THE DUKE of Alburquerque was one of the most colourful figures on the European equestrian scene. He divided his life between acting as a courtier to the Spanish royal family, and the racetrack. The most experienced amateur steeplechase jockey of his day, he rode successfully in nine different countries, and became a household name in Britain for his courageous, injury-defying performances in the Grand National, most of all in the mid-1970s when he and his mount Nereo became essential elements in the annual running at Aintree.
The death last April of Don Juan de Borbon, Count of Barcelona, the former pretender to the Spanish throne, marked a conclusion in Alburquerque's public life in Spain. Alburquerque had acted as the head of Don Juan's household since 1957, years which involved him in meetings with General Franco on the future restoration of the monarchy. He played a vital role as chief friend and adviser to the pretender in the years of exile in Estoril. Don Juan's acquiescence in the nomination in 1969 of his son, Juan Carlos, as Franco's successor, and the renunciation of all his own rights to the throne in 1977 were vital to the establishment of the present regime in Spain.
When Don Juan made return visits to Spain in the 1960s for family christenings, politically delicate occasions, he would stay at Alburquerque's house. And Alburquerque remained a valued member of the Borbon circle until the end of his own life. Last year Juan Carlos awarded him the Toison de Oro, the highest decoration that the Spanish king can confer.
Alburquerque was born Beltran de Osorio y Diez de Rivera in 1919. He grew up partly in Spain and partly in France; his family moved to Biarritz when Alfonso XIII went into exile in 1931. He studied to be an engineer, but his work was interrupted when he joined the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War to fight with the cavalry. In 1939 he gave up engineering altogether to concentrate on competitive riding. He won his first race in 1941.
Alburquerque had had his first pony at the age of five and seen the Grand National for the first time on a newsreel when he was eight. The race seized his imagination and he had his first ride at Aintree in 1952, on Brown Jack III, when the race was won by Teal, and his seventh and last, on Nereo, in 1976, when he was 56 years old. In 1974 he finished the race for the only time, when eighth behind Red Rum on Nereo. His ride in 1976 ended with a fall at the 13th fence which left him unconscious for two days. Jockey Club regulations prevented him from riding in Britain again, but he rode competitively in Spain as recently as 1985, when in his 67th year.
In the late Fifties the trainer Fred Rimell and his wife Mercy were among an English party invited over to Spain with their horses for a special racing festival. They arrived to find that their hosts had laid on wonderful entertainments. They recalled that the piece de resistance was the ball given by Alburquerque at his house 25 miles from Madrid. The Spanish women were splendidly bejewelled, there were four bands and the staff were dressed in the Duke's livery, green velvet jackets, knee breeches, white stockings and white gloves. Thirty of them marched in line into the banqueting hall, carrying silver platters with whole sucking pigs, sheep, beef, and turkeys.
The Duke of Alburquerque was immensely popular in British racing and cut a distinctive figure, a tall, slender man with the nose and prominent chin of the traditional Spanish grandee, closely resembling the cartoons of Mr Punch. 'In England and Ireland,' he said, 'I have found the best steeplechases.'