The Becher Chase, a grade three National Hunt race run over 3 miles, 2 furlongs and 21 fences, is inextricably linked to the Grand National. Not only are the races run over the world famous Aintree hedges, but they often share victors, with winners going on to become legends. For example, Earth Summit, ridden by Carl Llewellyn, won the 1998 National before going on to win the 1998 Becher Chase whilst Silver Birch won the Becher Chase in 2004 before winning the National in 2007. Amberleigh House also won the Becher in 2001 before going onto win the National in 2004. The one thing for certain is the talent, skill and guts required of a horse to tackle the formidable fences and no horse has done it more than Amberleigh House.
Amberleigh House was bred in Ireland in 1992 by Robert McCarthy. His sire, Buckskin, was a French bred thoroughbred who overcame significant issues with his feet and legs to win several major long distance jumps races, such as Doncaster Cup. Buckskin was a known stayer and certainly passed this onto his most successful offspring, Amberleigh House himself. His dam, Chancy Gal, although unraced produced a number of successful foals on the flat and over jumps. Undoubtedly, again, Amberleigh House was her most successful offspring.
In his early career Amberleigh House was trained in Ireland by Michael Hourigan. He had his first win in 1997 at Naas, Ireland, partnered by Fitzgerald and as the winter progressed he continued to add victories to his belt, seemingly preferring the longer races. Despite being barely 16 hands, he was set up to be a National horse and follow in the footsteps of the diminutive Battleship and The Lamb. By the millennium he'd won 6 races and been placed in 13, most of them over longer distances like his sire.
In 2000 Amberleigh House was purchased for approximately £75,000 by Ginger McCain on behalf of John Halewood, a successful businessman who owned Britain's largest independent drinks distributor. Since being a young boy Halewood had wanted to have a runner in the National and achieved this dream with a horse called Reg. However, he had the bug and wanted to win the race. He asked Ginger to find him the horse to do this. The legendary trainer needs little introduction, having trained the '73, '74 and '77 national winner in Red Rum - the only horse to have won the great race three times. He hadn't trained a National winner since and was hungry to do so again.
Amberleigh's first run for Ginger wasn't a success, finishing last of five at Wetherby. It was not to be his year and he was unfortunately brought down in the melee at the Canal Turn caused by riderless horse, Paddy's Return, on the first circuit of his Grand National debut. The following year he would prove what he was capable of. His first victory in 2001 was the Becher Chase under Warren Marston. Although small in height, he was short coupled and powerful. He rode a steady race and despite being held up in the middle of the field he stayed on to win the race by two lengths from the favourite, Smarty, who had finished second to Red Marauder in the 2001 running of the Grand National.
Amberleigh House went on to win a further race at Bangor that season before returning in December to claim second place in the 2002 Becher Chase, finishing two lengths behind Ardent Scout, who would later finish third behind him in the 2003 Becher Chase and seventh behind him in the 2004 National. Ridden by Tony Dobbin, Amberleigh House once again had a steady race, covering the one and a half circuits of famous National course with ease. His steady performance continued through the 2002-3 season and in April he returned to Aintree to contest in the Grand National, this time under Graham Lee. The pair stayed on valiantly to finish third behind Monty's Pass, ridden by Barry Geraghty, and Supreme Glory, ridden by Leighton Aspell.
His season continued to go well and in December 2003 he returned once again to claim second place in the Becher Chase, partnered by Graham Lee. The pair were unfortunately held up and made up ground in the final stages to finish a short head behind Clan Royal, ridden by Liam Cooper. Amberleigh House and Clan Royal were to battle it out again in the 2004 National, where Amberleigh House stayed on to beat the tiring Clan Royal, who could not match the superior stamina of the winner. Ginger's faith in the horse was proven and John Halewood had his National winner.
Amberleigh House went on to be placed 10th in the 2005 Grand National and was pulled up after he ran out of steam in the 2006 running of the race. He was subsequently retired having jumped 259 of the Aintree hedges in the Topham Chase, Becher Chase and the Grand National. No other horse, in modern times, has jumped the Aintree fences as much as Amberleigh House, nor as successfully. Sadly, both Halewood and Ginger passed away within months of each other in 2011. Amberleigh House spent the first years of his retirement residing at the National Stud eating his way through hundreds of mints, courtesy of his many fans and visitors and last Saturday returned to Aintree to parade before the crowds.
It will be interesting to observe how the winner and favourite of last Saturday's race, the nine year old, Vieux Lion Rouge ridden by Tom Scudamore, will fair if contesting future Nationals. Having already finished seventh in the 2016 National and a winner of the Becher Chase, he may become another legend to follow in the footsteps of Amberleigh House.
We would like to thank Amy Taylor at the National Stud for the loan of their photograph