by Diana Kimpton
I was bought up watching horse racing. It was a family activity on a Saturday afternoon, especially when the weather was bad. We’d all pick a horse as they paraded around the paddock and my dad would give us half-a-crown (12.5p) if we won. That doesn’t sound like much now, but it was a welcome addition to my pocket money then and I loved the feel of the large silver coin in my hand.
The Grand National was a big event for us every year. It was a family joke that my mum always picked a horse that fell at the first fence, but I usually did better than that and, on one occasion, I even picked the winner. So when I was asked to write a book of true stories about horses, the Grand National sprang to mind.
It’s a controversial race that has produced many stories over the years. There was the Queen’s horse, Devon Loch falling over for no apparent lesson when he was in the lead and galloping towards the finishing post. Then there was Red Rum winning three times and becoming a national legend in the process. But my favourite has always been Foinavon – the most unexpected winner in the history of the race.
Their behaviour threw the leading horses into disarray. Some crashed into the fence while others skidded to a halt. A few stopped so suddenly that their riders flew over their heads and landed on the other side of the fence. Luckily none of the horses or riders were injured, but the resulting chaos caused the horses further back to panic. They refused to go any closer and, in some cases, tried to whirl around and run in the opposite direction.
Foinavon was in 20th place when he landed after jumping Becher's Brook, but, unlike the others, he remained calm. He swung sideways to avoid the horse that stopped immediately in front of him and continued to canter on. His jockey, John Buckingham, spotted a place at the far end of the fence where there were no other horses and turned Foinavon towards it.
The fence was designed to be taken at a gallop and Foinavon was only cantering. But he jumped it beautifully and, urged on by the crowd, he completed the course, won the race and galloped into racing history. The fence that caused his victory is now called Foinavon’s Fence in his honour.
John Buckingham kindly let me interview him as part of my research for my book, and he filled in details I might not have found any other way. He only asked one thing in return: that I should let everyone know that Foinavon wasn’t a useless horse who won because everyone else fell over. He was a brave horse who stayed calm when the others panicked and jumped magnificently to get over the fence that held the others back. He really, truly was a winner.