A virulent wind with rain on its tail comes cutting across the South Lancashire plain laden with heaven-knows-what poisons from textile plants and chemical works. This is some of the most abused land on earth, the agglomeration of small manufacturing towns that fuse the cities of Liverpool and Manchester into one dreary lump. A curious place to hold the world's greatest steeplechase, on a green patch bounded by decaying suburbs and newer, even more hideous, high-rise apartments. To the south, the estuary of the Mersey empties greasily into the Irish Sea.
Driving to the track from half-Irish Liverpool, you pass bulldozed slums, their half-standing walls daubed with gut slogans of the Northern Ireland troubles: NO POPE HERE, HANG PAISLEY, JOIN THE IRA, VOTE PROTESTANT. A difficult environment to triumph over, even to ignore, but Aintree manages it. You turn off A56 and are soon in a verdant world that still remembers the gallant Captain Becher who was leading the field in the first Grand National in 1839 when he fell at the sixth fence—a high, rough, jagged hedge with a six-foot-wide brook—and gave his name forever to the jump (left).
Becher's Brook is full this cold spring morning on the eve of the 1972 race. There have been rainstorms for three days, yet the turf is still springy and full of life. The finest sod in the world, any jockey will tell you, and not simply because only one meeting is held in most-years at Aintree: the Liverpool Spring Meeting, culminating with the Grand National over four miles and 856 yards.
This morning young Frank Turner is undergoing the ritual of walking the course. He is a 21-year-old jockey, very pale and in his best suit. Every word he says is contradicted by the way he looks.
"I'm looking forward to it," he declares in a strangulated voice. "I'm feeling great. I'm going to have great fun." Meanwhile, he is looking fixedly at a jump even bigger and meaner than Becher's, the towering Chair Fence, a six-foot open ditch combined with a thorn fence of 5'2" dressed with spruce. In spite of his name, Turner's English is heavily accented. He has lived all his life in Italy and now it is Italian pride that is pushing him on. Tomorrow he will be riding Lisnaree, Irish-bred but, as he firmly points out, the first Italian-owned, Italian-ridden horse to enter the National. "It's going to be on Italian TV," he tells everybody. The thought seems to cheer him.
"What we'll have to give this fella before the race," says Eddie Harty firmly, "is a Liverpool Cocktail. Half orange juice, half champagne with a load of glucose in it."
"No thank you," replies Turner. He keeps his arms very straight and stiff by his sides.
"Gerraway," says Harty, "it'll do you good. I always took one before the race. Or a couple. An hour beforehand to give the stuff a chance to settle down." Harty won the Grand National in 1969 on Highland Wedding. He is a small, battered Irishman, no longer a steeplechase jockey. He smashed an arm and severed a nerve in it at Cheltenham five months ago. Now he is taking a fatherly interest in Turner.
"I wish he'd take that glass of champagne," says Harty as the young jockey walks ahead. "He is overcontrolled, just like I used to be when I started. But I learned to relax. The night before the race I always went out for a haircut, then I'd have a couple of glasses of wine with my dinner. But then I never had a weight problem like some of the lads who'll be sweating it out tonight in the Southport Turkish Baths."
Turner waits for Harty to catch up. "The fences in Italy are bigger," he says proudly and then admits, "but you can jump through them." The two men move around the course, disregarding the smoke pall over Liverpool and the railway siding that flanks Becher's Brook. They identify the 16 daunting and historic obstacles that will face the enormous field of 42 riders in the morning, enormous but not as huge as the record year of 1929 when 66 horses started. Neither are the hazards quite as fierce as they were. Since 1890 it has not been necessary to cross plowland on which, in some years, turnips grew. The biggest change came in 1961, following insistent protests over the number of fallen horses that, were killed or had to be dispatched. Until then, the fences rose straight up, at a 90-degree angle, but for the 1961 National they were sloped on the takeoff side so that the horses had a couple of extra feet in which to gain height.
But a midair view of Becher's still can turn a jockey's heart as he sees the drop on the far side. The Canal Turn remains a brutal right-angle twist coming just after a fence; riders misjudge the curve when they try to save ground. And even now Valentine's (named for a horse that, spectators swore, stopped dead at it, made a lunge and wriggled across on its belly to win a bet for its owner in the National of 1840) knocks down tired horses on the second time round.
