For the last three hundred years, Newmarket and its near neighbour Exning have had the choicest bred flat horses in the land striding up their gallops but during the 20th Century, there were six Grand National winners.
The first of those was one of the greatest perennials to grace Aintree. The 1923 winner Sergeant Murphy, who had been 4th in both 1920 and 1922, was a thirteen-year-old at the time of his success, trained by George Blackwell from his Beverly House stables in the town, who had gained fame twenty years earlier, due to the exploits of Triple Crown winner - Rock Sand. In so doing he became one of a handful of trainers to win both the National and the Derby.
Owned by Stephen Sanford, Sergeant Murphy became the first American owned winner of the National.
Run in thick fog, Sergeant Murphy won by three lengths from the 1921 victor Shaun Spadah. He was ridden by Captain “Tuppy” Bennet, who was the leading amateur of his day and by the end of the 1922-23 season, he would be only two behind the Champion Professional with 62 winners. Sadly, though, he would pay with his life, after a fall at Wolverhampton at the end of the year, something that would lead to the compulsory wearing of helmets.
Two years later, memories were re-kindled for racegoers of a certain age, as Fred Archer (nephew of “The Fred Archer”) trained the winner Double Chance. He was a reject from the flat, who was thought to be so bad that he was given to his trainer, who later sold a half-share to Liverpool cotton merchant – David Goold. Ridden by Major Jack Wilson he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, to beat favourite Old Tay Bridge.
As the crow flies, Exning is only two miles from Newmarket and Harvey “Jack” Leader sent out the 1926 winner Jack Horner from there. Bought by the American Charles Schwartz only two weeks before the race and ridden by Tasmanian born William Watkinson, who became the only jockey to be born in the southern hemisphere to win the race. The owner was so grateful that he promised Watkinson an annual sum of £1,000 a year for the next four years, only for the rider to lose his life in a fall at Bogside, less than a month later.
The 1927 running will go down in history as the first commentary by the BBC, with Merrick Good and George Allison providing the words, and what an emotional one it would prove to be. Sprig had been bred by Captain Richard Partridge, with the aim of winning the National, only for his owner to be killed in the trenches, just weeks before hostilities were due to end. Captain Partridge’s mother decided to see out her son’s dream, so Sprig joined Tom Leader -elder brother of Harvey, at his Wroughton House stables in the centre of Newmarket, with the aim of winning chasing’s ultimate prize. Ridden by the trainer’s son Ted, he ran out a length to the good over the one-eyed Bovril III. On a day packed with raw emotion, Aintree would not see another day like it, until Red Rum won his third National, fifty years later.
Sixty-six runners went to post in 1929, the largest ever National field. Top-weight that year was one of the all-time greats in Easter Hero, who caused a pile-up the year before akin to Foinavon, when being stuck on top of the Canal Turn. That race, though, had not left it’s mark on Easter Hero, as he skipped from fence to fence, only to be caught by Gregalach just before the last fence. Gregalach ran out a six-length winner, in so doing he became the second consecutive 100-1 winner of the National. He also became the second winner in three years for trainer Tom Leader. The race also gave the sire My Prince the first two in the National.
As the town of Exning could be considered to be an overspill of Newmarket, it must feel it has every right to claim Golden Miller as one of their own. The Miller had won the 1932 and '33 Cheltenham Gold Cups. Having fallen at Canal Turn on the second circuit, when still in contention in the 1933 National, history would relate though that “The Miller” would come to hate the course.
A year later, Golden Miller went off an 8-1 second favourite. Trained by Basil Briscoe, who was a man who lived on his nerves, so was probably not best equipped to cope with owner Dorothy Paget’s tantrums and outbursts. Bought for £12,000 along with dual Champion Hurdler - Insurance, “The Miller” was considered to be the three-mile chaser par excellence until Arkle arrived on the scene. Ridden by Gerry Wilson, Golden Miller ran out an easy five-length winner, becoming the only horse to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National in the same season, whilst only one other, L’Escargot, has completed the double.
Golden Miller never completed the National again, as he either unseated his rider or refused, although he did finish second in the Becher Chase, when ridden by Fulke Walwyn. Sent off 2-1 favourite in 1935, the world and his wife put their two shilling on him, only for Gerry Wilson to be unseated just after Valentine’s, which caused punters to talk through their pockets and accuse the jockey of taking a bribe. What is on record though, is that the owner and trainer had a war of words after racing and the following day Basil Briscoe issued an ultimatum, take your horses away or they will be put out on the streets.
Now with only a handful of trainers keeping jumping horses and most of those being hurdlers, the chances are that Newmarket will never have another National winner. But as they say, never say never.
Blog by guest blogger, Grenville Davies