Have you ever wondered what it’s like to own the Winner of the Grand National? Stephen Wallis takes a look back at the 1996 running of the World’s greatest race and the journey to that momentous day with the help of Andrew Wates, part owner with his mother Lady Wates, of the classy 10 year old winner Rough Quest. Along the way I uncover the Wates’s family link with the race which goes back to the 1960s.
Andrew’s association with horses began in the hunting field in the late 1940s and he fondly remembered Eros, his first pony. He purchased his first horse, Belgrano in the early 1960s from Toby Balding, the future two time Grand National winning trainer. Belgrano had provided Toby with his first ever Cheltenham victory but as Andrew jovially remarked, “the horse didn’t like jumping fences and he ducked out at Newbury once!” Belgrano did though provide Andrew with his first ever winner as an amateur jockey at Wincanton, much to the annoyance of Toby “who was absolutely furious that I hadn’t told him” said Andrew. The horse paid over 100/1 on the Tote.
Andrew rode about 30 winners under rules and his first connection with Aintree’s big race came in 1968 when Champion Prince, a horse owned by his father and trained by Guy Harwood of Dancing Brave fame, fell at the water jump, the same fence as Foinavon, the 1967 winner was brought down. However, his own riding prowess was displayed when he won the amateurs Grand National, the Foxhunters Chase at Aintree in 1970 on Lismateige.
Indeed the Wates family had gone close to National glory in the 1980s. They owned Hard Outlook who finished 2nd in 1982, 15 lengths behind Grittar, and Sommelier, who was 5th in 1986.
Andrew bought Rough Quest in Ireland in April 1991 on the recommendation of Irish trainer and friend Arthur Moore. “He had a wonderful eye for a horse, still has” said Andrew. Andrew recalled that Kim Bailey was also very interested in the bay gelding. Before buying the horse Andrew remembered riding him, “He was a bit of a lunatic, a bit wild, but a smashing mover. He was a lovely horse, not top drawer but I paid second quartile price for him. We bought him on his form” said Andrew. Rough Quest had finished 4th in two Irish bumpers at Leopardstown and Tipperary in February 1991.
Rough Quest was the first foal of the once raced Our Quest while his sire Crash Course had won the 1975 Doncaster Cup and was 3rd behind the mighty Sagaro in the following year’s Ascot Gold Cup. Crash Course had previously sired Jodami winner of the 1993 Cheltenham Gold Cup and Esha Ness, first past the post in the National (‘the race that never was’), of the same year.
Andrew has always bought horses for chasing. “He was a big strong horse, in those days very rangy, he filled out, he was never a classic looking horse. The old fashioned chaser type” said Andrew.
“He wasn’t an easy horse to ride. If he got in front he really did stop very quickly. Once we learnt how to ride him he was pretty good” said Andrew.
The five year old bay moved across to Andrew’s stable at Henfold House, Dorking to be trained by Tim Etherington. Rough Quest won his first two novice chases at Huntingdon and Warwick when ridden by Graham McCourt, but it wasn’t until he was runner up to Oliver Sherwood’s promising mare Springaleak at Warwick in February that the stable realised they had a proper horse.
On the horse’s first outing at the Cheltenham Festival a month later he was 4th in the Sun Alliance Chase, now the RSA, behind Minnehoma, winner of the 1994 Grand National. The race was littered with future stars; dual Mackeson, now Bet Victor Gold Cup winner Bradbury Star (1994 and 1995), Run for Free winner of both the Welsh (1992) and Scottish Grand National (1993) and the 1992 Scottish Grand National winner Captain Dibble.
In the summer of 1994 Irishman Terry Casey took over the training at Andrew’s stable as Tim Etherington moved up North to train on his own account.
Rough Quest’s breakthrough as a chaser came when he won the Ritz Club Chase, now the Ultima Chase at the 1995 Festival. Now ridden by the 24 year old Irishman Mick Fitzgerald, the horse a 16/1 outsider and only carrying 10st 3Ibs won by a comfortable nine lengths. A month later he won at the Punchestown Festival.
The next season he followed up with seconds in the Hennessy Gold Cup and a valuable Ascot handicap chase before an impressive February victory in the Racing Post Chase, a field which included David Nicholson’s Gold Cup contender Barton Bank.
Although Champion Jockey Richard Dunwoody had ridden the horse at Cheltenham Mick Fitzgerald was back for his tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Sent off as the 12/1 5th favourite Rough Quest jumped alongside the eventual winner Imperial Call at the last before going down by four lengths. Richard Dunwoody was only 6th on the 11/8 favourite One Man.
