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Out of nowhere: The story of Foinavon’s surprise triumph in the 1967 Grand National

The Grand National is littered with a wealth of crazy stories, and almost everyone will have an account that springs to the fore of their mind when they think about the historic race. Given that the prestigious Aintree contest spans all the way back to the late 1830s, it is no surprise that it boasts its fair share of anecdotes — some more believable than others!

When delving through the archives, there are two National stories that stand out amongst the rest though — the tales of the 1928 and 1967 renewals. Both editions of the marathon race were won by 100/1 outsiders in truly unbelievable fashion, with every horse falling in the 1928 edition to gift Tipperary Tim and amateur jockey William Dutton a shock victory.

The rider was reportedly taunted by one of his friends prior to the race, as it is claimed he shouted: “Billy Boy, you’ll only win if all the others fall down.” Little did he know that just a few minutes his gag would become a reality — when Tipperary Tim avoided a mêlée at the Canal Turn and went on to finish well ahead of the only other finisher, Billy Barton, who was remounted by jockey Tommy Cullinan after the crash at the 30th fence.  

That sounds like something that could only ever happen once. But in 1967, history practically repeated itself at Aintree — as Foinavon shocked the Merseyside crowd to become just the fourth horse to win the four-mile race from 100/1.

Not only was the John Kempton-trained nine-year-old not fancied in the horse racing betting markets, but several jockeys had refused the ride in pre-race — opening the door to John Buckingham to take his first National mount.

Clearly eager to just have the chance participle in the historic contest, claiming in an interview with the BBC in 2010 that he would have ‘ridden Dick’s donkey to be in the Grand National, we doubt Buckingham would have minded that he was way off the pace with just seven fences left to jump — a fair reflection of Foinavon’s pre-race chances and further proof to why nobody else wanted the ride.

But nobody could have quite predicted the havoc that was about to unfold at Aintree. Popham Down, who had unseated his rider after being hindered at the first fence, was somehow still setting the pace seven out from home. However, he veered massively right when taking the 23rd obstacle, bringing Rutherfords down in the process, subsequently causing utter chaos.

A pile-up had now occurred, with multiple horses brought down — many of whom were blocking the fence or even running back in the wrong direction, causing even more havoc.

While all this was happening though, Fionavon was so far behind the rest of the field that Buckingham was able to avoid the mess Popham Down had created, taking the fence on the first attempt and opening up a 30-length lead.

Rutherfords has been hampered, and so has Castle Falls,” commentator Michael O’Hehir said at the time. “Rondetto has fallen, Princeful has fallen, Norther has fallen, Kirtle Lad has fallen, The Fossa has fallen, there’s a right pile-up… And now, with all this mayhem, Foinavon has gone off on his own! He’s about 50, 100 yards in front of everything else!”

17 jockeys managed to remount their horses and put up something of a chase, with ante-post favourite Honey’s End even managing to close in. But Foinavon had gained too much ground and held on for a historic victory — one which his owner Cyril Watkins, who bought the horse of Anne, Duchess of Windsor, after she had deemed him surplus to requirements, didn’t even turn up to witness!

Foinavon attempted to defend his National crown the following year in 1968, and he was more fancied by the bookies this time round — albeit still at a rather large 66/1. But he was, rather ironically, brought down at the 16th fence — the water jump — along with five other horses.

The infamous fence, which just so happens to be the smallest on the track at a mere 4ft 6in, was later renamed Foinavon in 1984 — meaning both his legacy and the crazy tale are still fondly remembered to this day.

Huynh Nguyen

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