Obituary: George Owen
Thursday 02 October 1997
It was not just as the trainer of some high-class steeplechasers that George Owen left his mark on the sport of National Hunt racing. Owen's Cheshire base was the springboard from which three champion jump jockeys, as well as a champion amateur, launched their careers.
The most famous jockey to graduate from the Owen ranks was Dick Francis, now better known as a world-famous author, although he will be also remembered as the jockey of the Queen Mother's Devon Loch, who inexplicably did the splits when about to win the Grand National.
As well as Francis, the other champion professionals to start their career with Owen were Tim Brookshaw and Stan Mellor. It was Mellor who partnered perhaps Owen's best horse as a trainer, Sandy Abbot, to victory in the 1963 National Two-Mile Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. While Sandy Abbot was Owen's best horse as a trainer, it was another chaser, Russian Hero, who gave him his most famous victory when landing the Grand National in 1949.
He achieved a fair share of big race success as a rider, too, most notably when winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1939, the last pre-war running of steeplechasing's Blue Riband event.
Owen was born on Christmas Day in 1907 in Ledsham, a village near Chester, and he was to spend his entire career, both as rider and trainer, based in the Cheshire area. Coming as he did from a farming family, it was little surprise that Owen, who was educated at Ellesmere College in Shropshire, took an active interest from an early age in equine pursuits. His particular interest was hunting, and he was involved in the local Wirral Harriers from the age of 10.
He was only 18 when he started riding competitively as an amateur. His biggest success under that status came when winning the 1930 Cheltenham Foxhunters' Chase on Melleray's Belle. While riding among the unpaid ranks, Owen also enjoyed a number of successes with the North Yorkshire trainer Walter Easterby, the uncle of the successful trainers Mick and Peter Easterby. Owen turned professional as a jockey in 1932.
Not long before war broke out, he had established an impressive reputation as a leading National Hunt rider. That reputation was capped with the 1939 Cheltenham Gold Cup victory of Brendan's Cottage. He was taking on the previous year's Gold Cup winner, Morse Code, but ran on well up the hill to defeat the defending champion by five lengths, the pair having jumped the last together. Cheltenham was a successful course for Owen, who also won that year's Grand Annual Chase with The Professor II.
He began training in 1945 with a small string based at Larche in Cheshire. It was a year later that his first jump jockey protege, Dick Francis, recently demobilised from the RAF, joined him. Francis's first ride for the trainer was Russian Hero, who was at a stage of his racing career where his subsequent status of Grand National hero would have seemed far too fanciful.
In another ironic link between Francis and Russian Hero, the jockey had actually finished second to the Owen chaser in the 1949 National, when he was riding a horse called Roimond. Earlier in both horse and jockey's careers, Francis had tended Russian Hero through the night to prevent an attack of colic becoming fatal.
Russian Hero, who had been regarded an unlikely stayer for the gruelling Aintree spectacular, was sent off a 66-1 outsider when winning the National. He fell at the first fence when trying to win the race for the second year running, an uncanny fate which has befallen other National winners such as Aldaniti and Hallo Dandy.
The National was a race in which Owen made frequent attempts to repeat that success but never quite succeeded. Martinique was sixth for him in the 1956 National, while he had the second and fourth, Badanloch and Tea Friend, in 1960, the first year the race was televised live, when it was won by Merryman II. Another of his National winners, Peacetown, who had won a smaller race over the famous fences, the Topham Trophy, led for much of the way in 1964, when he was third to Team Spirit and Purple Silk.
Another again of Owen's best horses, Two Springs, started favourite for the 1970 National but fell at the third fence before going on to finish sixth to Specify in the 1971 running.
Owen, who trained for the 15 years of his career in Tiverton, also in Cheshire, was regarded as an extremely loyal man to work for. As well as starting the careers of Francis, Brookshaw, and Mellor, he also provided a great deal of success for the champion amateur rider Steve Davenport.
After his retirement he acted as a steward at Haydock and Liverpool, two local tracks at which he had enjoyed a great deal of success.
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