So the auxiliary services that are assembled on race day are very necessary: seven ambulances for the jockeys; the horse ambulance with its interior cradle for those animals that will recover; and, more sinisterly, the antique beer dray, drawn by two cart horses to carry off the carcasses of fallers that must be shot on the track. Mounted police sit like statuary on big, dock-tailed bays alongside the fences.
Those at Becher's Brook are surprisingly talkative and cynical. "Not much of a thrill for us, watching horses. Got our own, haven't we? Spend five hours a day with them, don't we?" says a young one with heavy features. "But you do get a bit of a giggle when some of those fellers come off their mounts," he concedes. "Brightens the day a bit. And you need brightening up when you know Mrs. Topham has got her binoculars on you, waiting for you to take a crafty smoke so as she can report you to the superintendent. And then you'll see her on the telly giving lumps of sugar to the police horses, the old...."
"Watch it, Dennis," says the other half of the peaked-cap pair. But Dennis is not alone in finding it hard to love Mirabel Topham, now an efflorescent 80, an ex-showgirl who inherited Aintree from her husband. Mrs. Topham has battled bookmakers, the BBC (which was forced to broadcast her highly amateur commentary on the National while the question of copyright was fought out) and racing authorities who, until a few years ago, technically refused to acknowledge that she existed, on the grounds that she was a woman. As far back as 1964 Mrs. Topham tried to sell Aintree for housing to provide, she said loftily, "a substantial contribution to the social needs of Liverpool and its neighborhood." The asking price was $2.5 million but Lord Sefton, doyen of the National Hunt Committee, had a High Court order issued that prevented her from disposing of the land for any purpose other than horse racing or agriculture. The legal wrangling continued through the 1960s. Each Grand National was said to be the last and, true to tradition, on the eve of the 1972 race in a television interview Mrs. Topham declared that this was the finale. (In fact, the 1973 renewal will take place on March 31.) Mrs. Topham invited offers of around $6.1 million, the cost of living having risen somewhat in eight years. Failing a British offer, she said, her agents would be instructed to advertise in the United States.
Bob Pitman will ride Lime Street. His horse is 25 to 1, lower odds than they look when one considers that three out of four Grand National runners will not finish. "You couldn't build this course anywhere else, could you?" he demands. "The race could never be lost, could it, because the public would...well, there would be a national appeal. Like when they wanted to export that oil painting by Titian."
For a well-regarded steeplechase jockey like Pitman, the National dominates the jumping season. "At the beginning you have your eye on four or five possible rides," he says, "but by Christmas a couple will have dropped out. Then, when you know your ride, you start fancying your chance. Trouble is, in the National everybody else does, too. But the more times you've been round, the better. I've ridden at Aintree three times and once was second.
"There's no other race like it. There's a great spirit. If you were riding you would hear all the chitchat the first time round when you're taking it as relaxed as you can. You'll find yourself alongside some amateur and you'll say 'Becher's coming up, youngster; it's small, don't worry.' It's crazy to go for medals on that first circuit. You just hunt around it, taking everything steady. It's over the last mile and a half that you go hard. If you're still on.
"I've seen things in the National that you would never see in another race. Like a man falling off backward with his arms stretched wide and the lads on either side dragging him back into the saddle. It's dangerous though, and nobody wants to look for more danger even though there's ¬£25,000 [about $65,000] coming to the winner.
"My first time, a horse alongside me refused and shot his jockey over his head, right over the fence. The lad jumped the fence on his own. He landed on his feet, running like hell with 40 horses behind him. He got about 10 yards before he was mown down."
A photographer approaches. "Oh, no, not you, please," says Pitman, covering his face. The photographer grins and walks off. "I'm not superstitious," Pitman says, "but three times he's snapped me this season and every time I've come off my horse in the next race."
The morning gathering at Aintree is thinning out and there are more than 24 hours to go before the race, but already Ron Barry, from Limerick, is bitterly disappointed. He had been set to ride Red Sweeney, the favorite. "We looked at him yesterday morning," Barry says, "and he was just a little bit lame, you know? Only a bruised foot. In a day or two he'd be over it. But we couldn't change him. He's been withdrawn." The Liverpool morning paper had reported the rider was in tears when he heard the verdict. The papers always exaggerated, someone suggested. "No, they were right for once," Barry says, wandering off in the direction of the County Stand.
