Dick Francis

Dick Francis  The late Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis, who died in February, 2010, at the age of 89, was a man of many talents. He was champion jockey in the 1953/54 National Hunt season, racing correspondent for the Sunday Express for 16 years and an international bestselling writer, winning the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel on three occasions.

However, for all his achievements, Francis has passed into Grand National folklore as the jockey of Devon Loch, whose dramatic collapse at Aintree, with the race at his mercy, in 1956 remains as much a mystery as it always was. Not that Francis was suspected of any wrongdoing or apportioned any blame for the incident; in fact, he burst into tears as the magnitude of his loss sank in.

Devon Loch, owned by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and trained by Peter Cazalet, had mastered his nearest pursuer, ESB, on the famously long run-in at Aintree, but as he approached the wings of the water jump – which is jumped just once during the National – on his inside, he pricked his ears. What happened next has been a matter for conjecture for decades but, for whatever reason, Devon Loch half fly-jumped into the air before slithering to the turf in an unceremonious belly-flop.

Francis believed that Devon Loch was simply overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd cheering him to the finish, but various other theories have been put forward over the years. Cramp and exhaustion, attempting to jump an imaginary fence, slipping on a muddy patch and even breaking wind violently as the result of an overtightened girth have all been suggested.

Carl Llewellyn

Carl Llewellyn  Nowadays, Carl Llewellyn is better known as assistant trainer to Nigel Twiston-Davies, to whom he was also stable jockey for 19 years. However, as a jockey Llewellyn rode 995 winners and won the Grand National twice, on Party Politics in 1992 and Earth Summit in 1988.

Trained in Lambourn by Nick Gaselee, Party Politics was a huge horse, standing 18.1 hands high, and had been ridden for most of his career by Andrew Adams. However, Adams had broken his wrist in a fall at Doncaster, so Party Politics was a chance ride for Llewellyn, who was just starting to make a name for himself after riding his second winner at the Cheltenham Festival the previous month. In the race itself, Party Politics was always prominent and, having take the lead from Romany King at the fourth last fence, ran on well under pressure on the run-in to beat that rallying rival by 2½ lengths. The eight-year-old proved a topical winner, too, his victory coming just two week before the General Election that year.

Earth Summit, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, was another chance ride for Llewellyn after regular partner Tom Jenks – who’d ridden him to victory in the Welsh National the previous December – broke his leg. Blessed with an abundance of stamina, the ten-year-old was in his element on the soft going. Having survived a mistake at the nineteenth fence, Llewellyn took up the running on Earth Summit at the fifth last and, along with Suny Bay, pulled clear of the remaining runners. It wasn’t until the final fence that Earth Summit took command but, as the 23lb weight concession took its toll on Suny Bay, he was ridden out to win by 11 lengths.

Reflecting on his two National victories, Llewellyn later said, “The first time I won it, I didn’t take it all in and it was a bit of a blur and I couldn’t really believe it had happened. I enjoyed the second win as I felt as confident as you can be with the ground and the horse.”

Lord Gyllene

Lord Gyllene  The 1997 Grand National will always be remembered as the one and only “Monday National”, after coded IRA bomb threats caused Aintree Racecourse to be evacuated and the race to be postponed by 48 hours on the previous Saturday. However, Steve Brookshaw – now retired from the training ranks but, at the time, in just his second season as a National Hunt trainer – will always remember the winner of that historic Grand National, Lord Gyllene. In fact, when interviewed 20 years later, Brookshaw said, “It was my 15 minutes of fame; the biggest day of my life.”

Owned by the late Sir Stanley Clarke, Lord Gyllene was a New Zealand-bred gelding who had previously completed a hat-trick at Uttoxeter, including the Singer & Friedland National Trial, and finished second, when favourite, in the Midlands Grand National, also at Uttoxeter. In the Grand National, Lord Gyllene was ridden by Tony Dobbin and, having taken the lead at the second fence, led the field a merry dance for two circuits of the vast course.

The eight-year-old jumped superbly throughout, although only narrowly avoided calamity at the water jump, when nearly carried out by a loose horse. He led by 6 lengths or so approaching the second last fence and in the last half mile pulled further and further clear, eventually winning by 25 lengths. His winning margin was the biggest since Red Rum romped home for his historic third National win in 1977. The gallant topweight, Suny Bay, who’d pursued him vainly for most of the way, finished second with 100/1 outside Camelot Knight third, a further 2 lengths away.

Lord Gyllene ran just twice more for Brookshaw, without distinction, and after two years off the course with injury was eventually retired, as a 13-year-old, in 2001. At the time, new trainer Martin Pipe – for whom Lord Gyllene never ran – said, “Lord Gyllene is not up to full training. His owner Sir Stanley Clarke and I agreed that retirement was the best thing and he will be given a lovely home.”

Brian Fletcher

Brian Fletcher  The late Brian Fletcher owes his place in the annals of Grand National primarily to his association with Red Rum, the most successful horse in the history of the famous race, whom he rode to victory in 1973 and 1974. However, Fletcher had his first ride in the Grand National, as a 19-year-old, in the infamous renewal of 1967, won by Foinavon. At one stage, Fletcher lost his mount, Red Alligator, altogether in the melee at the twenty-third fence, but eventually remounted, jumped the fence at the third attempt and finished a distant third.

Fletcher said later, “…I would have won the race if I had had a clear run.” His comment appeared justified because the following year he rode Red Alligator to a 20-length victory over Moidore’s Token. Fletcher rode Red Alligator in the Grand National again in 1969 and 1970, but failed to complete the course on both occasions. In 1971, Fletcher failed to complete the course again; his mount, The Inventor, refused at the fourth last fence.

The following year, at Stockton Racecourse, sustained a broken arm and a fractured skull in a fall in a novices’ chase. He lay unconscious for ten days and was sidelined for ten months in all but, against medical advice, regained his licence and resumed race-riding.

In the absence of Tommy Stack, who was unavailable, Fletcher was asked to ride Red Rum in the 1973 Grand National by trainer Donald “Ginger” McCain. The footage of Red Rum and Fletcher catching the gallant Crisp, who’d been 30 lengths ahead at one stage, in the shadow of the winning post has been shown over and over again. Red Rum and Fletcher repeated the feat in 1974, with a convincing win over L’Escargot, and went very close to completing a unique treble in 1975, when only giving best to the same horse.

Of course, Red Rum would go on to complete an unprecedented treble in Grand National, but was ridden on that occasion by Tommy Stack. By that time, though, Fletcher had not only lost the ride on Red Rum after an acrimonious falling out with McCain, but actually retired from riding on health grounds.