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.”
Silver Birch registered a remarkable victory in the 2007 Grand National, not because he wasn’t entitled to win, nor because his narrow defeat of McKelvey was anything out of the ordinary, but because his fledgling trainer, Gordon Elliot, had only saddled three winners, and none of them in his native Ireland. Elliot, 29, had only taken out his training licence in early 2006 but, nevertheless, became the youngest trainer ever to win the Grand National.
Three seasons earlier, when trained by Paul Nicholls, Silver Birch had won the Becher Chase, over 3 miles 3 furlongs, on the National Course at Aintree and the Welsh National, over 3 miles 5 furlongs, at Chepstow. He had been favourite for the Grand National before injury ruled him out, but when he returned, after an absence of 394 days, he failed to complete the course twice in three starts before falling at the Chair in the 2006 Grand National, won by Numbersixvalverde.
After finishing a one-paced third, of three finishers, in an open point-to-point at Castletown-Geoghegan the following November, Silver Birch was sold out of Nicholls’ yard for £20,000 at Doncaster Sales and joined Gordon Elliot. His new owner, Kildare farmer Brian Walsh described him as “in a right old state” but, gradually nursed back to health, Silver Birch finished second in what is now the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival prior to another crack at the National.
Ridden by Robert Power, Silver Birch jumped superbly in the National, bar a slight peck on landing after Becher’s Brook on the second circuit. He led over the final fence and stayed on well on the run-in to hold the strong-finishing McKelvey by three-quarters of a length, with Slim Picking a further 1¼ lengths away in third place.