Grenville Davies takes a look back at some of the War-Time Grand National winners
Take-offs and landings at Gatwick have not always been restricted to planes jetting off to New York, Barcelona or Ibiza or some other far flung place; for three war-time Grand Nationals were run there between the years 1916-1918. Like the war-time Classics they are looked upon as a lesser mortal.
With a gun-shot in Sarajevo in 1914, little did anyone realise at the time that more than four
years later, that bullet would still be ricocheting around the world. Due to war-time restrictions horse racing like any other form of enjoyment was seen as an unnecessary luxury, that only served to keep the idle masses away from steel mills, factories and coal-mines.
The first of the war-time Nationals was still run at its traditional home Liverpool. It would not officially be called Aintree for nearly another eighty years. The 1915 running was notable for two achievements, in that Lady Nelson was the first lady to own a Grand National winner and her horse Ally Sloper was the last six-year-old to win at Aintree, whilst another six-year-old Father Confessor chased him home in third.
At the end of 1915, Liverpool was requisitioned by the war office. Consequently an alternative venue had to be sought and so Gatwick played host to The Racecourse Association Steeplechase at 4 miles and 856 yards and over 29 fences. They were built to best replicate the ones at Liverpool, only to fall someway short of this objective, with only one of the 21 runners falling. Unlike Liverpool though, Gatwick was a right-handed course. Vermouth at 100/8 (12 and half to 1), locally trained by James Bell at Epsom and ridden by Jack Reardon. Second place went to Irish Mail, who had started the 6-1 favourite the year before. Ally Sloper the winner the previous year and the 9-2 favourite could do no better than finish eighth.
During both world wars, there was a very strong and determined argument to maintain flat racing, as both breeders and the Jockey Club felt that to ban it would be detrimental to the breed and British Racing would lose out to the French and Americans. There was though no such argument that could be made for the National Hunt version of the sport. Liverpool Racecourse had now been seconded by the War Office as a training and munitions depot and Cheltenham was nowhere near the colossus that it is now.
Probably in an attempt to generate some enthusiasm amongst the powers that be, it was re-named the War National Steeplechase, no doubt to make it sound more patriotic. Nineteen went to post for the 1917 running. The race was run in conditions that were not dissimilar to Grudon’s victory in 1901, in that it had been snowing heavily. Whether anyone resorted to putting butter into their horse’s hooves like Grudon’s trainer did is not known. The race though did leave racegoers scratching their heads in disbelief at what they had witnessed. For Limerock jumped the last two lengths to the good and made the best of his way home, with only 300 yards to go he stumbled and fell, not in the dramatic fashion though that Devon Loch and Dick Francis were to lose the National nearly forty years later. Ballymacad was the one to benefit and his owner Sir George Bullough must have felt that he was very fortunate to win, as he generously donated the £1,000 winning purse to the St Dunstan’s Home for Blinded Soldiers. He wasn’t winning out of turn though, as he had had three runners in the 1915 running so winning the race meant a lot to him. What caused Limerock to fall over like Devon Loch, with the race at his mercy, we will never know but nature may have had a helping hand, as many believe he just simply slipped up on the snow. The winner that day was trained by Aubrey Hastings, who within a dozen years would go on to train one of the most popular horses on the turf in Brown Jack and he collected the 1928 Champion Hurdle with him. He was, though, to die of a heart attack in early 1929 and so would not see Brown Jack achieve six consecutive victories in Royal Ascot’s Queen Alexander Stakes. He also trained Ascetic’s Silver to win the race in 1906 and Ally Sloper in 1915. Years later he would go onto become the Great-Grandfather of Clare and Andrew Balding.
The classiest of the Gatwick running’s was undoubtedly the 1918 race. Poethlyn the winner ridden by Ernie Piggott outclassed his opponents to such an extent that many felt he would be able to follow up again next year, even as increasingly looked likely, the race would return to its natural home in 1919. He duly followed up, winning by eight lengths at odds of 11-4 at Liverpool, the shortest odds of any National winner, ridden yet again by E. Piggott. That name would be again etched on the National role of honour, when his son Keith trained the 1963 winner Ayala. The name Piggott is of course synonymous with racing because of Lester.
Two horses that finished behind Poethlyn in 1918 later went onto triumph in the National; Shaun Spadah in 1921, whilst Sergeant Murphy had to wait a further two years to become one of only two 13-year-olds to win the race and second that year was Shaun Spadah. Sergeant Murphy is one of the great unsung heroes of the National, having run at both Liverpool and Gatwick a total of seven times, the last of those was in 1925, when as a fifteen-year-old, carrying 11 stone 7 pounds, he finished an honourable tenth, after being remounted.
Like the wartime Classic winners, would the victors at Gatwick have triumphed at Liverpool, we of course will never know. The same though could be said of the Royal Ascot at York winners from 2005; so perhaps the names of Vermouth, Ballymacad and Poethlyn stand rightly proud.
We would like to thank jockeypedia for allowing us to use the photo of Ernie Piggott.