Trainer Terry Casey had been quoted as saying if the horse ran in the Gold Cup he wouldn’t run in the Grand National which in 1996 was only 16 days away. However, Andrew recalled that Terry soon thought otherwise after he returned to the gallops. “I was more doubtful than he was. I was still riding out at the time and Terry persuaded me to ride him. After I rode him I realised he was better after the Gold Cup than before it”. said Andrew.
Andrew remembered close friend Ian Balding telling him he must run, on his very favourable handicap weight, which had been decided before his Cheltenham performance. Whilst BBC TV commentator Julian Wilson said emphatically he would never get four and half miles at Aintree. Andrew and the team at Henfold House were not put off and decided to run. “He was a good 10Ib well in for perfectly legitimate reasons. It was a no brainer, we had got to go up there”. A year later and the horse would probably have been carrying top weight.
The stable remained loyal to Mick Fitzgerald and Rough Quest was immediately installed as the favourite. Only twenty seven runners went to post on 30 March 1996, the smallest field since 1970. Rough Quest was 7/1 with his principal challengers being the Irish duo, the grey Son of War and Life of the Lord trained by a young Aidan O’Brien, Superior Finish trained by Jenny Pitman, the 1992 winner Party Politics and the top weight Young Hustler.
Andrew enjoyed the thrill of owning the favourite “It was fantastic. On analysis he had a great chance but you don’t expect to win because of all the challenges. We never gave Mick any instructions. He agreed to hunt round and hang on to him until we got to the elbow. They went a good gallop and he settled and jumped very well” said Andrew.
Near the back when they jumped Becher’s first time round, he moved up to lay about 10th when they went out on the second circuit. Taking the outside route, Mick moved the favourite up to 6th as they jumped Valentine’s. Crossing the Melling Road with two to jump Rough Quest had cruised in to 4th. Rough Quest reached the last three lengths behind the French bred, Encore un Peu, oneof the bottom weights, who had slipped the rest of the field. Just after the elbow Mick made his move, drew alongside and passed David Bridgwater on Encore un Peu but in the course of doing so slightly took Encore un Peu’s ground. He passed the post one and half lengths clear with Richard Dunwoody 3rd on Superior Finish sixteen lengths back.
However, with Peter O’Sullevan hailing number seven, Rough Quest as the winner on BBC television a steward’s enquiry was announced on the Public Address system. Andrew had been watching the race from the top of the County Stand. “As a local steward of many years I could see he had crossed the second horse but thought he would be alright” said Andrew.
After about fifteen minutes the official result was confirmed. Rough Quest was declared the winner and the Wates family had won the World’s Greatest Race. “I was so busy controlling my emotions when they finally announced the result it wasn’t euphoria it was relief. You had to keep control as you hadn’t won the race. There was some doubt but I am pretty sure the stewards came to the right conclusion” said a confident Andrew.
It was a brilliant training feat to get the horse ready for Aintree by trainer Terry Casey. “He was a great man, he was a totally instinctive trainer and quite a character.” said Andrew.
Rough Quest returned to the Grand National in 1998 but was pulled up by Mick Fitzgerald at the 28th fence carrying 11st 4Ibs, 11Ibs more than his victory year. Rough Quest’s racing career ended when as a 13 year old, in April 1999 when he fell in the Foxhunters Chase at the scene of his greatest triumph.
The horse remained at Henfold House where he was looked after by Andrew's trainer David Arbuthnot as part of the family until Rough Quest passed away in October 2016 aged 30. During his retirement Mick Fitzgerald kept in touch and would regularly come and visit the old warrior and bring him polos.
Asked about the famous duo of jockey and horse Andrew said “Mick was a wonderful horseman with a good brain and thoughtful. They were a good combination.” As for Rough Quest “I would call him a night club bouncer, a nice one. You had to be really on your toes when you were saddling him up because he would have you, he would bite you” said Andrew.
When they hopefully line up at Aintree in April 2021 it will be twenty five years since the Wates family tasted the ultimate glory with Rough Quest. “It is an amazing race with millions watching worldwide. It’s something you don’t forget. It is a privilege in a small way to be associated with the race.
“I think Aintree have done a fantastic job in improving the race over the years introducing the big aprons, taking out the big stakes from the fences and adding run off points with areas to catch the loose horses. It really is a great credit to them.” said Andrew
Andrew’s enthusiasm for the National Hunt game remains and he has six horses in training at his yard only yards from his house with twenty eight year old Toby Lawes.
We would like to thank Andrew Wates for his help with this blog and for his photo of Rough Quest in retirement
Aintree photo courtesy of the late Alec Russel and Timeform. Cheltenham photo courtesy of George Selwyn
Blog by Stephen Wallis