Famous horses tend to be the most popular and talented: Arkle, Red Rum, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star, Denman, Sprinter Sacre: mere mention of their names excite the memory. But there is one horse who was not in the same parish as the aforementioned when it came to raw ability yet he is in many ways every bit as well-known, and for good reason.
Foinavon, I believe, was far from the luckiest winner of the Grand National. Undoubtedly he would not perhaps have won the 1967 renewal of the race if Popham Down had not started the train of calamity at the 23rd fence but if you watch the race again you will see that at the end of the race he was going away from the 2nd Honey End, giving the clear impression he could have easily gone round again.
There is also a lack of credit given to him for him possessing the tenacity and nimbleness to weave his way through the chaos that defeated his more talented and better fancied rivals. He was by nature a laid-back sort of horse who just got on with his life, doing his own thing, almost as if he suspected, if not this day but on some other day, an out-of-the-ordinary event would happen to give him his chance for immortality and when it happened, aided and abetted by young John Buckingham, he took it.
Horses, by nature, by instinct, are herd animals, and Foinavon could easily have thought ‘why am I all alone’, ‘where have all my mates gone’? No, Foinavon was his own person. He was brave, resolute and unassuming. Almost a nonentity for most of his life he is now immortal as the only horse in the long history of the Grand National to have a fence named after him.
In Foinavon the mystique of the Grand National had a character fit for the situation. Didn’t Pat Taaffe in his truly wonderful autobiography tell the story of falling with him at Baldoyle and fearing the worst for Foinavon found him lain on the ground picking grass as if eating grass was the sole reason for the trip that day.
What is remarkable, given how unforgiving the fences were supposed to be during that era, was 28 of the 44 runners were still in the race at the 23rd fence. Indeed 18 finished. Popham Down who is held responsible for the carnage was only running loose at the head of the field because he had been brought down at the first fence by Meon Valley. All the leaders cleared Bechers Brook with Different Class, owned by Hollywood legend Gregory Peck, and the John Lawrence ridden Norther both moving into contention. Of course every jockey who fell off or were unseated at the very next fence most likely went to their graves believing they would have won but for Popham Down deciding that having jumped Becher’s twice his work for the day was over.
And the calamity did not help the reputation of the race, especially with every Grand National of this vintage thought to be the very last. Of course what no one could foresee at the time was that only twenty-four hours earlier at Liverpool a two-year-old had dead-heated for the Thursby Selling Plate who would go on and save the race for all time. Indeed in 1967 Brian Fletcher was having his first ride in the Grand National aboard Red Alligator and even after winning the race three times he remained convinced he would have won in 67 as well, as the following year sort of proved.
Now to clarify my position that Foinavon was not the luckiest of the lucky winners in the history of the Grand National. Going to Becher’s for the second time John Buckingham was quite happy about where he was in the race. They had gone quite fast for 2/3rds of the race and looking around him he had Honey End, the favourite, ridden by Josh Gifford just in front of him, with What A Myth and Freddie, two other fancied runners nearby. So although quite far back he was in good company, and Foinavon’s greatest attribute as a racehorse was his ability to stay long distances. And stay he did. Galloping on at his own pace and winning by fifteen lengths from Honey End and Red Alligator. Neither the 2nd nor the 3rd ever looked remotely like catching Foinavon on that long run from the Elbow to the winning post.
By the way, when asked how many horses jumped the 23rd fence in the 67 National do not say one as Foinavon was not the only horse to get to the landing side with his jockey still in the saddle. Rondetto and Johnny Haine was the first and would doubtless have gone on to win but for Haine falling off. Packed Home and Tommy Carberry, who was stone last going to the fence, also jumped clear, albeit without any degree of grace and went on to finish fifth, perhaps implanting in Raymond Guest the ambition to win the race. A fete he achieved with another 12-year-old, the mighty L’Escargot, in 1975.
What is less well known is that Foinavon won two more races after his Aintree triumph at Devon & Exeter and Uttoxeter, the second of which was achieved when the two horses well in front of him were balked by a loose horse at the last fence. What an appropriate way for Foinavon to bookend his life as a racehorse?
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.