The Grand National is probably the most well known horse race in the world. Controversial. Loved by some. Hated by others.
But what is it really like from the inside? From the back of a horse?
Richard Dunwoody rode The National 14 times and won it twice. This is his story.
It’s fair to say that the Grand National probably is the most famous horse race in the world. Every April, more than 600 million people around the globe turn to and tune in to the action at Aintree as 40 brave men and horses embark upon an odyssey, the memories of which will sustain them into old age.
This is where adrenaline levels rise off the scale; where mouths dry up and hearts beat double-time as the allotted hour draws near; where the difference between winning and losing can be short-head slim and worlds apart both at the same time.
”Ten minutes is not a particularly long time. What can one do in ten minutes – boil a couple of eggs, write an email, hang the washing on the line? Yet the Grand National lasts only 10 minutes, and it can break your heart, break your body, and change your life for better or worse. It changed my life.”
Win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the highest-quality steeplechase on the calendar, and a jockey is famous only within the narrow confines of the sport. Victory in the Grand National gives a jockey to the world, makes his name common currency in the field of sporting heroics.
I have won more than 1,700 races, but the two I am remembered for above all others are my two National wins: West Tip in 1986 and on Miinnehoma eight years later. Without them I would not be writing this, without them I would be virtually forgotten.
The Grand National is dramatic, melodramatic, arbitrary, emotional, compelling, uplifting. It changes lives forever, all in the space of 10 minutes.
I was 21 when I had my first ride in the National on West Tip in 1985, just a kid really, and the difference between this race and the thousands of others during a season was laid out in stark relief even before I’d pulled the owner’s light blue and black jersey over my head.
The weighing room was a different place, almost a photographic negative of its normal self. The quiet jockeys were inexplicably chatty, nerves and adrenaline loosening their tongues, while the habitual livewires were sitting silently beneath their pegs, wrapped tightly in their own thoughts.
The senior steward marched in to deliver a pep-talk based on the principle of not going too fast too soon, of taking it easy on the run to the first fence, of discretion being the better part of valour. Every year a roomful of jockeys listens, nods. Every year we go down to the first as though we’d been conscripted into the Light Brigade.
The atmosphere during the half-hour before everyone takes a deep breath and walks out into the parade ring is unique. All the jockeys know that this is the big one, that a different race awaits us all, that before the day is out one of them, one of the few, one of this tight-knit band of brothers, will have had his life changed forever.
During the long parade, the vast crowd broadcasts a steady hum of anticipation, broken now and again by the seagull cries from the bookmakers or a fusillade of abuse from an angry punter who reckons you gave your mount in the previous race a poor ride. As the runners circle at the start, as our girths are checked, as the pulse begins to resemble the beat in an Ibiza nightclub, the jockeys call out to each other, something that never happens in any other race.
“Best of luck.”
“Have a good ride round.”
At times the Grand National is like the Olympics – it’s not about the winning, but the taking part. And then the starter climbs his ladder and releases the tape, and it becomes like every other race – all about the winning.
West Tip didn’t win. But at least I had the luxury of thinking he might until he took his eye off the ball at Becher’s Brook second time round, until the spectators and the TV cameras waiting on the landing side distracted him. He got in close, came down steep, his front legs crumpled underneath him, and that was that.
What does it feel like when everything comes to a sudden stop, mud in your face, breath knocked out of you, your loose horse about to vanish over the horizon? I was gutted. I was absolutely distraught. I sat there with my head in my hands, cursing my luck. West Tip had jumped so well, hadn’t made the slightest mistake until the one that separated us.
The St John Ambulance volunteer walked over and asked if I was all right.
No, no broken bones, just a broken heart.
The race went to 50-1 chance Last Suspect, whose jockey Hywel Davies would no doubt have been thinking, “It probably won’t be me,” in that lonely pre-race half-hour of introspection. The following morning, the traditional National winner’s parade took place at trainer Tim Forster’s yard, where I was then based. I aimed for a celebratory mood, but I’m only human, and the sight of happy Hywel shook salt into my wounds.
Fast-forward 12 months, and disaster was transformed into triumph. There we were again, West Tip and I, running down to Becher’s with the usual hope stacked against the experience of the previous season. The brave jockeys always go down the inner, where the drop is steepest, while the more cautious ones drift to the outside to minimise the risk.
I began to angle to the right and relative safety. I remember Tom Taaffe shouting, “Christ, Woody, keep straight, you’re going to murder me,” as I took his horse across with me, but all I could think about was getting over Becher’s.
We landed safely, and it’s at that point, with the terror of Becher’s behind, that every jockey starts thinking that this time it might be his time. There are eight fences to jump, and if your horse is still travelling sweetly, you begin to check out the horses around you. You might ask the fellow next to you how he’s going, and then you have to decide how much truth there is in his answer. Is he bluffing? Does he just want me to give his horse a lead?
Voices get lost in the crash of spruce; sometimes riders get lost in it, too.
On this occasion Young Driver and Chris Grant gave me a great lead, and the feeling that I had been trying to suppress since the Canal Turn bubbled over with two fences left to jump. I was going to win the National.
West Tip was going so well that my sole consideration was to not hit the front too soon, but unfortunately we arrived there soon enough, and just after the Elbow, almost a furlong from home, he began to idle.
