t was the most famous Grand National of them all and by far the most bizarre. It was Michael O’Hehir’s finest hour behind a microphone. It was the afternoon, 50 years ago today, that gave birth to the deathless tale of one freakishly lucky winner and to hard-luck stories by the dozen, each of them more baroque than the next. One of the hard-luck stories belonged to Frankie Shortt, who amid the pandemonium was pitched into the middle of the 23rd fence - and was left to pick thorns out of his backside for a fortnight afterwards.
What was it like to be part of such once-in-a-lifetime madness, Frankie?
“It was like the end of the world.”
We’ll get to his memories of the apocalypse in due course. First, meet Frankie Shortt.
You’re unlikely to have heard of him if you’re under the age of 50. But he was a jockey back in the day and a good one. Didn’t win Gold Cups or Champion Hurdles but enjoyed – the operative word - a successful career in a cruelly unforgiving game for a decade and a half.
A couple of Munster Nationals, a Kerry National, the Thyestes at Gowran Park three times. He was champion jockey in 1962 and joint-champion the following season.
A native of Kilkenny city he was for years stable jockey to Paddy Murphy outside Kilcullen. Tom Dreaper, Paddy Sleator, WT O’Grady and an emerging Paddy Mullins were among the leading trainers of the era. Bobby Beasley, Bobby Coonan, Tony Redmond and Arkle’s partner Pat Taaffe (“a hell of a horseman – he didn’t win his races at the finishing post, he won them half a mile out”) were the big-name jockeys.
A different time, a different game. It was hazardous physically and precarious financially. How hazardous physically? Here’s how: three broken legs, a broken arm, every rib broken, a fractured pelvis, a broken jaw, a broken nose, a broken hip, a broken skull (“and I’m still together”). One year at Cheltenham he was riding in the novice chase on the second day. Thirty-five runners or so. He remembers going down to the first fence. His next memory is waking up in hospital the following Sunday. Broken jaw, fractured skull.
How precarious financially? Here’s how: two old pounds per ride on the Flat (he was a dual-purpose jockey initially), £2.50 over jumps. Ten percent of the prize money, yes, “but if you didn’t catch the owner before he left the racecourse you were in trouble”.
These days, he points out, it’s €180 a ride over jumps with the prize-money percentage paid into the jockey’s account by the Turf Club. No messing, no running around after unwilling owners.
“Even allowing for the changes in currency it’s still fantastic money. I could be a millionaire now…” he muses. He’s only half-joking.
Aintree every April he enjoyed. His debut Grand National saw him capsize at the first. One year he fell at Becher’s, another year at Valentines. Every other time he got around. And this day half a century ago he rode a grand strapping ten-year-old called Aussie, trained by Paddy Murphy, in the great race. Little did Frankie Shortt know what was ahead of them. Then again, how could he have possibly imagined it?
Having been introduced to Frankie Shortt it’s now time to meet the equine protagonist of this piece. Not Aussie, unfortunately. Foinavon.
Bred in Pallasgreen in Limerick he was bought by Anne, Duchess of Westminster in May 1960. Three months later the duchess bought another horse she sent to her trainer Tom Dreaper. Like Foinavon he’d be named after a mountain on her estate in Scotland. Arkle.
Not that Foinavon was related to Arkle in any way bar in terms of nomenclature. In his four years in the duchess’s colours his status slowly declined from that of promising youngster to incorrigible old lag. In seven outings in his last season with Dreaper he fell three times, was unplaced twice, was brought down once – and, oddly, won the Foxrock Cup at Leopardstown. Pat Taaffe, a frequent unwilling partner, deemed him to be “the most unambitious horse I ever sat on”. No great outpouring of grief accompanied Foinavon’s departure in the spring of 1965, eventually to find new lodgings with an obscure Berkshire trainer called John Kempton.
Kempton was not a man to mollycoddle his horses. Foinavon had 15 races in the course of 1966. Two second places, in the very much off-Broadway settings of Devon & Exeter and Huntingdon, were the best he could manage and he was unplaced five times.
None of which prevented Kempton running him in the 1967 Gold Cup, where to nobody’s surprise he was unplaced again, or entering him in the Grand National.
Forty-five runners went to post at Aintree on April 8th with Foinavon a 100/1 shot. Aussie was 50/1, another of the bottom weights on 10 stone (“can be given only a very outside chance,” sniffed the previewer in The Irish Times). Honey End, with Josh Gifford up, was the favourite at 15/2. Among the leading fancies was Different Class, owned by the Hollywood star Gregory Peck who was present, at 100/8 along with Anglo, the 1966 winner.
