Tony Lake recalls the Birmingham Grand Annual Steeplechase
Only the Grand National was more important
With many travelling to Knowle on the London and North Western railway, on Easter Monday, 12 April, 1852, “an immense concourse of spectators”witnessed “an arduous struggle” for the £100 added Grand Midland Steeplechase. Receiving 45lb Tipperary Boy, ridden by William Archer, won the forerunner of the Birmingham Grand Annual Steeplechase, by head from Oscar who shouldered 13st 3lb. Readily established, from its rise to its demise, National Hunt heroes, human and equine, competed for the Birmingham Grand Annual Steeplechase.
In 1853, 20,000 saw Shinrone, with Charles Boyce, win the feature race of the two-day meeting run over a new course, “principally of grass but with some ploughed land … 30 leaps and a water jump”. Four years later, riding Emigrant, Boyce, following a hunting accident, won the Grand National with one arm strapped to his body.
Whilst another Grand National legend, Denny Wynne, who won “The Liverpool” on Mathew in 1847, took a nasty fall in the 1854 renewal, yet another, Chris Green, rider of Abd-el-Kader and trainer of The Lamb, won on Needwood. Run over another new course, “through the meadows, up and down hill … with a sharp turn to the right” its critics wanted a course closer to Birmingham.
The critics prevailed and Aston Park was the venue for the next meeting. Limited to one day because of the Crimean War, a crowd of 16,000 descended on the park with gangs of “riff-raff” refusing to pay the 1d admission and storming the turnstiles. The meeting spiralled towards anarchy and by the time of the last race three amateur riders refused to leave the weighing room to take their mounts. Even though the race was run, with professional jockeys, Bell, Birch and Dawes substituting, bookmakers thought better of making a book. Verging on the irrelevant, the feature race went to George Stevens on Star of England. Stevens went on to win two more Birmingham Grand Annuals but not at Aston Park, nobody would.
Returning to Knowle, the 1856 meeting drew a large crowd, swelled by thimble riggers, card-sharps, pick-pockets and other “roughs”. The four-mile “Grand Annual” course was described as “fair hunting ground … peculiarly hillocky, and abounding with awkward hedges and ditches in addition to the artificial fences.” Ridden by his trainer Harry Lamplugh, French chaser Franc Picard won after coming with a well-timed challenge.Baron de la Motte’s chaser was best known for his exploits in the Grande Steeple at Dieppe. He finished second in 1852 and then won the next five renewals and again in 1859. Remarkably, in 1861, aged fifteen, he registered a seventh victory.
By the time Franc Picard won his second Birmingham Grand Annual (in 1859) the race had found a new home at Sutton Coldfield, “one of the finest steeplechasing courses in the country”. Sting ridden by Edwin Weaver had won in 1857 and The Comet with George Stevens won, in front of a crowd of 40,000, in 1858, getting the better of future Grand National winner The Huntsman. Another Aintree regular Joe Maley (G Waddington up) won in 1860 and George Holman won three of the next four renewals, on Doubtful, Penarth and Chamade.Holman's winning sequence was broken in 1863 by George Stevens on Emblem. “Bell’s Life” reported, “It is right to mention that no animal could have been sent to the post fitter and in more blooming condition than Emblem, who won all the way, and slipped the rest of the field by clearing more than twelve yards at the second fence.” A little over a month later Lord Coventry's “great leaper” provided Stevens with the second of his five Grand National successes.
Sly Fox, ridden by Monaghan, won for Ireland in 1865, and the next renewal went to Roadster (W White). “Ted” Wilson won in 1867 with Tiger, and the jockey, who was to win consecutive Grand Nationals in the 1880's, was in the winner's enclosure again two years later with Meanwood.
By then, as it said in “The Sporting Review”, “several steeplechase meetings took place in early February, but with the exception of Birmingham they were of little importance”. Only the Grand National was more important than the “Grand Annual” and “eight out of the fourteen who ran … were engaged in the great event.” Not one of the eight featured at the finish but Fan showed enough to be made favourite for the Aintree race. “Prima Donna, who won a race the preceding day, led up to the last fence, where she fell heavily and broke her back. This left the race to Meanwood and Greenland, and after a punishing struggle the former won by a short head. Greenland will probably win next year, as he was third in ’68, and fourth in ’67.” Greenland did not win; Hippolyte did, ridden by John Wheeler, who won on The Nun in 1868. Johnny Page won the 1871 race on Moose, one of four of the five runners entered for the Grand National.
With the added prizemoney raised to £200, the 1872 race witnessed the first success in the race for Jimmy Adams, making all on Lord Angelsey's Corfu. The jockey and owner came close to following up in 1873 with Hybla. However, lumbered with 12st 7lb, the horse had no chance with Dodona (receiving 16 lb), the 3/1 favourite in the hands of J Whiteley.
