Royal was only headed in the final hundred yards after jockey Liam Cooper lost his whip at the fourth last fence, eventually finishing second, beaten 3 lengths, behind Amberleigh House. In 2005, despite a broken breast girth and slipping saddle, the same horse, ridden by A.P. McCoy, was 6 lengths ahead and travelling ominously well when carried out by a loose horse at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit; Simply Gifted, ridden by Brian Harding, finished third, at 66/1, in the same race.

In total, O’Neill saddled 14 runners in the National without success but, in 2010, his luck changed. Don’t Push It, again ridden by A.P. McCoy was backed into 10/1 joint favourite and, having led over the last, forged clear in the closing stages to beat Black Apalachi by 5 lengths. O’Neill later reflected on the victory, saying, “I think we’ll always remember the magical day he won the Grand National as it was one of the greatest afternoons in the life of myself, [owner] J.P. [McManus] and A.P. as we had all been trying to win the race for so many years”.