As the jockeys left the weigh room Michael O’Hehir, on BBC duty and lurking as was his habit in order to give a last once-over to their colours, spotted a jockey with a black jacket and yellow and red braces. This didn’t ring a bell. O’Hehir double-checked his racecard: still nothing. Finally he buttonholed the jockey, who turned out to be John Buckingham. “Oh, I’m riding Foinavon,” Buckingham explained. “The owner thought that green was unlucky and they decided that today they’d use these new colours.”
The time O’Hehir spent on reconnaissance would not be wasted.
We’re watching the DVD of the race. Frankie has no problem identifying Aussie, who helpfully is wearing a noseband. He even remembers the colours. Old gold and royal blue, the colours of Mrs RH Preston.
“Dick Preston had given his wife a present of the horse. An English couple. Very decent owners. You couldn’t ask for a better client.”
Over the first and Bassnet, Meon Valley and Popham Down fall. It should have been the end of Popham Down’s afternoon. It wasn’t quite.
Over the second. Over the third. On they go. Frankie is enraptured looking on, riding the race all over again, giving the leg of his chair the occasional kick. Aussie is mentioned in the commentary approaching the Canal Turn and again at the water.
“He was a fine big horse, 16’2. Ideal for Aintree. Not a lot of pace but he stayed very well. We were mid-division all the way. From the starting gate to the finish we were going as hard as he could leave a leg on the ground.”
As Grand Nationals of a bygone era went this is proving a strikingly non-attritional one. Preceded by two loose horses on the inside, one of them Popham Down, they clear Becher’s for the second time with 28 still left in the race and Aussie in 16th place. Then, approaching the 23rd, Popham Down veers back across in front of the fence.
Cue chaos. Horses running into one another. Horses being baulked. Horses refusing. Jockeys being unseated. Jockeys on one side of the fence and their mounts on the other side. Ten lengths or so behind, Frankie could see the dominoes falling but couldn’t do anything about it.
“It was like the end of the world. Everything had stopped there. I saw a hole in the fence and I went for the hole. Just as I was about to take off a horse jumped across us from the left. He hit us in the legs. I somersaulted out of the saddle and landed right on the middle of the fence. Somehow I managed to hold onto the reins. I never let them go.
“I got up and jumped straight back on him. I took two or three strides back. He jumped it and we were away again.”
Aussie was the first to give chase. The other jockeys who’d remounted and managed to get over the fence followed suit. But pursuit was idle. For all his faults Foinavon was a decent stayer and he was now simply too far ahead to be caught. Every jockey caught in the mayhem had his regrets afterwards. Frankie was no exception. If only he’d been able to get through that hole in the fence at the first time of asking.
“That’s where the luck comes in. If I had to get over at the first time of asking I’d have been as far ahead of Foinavon as he was of me when I got going again. I might have ridden the winner. But that’s racing. That’s the Grand National. And a lot of the lads were far more unlucky than I was. Josh Gifford on Honey End would have won by two fences if he’d stood up.”
Honey End ran on to finish second. Red Alligator, the following year’s hero, came third. Aussie plugged on valiantly in seventh. Improbably there were no fewer than 18 finishers.
For Frankie there was a postscript. Those thorns. Arms, nose, legs, backside. Particularly his legs and backside, festering there for the next fortnight. A job for the doctor, presumably? Not at all. “I pulled them out myself.”
Frankie Shortt had one splendid hour at Aintree left to him. In 1970 Miss Hunter gave him a wonderful spin around the place and they finished third behind Pat Taaffe on Gay Trip. Eventually, however, the injuries caught up with him. Happily he had the sense to walk away from the game before he was wheelchaired away. These days he’s hale and hearty, sharp as a boxful of tacks and moving rather more smoothly than a man who’ll be 80 next month has any right to. He and Mary had six children and they live with the youngest, Dermot, just off the motorway in Old Kilcullen. Mary was postmistress in Kilcullen for 25 years and he was her assistant. Nowadays she oversees activities in their handsome garden and he obeys orders there too. He plays a bit with the Royal Curragh golf club and enjoys the racing on TV.
Ask him to nominate his favourite contemporary jockey and he can’t. He admires them all. But he won’t compare and contrast. “There’s nothing between the riders of today and yesterday. The job is the same now as it was then. A leg each side, look out between the ears and hope you stay on.” For a day or two afterwards he had his regrets about Aussie. Not anymore.
“What’s for you,” he asserts, “won’t pass you by.”
If it had been Frankie’s destiny he’d have won the 1967 Grand National. It wasn’t so he didn’t. Big deal.
He’d still be dining out in it if he had, though?
“Wouldn’t I just!”