To approach the Elbow is to ride into the wide end of a funnel. The noise is incredible – it hits you hard in the face – but my focus had shrunk to just one thought: keep him going. Such were the roars from the crowd that I couldn’t hear my whip landing on West Tip’s backside, but he kept running and I kept swinging and between us we made it across the line into racing immortality.
After that, a blur. My back was slapped and my hand wrung weary by fellow jockeys, who were – as I would have been for any of their number – delighted on my behalf. We walked off the track between two huge police horses, West Tip dwarfed by their bulk.
I remember a gap-toothed smile stretching so far across my face that it almost hurt. There was a brief window for reflection, to let the immensity of what I had achieved sink in, but as soon as we reached the winner’s enclosure I became public property.
The cameras, the media, the crowd, the noise, the confusion, the bewildering number of people who come toward you with a word, a smile, an outstretched hand – it all washed over me like a waterfall of happiness. I couldn’t tell you what I said, did, thought. My mind was a whirl, each moment slipping past without me being able to hold on to it.
I recall the celebration that evening through a haze of satisfaction. I can remember the victory parade the following morning through another sort of haze. What does it feel like to win the National? Hazy! But it changed my life.
A few years later I remember talking to Carl Llewellyn, who had also won a National, and saying, “If I ever win the race again, I’ll make sure I step back and take it all in, make sure I enjoy it properly.” We were so lucky; we both had the chance to do that.
A three-time champion jockey, Dunwoody rode more than 1,700 winners over jumps in his 17-year career and was the Jump Jockey of the Year in the UK five times.
The King George VI Chase (1989*, 1990*, 1995, 1996)
The Grand National (1986, 1994)
Cheltenham Gold Cup (1988)
* on the legendary Desert Orchid
In January 2008, Richard and American explorer Doug Stop reached the South Pole after a 48-day trek without any outside support. They had taken the route that Shackleton attempted – but failed – in 1914.
In 2004, he drove the Gumball 3000 rally.
His autobiography Obsessed was published in 2000 and is said to be one of the best written jockey biographies ever.
Today Richard is a respected photojournalist, covering countries and places that few people ever visit. In our Summer 2014 issue, you can see his photos of horse racing in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.
I have so many memories of the Grand National, coloured by sadness, disappointment, frustration – the indolent Samlee, who would nearly have won instead of finishing third, if only I could have persuaded him to exert himself –and amazement, such as during the ‘bombscare’ National, when the day was abandoned and no-one could return to the weighing room for their belongings. That night the dance floor at the famous old Adelphi Hotel in the centre of Liverpool was full of jockeys still dressed in silks and breeches, a surreal, heartwarming, uplifting sight on a day of such unhappy dislocation.
Yet the good memories always come to the top, the days of glory that last us until the end of our days. Eight years after West Tip, Miinnehoma slogged through the cloying mud to win me a second National. Miinnehoma had his quirks – don’t we all – and his crucial flaw was his dislike of reaching the front too soon. He had to be buried in the mix, played like a fat trout on a thin line until the moment was right.
The attritional conditions were not conducive to safety. As we flicked over the fences, I frequently heard above the general push and crash the thin, metallic sound of stirrup irons clashing together as some poor horse slithered to the ground and rolled over. The noise signifies another’s misfortune, yet you take heart from it as it is one rival fewer to worry about.
With four to jump, there were four horses remaining with a chance, and we were going so well. Yet I couldn’t go to the front. I had to wait. When my great rival Adrian Maguire, who was riding Moorcroft Boy, skipped clear at the last,
I thought my patience had undone me.
I shouted at him as he rode away, the words catching hoarsely in my throat: “You little bastard, you’ve beaten me all year and now you’re going to do it again!”
But as if by magic, Moorcroft Boy stopped to a bare walk, and Miinnehoma strode past him. We were in front, and the longest run-in in racing stretched ahead of us like a living nightmare. Miinnehoma looked at the sky; he looked at the ground; he looked at the crowd. His ears flicked back and forth, his stride shortened, he dallied. I lifted him onwards, roaring at him with the little breath I had left. The winning post drew closer, yard by yard.
And then at my knee a horse’s head appeared. It was Just So, nicknamed “Just Slow,” whose glacial but surefooted progress through the race had unexpectedly brought him to the brink of victory.
Surely now, here, after almost four and a half miles of hope, my dreams were to be shattered. I reached for the whip, hit Miinnehoma a desperate, tired, glancing blow, a Hail Mary hit, hope on the hoof, and it woke him up. He shook himself, surged forward, stayed on again.
Despair went back into its box, elation took its place. We were going to win. We were going to win. We won. Did I appreciate that victory more than my first? You bet. I revelled in it.
But this is such a strange race, such a searching test of man and beast, that it has an extraordinary effect on those it touches. Simon Burrough, Just So’s jockey, never won a big race. He was a “journeyman” rider, part of the cast but never in the spotlight. That National was his one chance, his big moment, and it went by him. Was he angry, anguished, bitter, bereft?
“When we got home, put the horse away and went out to the pub for the evening, how we celebrated,” he said later, in a book called Go Down To The Beaten, about jockeys who have tried and failed to win the Grand National. “We carried on celebrating for the next two or three nights because we’d had a chance that not many people get. We’d come second in the Grand National. We’ll never forget it. You can never take that away from us.”
If you find that sentiment peculiar, then you do not understand the Grand National.
Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Well, the Grand National doesn’t take as long to produce the same effect. Just 10 minutes, but they stay with you forever.
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