Grand National: Aintree's anniversaries of mystery and fairy tale
Devon Loch and Aldaniti entered National legend 50 and 25 years ago. Sue Montgomery talks to one man with memories of both
Saturday 08 April 2006
Fifty years ago, as Devon Loch inexplicably crashed to the ground 10 strides from victory to provide the most mysterious and sensational of all the stories produced by the Grand National, a teenage boy was living his own fairy tale. As Dick Francis and the Queen Mother's horse slithered on his belly into legend, the horse who should have finished seventh, Martinique, was just coming to the elbow to realise a dream for his 19-year-old jockey, who was completing the course on his first ride in the race.
And as young Stan Mellor and the 40-1 shot Martinique galloped past the stricken Devon Loch, with only ESB, Gentle Moya, Royal Tan, Eagle Lodge and Key Royal in front from the 29 starters, his first thought was entirely understandable. "I saw a horse had slipped up way in front of me," Mellor said, "but I didn't know what had happened or who it was. When I went past I didn't dwell on it or look, as far as I was concerned it was just another faller.
"I'd counted the horses who were in front of me over the last and to be honest, what I did think was oh good, that makes me sixth, not seventh. I'd just got round in my first National and that's what I was concerned with."
The significance of a historic event is often apparent only in retrospect and, although Devon Loch's misfortune was regarded by the jockeys at the time as more of a racing incident than a full-blown drama, Mellor vividly recalls Francis's real distress afterwards.
"As he walked off the track he was absolutely surrounded by people and had some difficulty in getting back to the weighing-room," he said. "Someone put a coat over him eventually. When he came in his head was down and he went and sat in a corner. He was in a terrible way, absolutely heartbroken and distraught, you'd say almost suicidal. In those days the National was the only steeplechase of the day, the card afterwards was Flat races, and so the jump jocks didn't have another race to be getting on with. And what happened to Dick put a damper on the afternoon. There wasn't the normal noisy big-race celebration."
The reason for Devon Loch's dramatic sudden collapse has never been fully explained, but Francis himself is convinced that it was due to the gelding's ownership and the social mores of the era. In the Fifties, with the wartime years still fresh in the memory, overt patriotism was the norm and the Royal Family was still greatly revered. There was a crowd of more than 100,000 at Aintree that fateful March day, most of them were roaring for the Queen Mother's horse and the noise was being funnelled down the course by a breeze blowing from behind the stands.
Francis's opinion is that when Devon Loch pricked his ears in the closing stages he was startled, even frightened, enough by the sudden wave of sound for his reaction to have broken the rhythm of his stride and brought him down.
"By the time I got to the place," Mellor added, "the horse was already down and the cheering had stopped, so I didn't notice any unusual noise. At the time, on the day, most of us thought he'd caught sight of the wing of the water jump and taken off, and then put down. But Dick was riding, and he would know better than anyone what happened."
Mellor, three-times champion, rode 1,035 winners, but the closest he came to a National victory was his second place on Badanloch behind Merryman in 1960, the first time the Aintree showpiece was televised. Nor did he saddle a winner after he switched to training, though he feels he should have done.
From Devon Loch, fast-forward another 25 years, to one of the most happily emotional, rather than heartbreaking, stories in Grand National history, that of the against-the-odds fairy tale of Aldaniti and Bob Champion.
The Josh Gifford-trained horse came back from serious injury and the jockey conquered cancer to triumph in the 1981 National, in the process thwarting an equally valid tear-jerker. For in second place, four lengths behind, was 54-year-old John Thorne on Spartan Missile, a horse he bred from the mare Polaris Missile, the 1968 National mount of his son Nigel, who was killed in a car crash shortly afterwards.
And again, Mellor was on the spot, this time as trainer of third-placed Royal Mail, ridden by Philip Blacker. And once more, he is disarmingly honest about his immediate reactions. "My horse would have won if he hadn't clouted the second last," he said. "Of course I was aware of who was in front of him and the significance of it. But what I mostly felt was disappointment. When Royal Mail finished second in the Gold Cup, he had Aldaniti 20 lengths behind him.
"When I was there in third place, beaten only two lengths, there may have been tears in my eyes but I'm not sure why. But Bob and Josh were friends and if I wasn't going to win it, then I'd have rather been beaten by them than anyone."
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