Grand National: When Foinavon profited from an infamous pile-up

Forty years ago, a loose horse at the 23rd fence caused chaos in the National. Sue Montgomery talks to one of the jockeys involved
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The Independent Online

When there's a seven in the year, it seems there's often drama or moment in the Grand National. In 1927, for instance, the poignant winner was Sprig, bred by a young soldier killed days before the 1918 Armistice and raced by his mother as a memorial. In the first running broadcast on radio, the horse narrowly beat a one-eyed, amateur-ridden 100-1 shot.

The 1947 race was run in fog, with only the Chair and water jump visible from the stands, and the 100-1 winner, Caughoo, was erroneously suspected of having gone round only once, taking a short cut unseen in the murk before joining in again second time round.

In 1957 the great jockey Fred Winter notched his first victory, on Sundew; in 1977 the great Aintree specialist Red Rum became the only triple equine hero; in 1987 Maori Venture made nonagenarian Jim Joel a rare owner to win both the Derby and National; in 1997 Lord Gyllene won on a Monday after a bomb scare caused the race to be abandoned on Saturday.

But no running was more remarkable than that of 1967, when the name Foinavon, another 100-1 no-hoper, was added to the weave of the Aintree tapestry. And 40 years on the memories are still fresh for one man caught up in the infamous pile-up that took place at the 23rd fence.

The mayhem was caused by riderless Popham Down, who had been brought down at the first but had got up, carried on and was leading the field to the smallest obstacle on the course. The blinkered 10-year-old had jumped 21 fences on his own but for some reason - perhaps because of the memory of the previous one, Becher's - decided to decline another effort.

He veered right to left across the fence, oblivious of the oncoming cavalry because of his restricted vision. Terry Biddlecombe, though, on Greek Scholar, could see him and recalls that though there was only a matter of seconds between serenity and disaster, he had time to realise the awful inevitability of what was about to happen.

"I was running about fifth or sixth on the inner, and going really well," he said. "I saw that horse of Fulke Walwyn's run down the fence, with his blinkers on, and I thought, 'Here we go'. With Becher's behind us, and the small fence coming up, we were all starting to pack towards the middle and inside.

"There wasn't time to do anything about it; it all happened so quickly. Yet it was almost like it was in slow motion in front of me. My horse put the brakes on - you wouldn't believe how quickly they can stop from a gallop - and ended up on top of the fence, with his front feet in the birch. I couldn't do anything because another horse had come up my arse. I just had to sit there until we got untangled, then I was able to back out.

"Some of the language was choice, especially from me and Josh Gifford, but considering what had happened there wasn't actually that much noise: it was rather weird. It was an extraordinary sight, heaps of bodies on the ground of horses and men who had gone down like cards. And the amazing thing was that there were no injuries.

"While I was stuck in the fence I can remember seeing Foinavon jumping past us on the outside, and Gifford on his horse jumping and getting away after him. Even in among all the chaos, my first thought was to want to carry on and it would probably have been better if I'd been knocked off mine, I might have been able to get him clear quicker.

"He was a grand jumper and he popped the fence second time like a stile out hunting, a run-up of just a couple of strides and over."

Greek Scholar, a 20-1 shot trained by Denys Smith, jumped the last fence in third place but was passed on the run-in by his stablemate Red Alligator, who was to earn fame a year later. Josh Gifford's mount, Honey End, the favourite, failed by 15 lengths to catch Foinavon.

Biddlecombe, in common with other great jockeys, never did win a National, and rates Greek Scholar's fourth his best chance lost. "I know everyone who was baulked or brought down that year says the same," he said, "but I really would have won it. I was cantering at the time, I had Gifford's measure and certainly would have beaten him."

Foinavon's year was not the only such debacle in National history; the concertina effect occurred previously in 1928, when Easter Hero landed on top of the Canal Turn, and since, to a lesser degree, when Paddy's Return took nine rivals out by veering across the same fence. Run-out areas have been introduced to try to guide loose horses off the course. "They try to close the loopholes when they appear," added Biddlecombe, "but it's the Grand National, and anything can happen."