The late John Thorne, was tragically killed in a point-to-point fall in 1982, will always be remembered as the amateur rider who, at the age of 54, nearly fulfilled his lifelong ambition of winning the Grand National. Thorne was, of course, the jockey of Spartan Missile, the horse who finished second to Aldaniti in the 1981 Grand National. Champion jockey John Francome offered to take to take the mount in the National, but Thorne declined, opting to come out of retirement to ride Spartan Missile himself, at 3lb overweight.
Whether Francome could have won on Spartan Missile, who was eventually beaten 4 lengths, has been hotly debated over the years. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Thorne bred, owned and trained the horse, not to mention having ridden him to victory in Fox Hunters’ Chase at Aintree, over the National fences, so had every right to ride him in the National.
Spartan Missile was a big, strong, powerful horse and a good jumper, characteristics which made him the leading hunter chaser of his day and, arguably, of all time. He started 8/1 favourite for the 1981 Grand National, although Thorne insisted that the bookmakers were taking an “exaggerated view” of his chances. In any event, the “old bloke” – as Jenny Pitman derogatorily called Thorne when discussing the race – had the ride of his life in the National.
Although hampered, more than once, and left lying out of his ground from Valentine’s Brook on the second circuit, Spartan Missile gradually crept into the race and jumped the final fence in third place behind Aldaniti and Royal Mail. Halfway up the run-in Thorne conjured a “storming finish” from the nine-year-old but, despite closing to within 2 lengths of Aldaniti at one point, Spartan Missile had to settle for second place.