As ever, it was celebrated commentator Peter O’Sullevan who was the first to call it right, live on the BBC: “As they race up to the line, in the National that surely isn’t, Esha Ness is the winner.”
It was April 3, 1993 at Aintree and, for the first and only time in its history, the Grand National was declared void, destined to enter the annals as ‘The Race That Never Was’.
For students of the cock-up theory of history, here was the perfect case: the world’s greatest steeplechase sabotaged, not by the IRA or even world war, but by a combination, it seems, of a flag which failed to unfurl and a faulty catch on a starting gate.
The basic facts of the fiasco are well-known: on what was described by those present as a filthy, bitterly cold day with rain lashing down – “perfect for the Grand National,” purred Des Lynam on the Beeb — an estimated global television audience of 300 million looked on in mounting astonishment as, after an initial delay caused by animal rights protesters getting onto the course, there followed two false starts when, on each occasion, a number of horses and jockeys became entangled in the sodden, sagging tape.
The second time, however, some 30 of the 39 riders failed to see a recall flag and galloped away. Alerted by the frantic shouting and waving of spectators, officials and trainers along the course, the majority eventually pulled up but, oblivious to everything else except the job of getting their charges around the punishing four and half mile circuit, seven riders continued to the bitter end, with John White on board the 50-1 shot Esha Ness first home.
“I could see there were only a few horses around, but I thought the others had fallen or something,” White said afterwards. “As I crossed the finish line, I thought I’d won the National but (jockey) Dean Gallagher walked up to me and said, ‘John, this race mightn’t go ahead’. That’s the first I knew of it. After that it was chaos.”
If there was one person at Aintree that day who was even more devastated than the unfortunate jockey by the shambolic turn of events, it was the trainer of Esha Ness, Jenny Pitman. Tracy Piggott later described seeing her coming into the weighing room “in floods of tears.”
Recalling the day for a BBC Radio Five Live 20th anniversary special this week, Pitman said: “it was a complete nightmare. They jumped off a second time and Richard Dunwoody was tangled up in the tape and they are clearly going to call them back. I was thinking it was just a joke.
“I ran out of the marquee we were watching it in and knocked on the stewards’ door asking them to stop it because it was making us look a laughing stock but they weren’t there, they were up in a box.
“By then I didn’t want my horses to run as they were all wound up, I was scared for them. I could see Esha Ness in among them on a TV screen in the weighing room. John Buckingham (valet) got me a chair to sit on and a drink of water and my sister Mandy came in. I told her I couldn’t do this anymore.
“It was a dreadful exhibition of incompetence and fiasco. I wanted them to stop and if they had and said we’d race on Monday that would have been common sense. At the end of the day, racing was very lucky to come out of it with a comedy show of incompetence of the highest order and not a riot.
“The saddest part was Patrick Bancroft (owner), all he ever wanted was a runner in the Grand National and they never even gave him a blanket for the horse or anything. They could have given him that, a token of something. He got nothing but heartache.”
“And I was sad for myself, I was gutted we’d put so much work in, I was heartbroken to see the jockeys walk back in, some were very angry, but nobody could pinpoint where the blame lay at the time. It was a bit like pass the parcel and nobody wanted to be left holding it.”
After angry scenes on the course – one eyewitness describing a “lynch mob” trying to get at the starter, Keith Brown, who had to be protected by police — the finger of blame was initially pointed at the recall man Ken Evans but it later emerged that although Brown had raised the red flag, it had not unfurled, making it difficult if not impossible for Evans, located further along the track, to see the signal for a second false start.
Talking to Five Live, however, Jenny Pitman absolved both men of responsibility.
“You only had to see the first page and a half of the (official) report to see what happened,” she insisted. “There’d been a faulty catch on the starting gate the year before and it had to be held down manually. So a year before all this happened there was a faulty catch on the starting gate and it remained on the starting gate and it malfunctioned. And that’s what happened. So whose fault was it? Not the starter’s, not the flag man’s, not mine, not Esha Ness’s, not any of the jockeys.”
For Peter O’Sullevan, the bizarre sequence of events – “a million to one chance”, in the words of the man from Ladbrokes — all added up to what the commentator called “the most sensational occurrence during the long history of the world’s most famous steeplechase.”
And, after reeling off the names of the seven horses to finish that day, he summoned up the line that would follow them into a strange kind of sporting immortality: “They are the only ones to have completed the race that surely never was.”