Like most of the tatterdemalion buildings at Aintree, the County Stand hardly lives up to the upper-set sound of its name. The paint is peeling and you get the feeling that maybe, after all, Mrs. Topham is serious about selling. "It is a very democratic meeting," says the police inspector who looks after the press, seeking to excuse the general shabbiness. If the National meeting has any tone at all, the place to seek it is the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, a rococo relic of the Age of Steam. It was built over 100 years ago, before Southampton displaced Liverpool as the terminal for transatlantic liners. Here, beneath massive chandeliers and gilded ceilings, first-class passengers gathered until it was time for the train to London.
Now the Adelphi's glories are faded, its clientele mostly somber businessmen. But during the Liverpool Spring Meeting the hotel explodes. On Thursday of National week racing journalists of magisterial authority like Clive Graham of the London Daily Express hold court in the cocktail bar, and, owners, trainers and jockeys gather. It is an evening for greeting long-lost friends. Miss Virginia Guest appears, so svelte that it is hard to believe it is no more than 12 hours since she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to fly from New York to watch her father's entry, L'Escargot, compete. The horse is now the favorite. Sipping a vodka and tonic, Miss Guest is a lot more self-possessed than young Frank Turner, who is still drifting around refusing all refreshment. He goes to bed early.
By 8 p.m. on Friday the noise in the bar is approaching the decibel level of the buses grinding along outside on Lime Street. The first large contingent of Irish has arrived. Many more will come over on the night ferry from Dublin because the Irish have always been deeply involved in the race. Even for the first National a five-foot stone wall was built on the course to make Irish chasers feel at home. As usual, there are numerous Irish-trained entries, well-fancied horses like L'Escargot, Black Secret and Money Boat and, well, others like The Pooka on which bookies have been offering 500 to 1. The Pooka is owned by Mr. C. Ross, trained by Mr. C. Ross, and ridden by Mr. C. Ross, a farmer in Mullingar, County Westmeath.
Cecil Ross, of course, is part of the tradition of the race. Fox-hunting farmers invented steeplechasing, a sport born, it is said, after a blank day in the hunting field when one frustrated horseman suggested to another a race to a church steeple, which could be seen in the distance peeking above intimidating fences. And it is one of the glories of the present race that there is still room in it for men like Ross who might have taken part in that first steeplechase.
He is a tall, rawboned man of 32 who is riding overweight at 144 pounds. Ross is a bit on the defensive about The Pooka, whose Irish name means a large, ill-intentioned, lubberly fairy: "He's fresh. At least I think he's fresh. He's a big, quiet, sensible horse and he has fallen only once in his life. And he's clever. Very, very clever. We can't do anything more than hope, can we?" It has cost Ross $750 to come over with his horse, his wife and his brother, and he is riding in his first National. "I walked the course a couple of years ago and thought it wasn't too bad. But I walked it again this morning and changed my mind. I'm not brave. I wish it was over." In spite of the odds there is a lot of Mullingar money riding on The Pooka and there will be a big crowd around the television in the Greville Arms at 3:15 p.m. on Saturday.
Neither Cecil Ross nor any of the other jockeys are around late Friday evening to see Eddie Harty's humane but doomed attempt to revive a pair of kippered herring in the highly oxygenated waters of the Adelphi fountain. His wife Pat—black-haired, sharp-eyed and very Dublin—looks on indulgently, knowing that for the first time in nine years Harty does not have to worry about what time he goes to bed on the eve of the National. For the first time in all those years she is relaxed, too. "It's an awful thing to say," she confides, "but when he got his fall at Cheltenham, I was delighted because he couldn't ride again. He would have done something dreadful to himself in the end. He's broken so many bones. He found a lovely, easy way 10 get disabled for good.
"I hate this trip but Eddie was saying last night he wanted to make Aintree a yearly thing. I'd rather watch flat racing on the telly. I wouldn't even want to own a horse in the National, and I never want the tension again that I had on race days. When he won on Highland Wedding, I didn't see most of the race. I didn't want to, so I locked myself in the ladies' loo. A very nice attendant hammered on the door and shouted, 'Come on quick, he's winning, he's won the race!' Then I passed out."