With much of the Sutton Coldfield course “required for other purposes”, a new course was made for 1874. The “Grand Annual” was won by Morning Star ridden by Fred Lynham and although “the course was the best that could be obtained under the circumstances” a new venue was sought.
Within twelve months, William Alston allowed a new course of one and a half miles round with two water jumps to be established on his Olton estate. The course proved tricky and there were many fallers but Lord Marcus Beresford's Mrs Starr excelled with John Jones. On the first day of the meeting she won the Erdington Plate and followed up in the “Grand Annual” on the second day. A sharp turn was modified for the 1876 meeting but the course was still considered inferior to Sutton. Wetherbys were the handicappers for the first time and were criticised for treating Mrs Starr leniently, which seemed justified when she easily won the feature race again. That said the whole meeting was played out under a cloud. In the first race Mr George Darby suffered a crashing fall from Pearl King and he died two days later.
Before the next meeting the Olton track was modified further, prize money was increased and hurdle racing was introduced. The fixture went off without a hitch and Tom Beasley won the “Grand Annual” aboard Abdallah. Amongst the also rans was Austerlitz who, six weeks later, landed the Grand National in the hands of his owner Fred Hobson.
Lord Marcus Beresford was keen to win the race again and in 1878 was double-handed. He rode Chilblain to set the pace for his Chimney Sweep, the 6/5 favourite and mount of John Jones. All went according to plan until “Marky” parted company with the rank outsider and Chimney Sweep had to make his own running. He soon weakened and by the last fence the race was at the mercy of Jimmy Adams on Bugle March. That partnership tipped up and the honours went to Rock Savage. Beresford later objected, claiming that the winner had taken the wrong course, but he offered no evidence. Rock Savage was ridden by Mr St James, the nom de course of Sir Reginald Greville-Nugent, the son of Lord Greville. Two weeks later he was killed in a fall at Sandown Park.
Chimney Sweep returned in 1879 but faced a strong Irish challenge in the shape of the 2/1 joint favourites, Juggler and Martha. The former had won the 1878 Irish Grand National and was piloted by Garret Moore whilst the latter had finished second in the Grand National behind Shifnal and was the mount of Tommy Beasley. In the event, Juggler ran out a comfortable winner and initiated a successful spell for Moore who won the Grand National on stable companion The Liberator a month later, with Martha back in third.
A year later, Jimmy Adams and Bugle March gained compensation for their earlier mishap and landed the big race. That was the last Birmingham Grand Annual chase run at Olton and when Adams won the prize, for a third time, in 1881 on Quibble, the race was staged at Four Oaks Park.
The Four Oaks Racecourse Company bought the Four Oaks estate from Sir John Cradock-Hartopp and set out a course along the lines of Auteuil. It was hoped that the £100,000 investment would become “The Sandown Park of the Midlands”. It was not to be; failing to find favour with racegoers it struggled to make ends meet. The Birmingham Grand Annual chase was soon being described as “the once important”.
Some things did not change and Messrs Garrett Moore and Tommy Beasley were still challenging for the “Grand Annual”. In 1882, Turco (Moore) and Oola (Beasley) were heavily backed but neither were a match for the lightly weighted winner, Funny Eyes, ridden by Billy Sensier. The following year, Sensier was not so lucky and fell at the first from the favourite, Schoolgirl; the race going to Highland Mary with Tom Skelton up. In 1884, Schoolgirl, this time with John Childs, fell again, as did the favourite Woodcock the mount of John Beasley. Those falls allowed Marplot with George Lampton to come home clear of the only other runner, Invalid. Childs and Schoolgirl got round in 1885 only to be bettered by Struanite (Walter Nightingall).
Attached to the powerful Arthur Yates stable, Childs enjoyed his biggest career wins on Albert Cecil (1883 Grand International Steeplechase) and Cortolvin (1885 Cheltenham Grand Annual). Coincidently, both horses won the Birmingham Grand Annual: Cortolvin, in 1886 with Dollery up; Albert Cecil in 1887 with Childs.
Cortolvin's victory opened an old wound. Mr Rawlinson, owner of the well-beaten Hornpipe objected to the winner on the grounds that the owner “Mr Abington had not registered his name at the time of entry.” Four years earlier, “Mr Abington”, as spoilt rich-boy George Baird was known on the racecourse, was controversially banned for two years for rough-riding at Four Oaks Park. Initially, the stewards disqualified Cortolvin, however, on appeal Baird could prove an account with Wetherbys and regained the race.
The race was “hardly a shred of its former self” by 1887. The prize money began to dwindle, with the last two runnings at Four Oaks Park worth only £100. In 1889, Flattery, ridden by William Stephens, beat the previous year's winner, Merry Maiden. Only two ran.
The Birmingham Grand Annual Steeplechase was resurrected when Bromford Bridge opened in 1895. However, as Chris Pitt and Chas Hammond say in “When Birmingham went racing”, “the race declined in quality, prestige and value with each consecutive running and was held for the last time in 1907.” An historic race was no more.