At breakfast at the Adelphi on race morning there are numerous pale faces poring over the betting daily, The Sporting Life. Late wagers are going on Well To Do, tipped by Clive Graham in the Express, and on Gay Trip, the winner in 1970, but the heavy money is still concentrated on L'Escargot. The day is cold and wet with the same nasty wind that has been blowing all week. Wise punters are saying that the heavy going will be too much for little Gay Trip, who stands only 15.3 hands and will carry 163 pounds.
At the track, wide open to the gale, it is a penance to get out of the car, and the bookies are huddled under huge green umbrellas waiting for the occasional bettor to venture into the lashing rain to place a wager. In the primitive press box, where it is necessary to stand, there is plenty of room at the front: people jostle to get near the color TV in the corner on which various pundits, including Eddie Harty, are sorting out the prospects. Aintree looks desolate. The crowd is thin on this appalling day, at least by National standards. About 50,000 have gathered. Television has brought to an end the great prewar crowds, up to half a million, that used to watch the National. Even the gypsies selling white heather and tips in little envelopes are subdued, and the grassy embankment near Becher's Brook looks almost empty.
The gloom over the course lifts abruptly when the horses parade from the paddock, and the hush is a tribute to this simple and utterly effective coup de thé√¢tre. Cecil Ross stands out, taller than most of the jockeys, in canary and green silks. Binoculars pick up Tommy Carberry on L'Escargot in chocolate with blue hoops, and champion jockey Terry Biddlecombe on Gay Trip in white and blue with scarlet-hooped sleeves. Somewhere in the line also is Frank Turner on Lisnaree, but there is little time to pick him out. The huge field is lining up and they are off in a roar that is turned dull and leaden by the rain and wind. "Hunt around it the first time" is what all the jockeys say, which is fine in theory, but they come up to the first fence in a bunch, the first that is meant to be easy, a mere 4'6" of thorn fence dressed with gorse, just a rounded fence nicely presented on the straight. But it claims two horses right away, Saggart's Choice and Gyleburn. Then another plain fence, and then the third, the first of the open ditches. Here L'Escargot goes down and a lot of money with him. The field recedes in the misty rain. It is easy to lose them in the binoculars and one is tempted to glance back at the television. But picking them up again is easy, too: just look for the line of white ambulances driving parallel to the track. They are needed at Becher's: on the two circuits, nine horses refuse or come down.
Now riderless horses are becoming a menace. Loose chasers take the lead, tearing at the fences, utterly confident with nostrils flared until seconds before the jump when the confidence drains and they cut hard to left or right in the path of oncoming riders. But there is no escalating crash, as there was in 1967 at the 23rd when the 27 remaining horses of a field of 44 smashed in a melee from which Foinavon emerged alone to build up an impregnable lead.
In 1972 there is attrition rather than spectacular disaster. The Chair claims three. By the beginning of the second circuit only 12 jockeys are seated and racing, and Fair Vulgan has been leading the field for two miles. He goes down this time at Becher's and suddenly there is the realization that strong, clever The Pooka is moving well and Cecil Ross is only a couple of fences from home. But tragically for Cecil, though mercifully for a lot of punters who are recalling with anguish the 500 to 1 they could have gotten on the horse, The Pooka falls at the 24th. There are four horses fighting it out—Well To Do, Gay Trip, Black Secret and General Symons—when it comes to the last demanding test of Aintree, the 494 yards uphill to the winning post. Halfway there it becomes clear that Well To Do, on the inside, is going to beat the gallant, heavily handicapped Gay Trip; he wins by two lengths. An utterly grueling, utterly characteristic National, its justification still the same as when the racing correspondent of the Liverpool Courier wrote wordily but truly in 1839: "All men of ardent feelings love moderate danger for the very excitement it produces and the intrepidity which it brings into action."
Two postscripts. Frank Turner got as far as Becher's the first time round and fell so magnificently, with such style, that he made the lead picture in the sports pages of The Sunday Times next day. On the evening of the race he was seen in the Adelphi swinging his arms.
Cecil Ross departed for Mullingar happily on Saturday night, having sold his underestimated The Pooka for $11,115 just after the race.
Sunday morning the Adelphi breakfast room was nearly empty.
Mirabel Topham is queen of Aintree and all she surveys. Ever present is the dray to cart away the unfortunate. Bookies look for the fortunate, and you can bet your boots a tic-tac man will be relaying odds.