What do the Grand National and Marmite have in common ? The answer is you either love it or hate it. It`s the same with the horses. For every Red Rum there is an Art Prince. This section concentrates on the horses that surprised us, animals who really should not have enjoyed the experience but who did surprisingly well. Ten brave horses are listed below which finally gave me an excuse to include the wonderful High Ken on this site. There are also the top ten National disappointments which are listed in order. Sadly the latter was a far easier list to compile.
HIGH KEN (1975) - A notoriously dodgy jumper who gained infamy for bringing down red-hot favourite Pendil in the 1974 Cheltenham Gold Cup there were many who would have questioned the connections decision to run High Ken in a National where of course jumping is at a premium. However, for twenty fences High Ken surprised us all hardly touching a twig. At the big nineteenth fence he put in one of the greatest ever National leaps to take the lead. I have never seen a horse take off at the wings of the big ditch and survive. Sadly a crashing fall at the twenty first fence (when I think he was distracted by Glandford Brigg coming up on his inside) ended the dream. When the horse returned to Aintree for the next two Nationals he reverted to type and got no futher than the fourth fence.
EYECATCHER & BRIAN FLETCHER (1976) - He may have lost the ride on Red Rum but Fletcher returned to Aintree with his head held high and gave his former partner a run for his money on this unconsidered mare. Eyecatcher had run at Aintree before but her last visit had ended in disaster when she had stumbled over a dead horse when still in contention in the 1975 Topham. For Fletcher it was to be his last National ride but Eyecatcher proved her third was no fluke by filling the same place twelve months later.
RED RUM (1977) - Come on now did anyone seriously think he would come back and win at the age of twelve after tasting defeat two years running.
BIG BROWN BEAR (1987) - With only three very minor wins over fences and having pulled up six times over the previous two seasons 200-1 seemed a fair price for this horse from a small yard. However, he certainly did not run like such an outsider. Disputing the lead for most of the first circuit he was still a contender for a place until fading in the closing stages to eventually finish thirteenth which until 2010 was the best ever placing for a 200-1 shot.
FRIENDLY HENRY (1988) - I am not quite sure what a maiden was doing in the 1988 National but he was one of only nine finishers finishing in sixth place.
FIDDLERS PIKE (1994) - Not as hopeless a proposition as some listed here as he had won the John Hughes Grand National Trial at Chepstow the previous year. However he was a little old to be making a National debut (thirteen) and his rider was a fifty four year old vets wife. An early bath looked on the cards. However, keeping out of trouble in a race with some considerable grief they jumped into contention at the nineteenth fence and for one brief moment it looked as if the impossible was possible. Reality set in after Bechers second time but they still managed to finish an incredible fifth place which was an astonishing achievement. At the age of fourteen this durable animal contested the very first race over the Cheltenham Cross Country course.
GREENHILL TARE AWAY (1998) - In a race with only six horses in the handicap proper this 100-1 shot was one of several completely ignored in the market. He had been no slouch in his younger days and had run well in long distance chases in his time. This unconsidered outsider ran the race of his life and taking to the fences like a duck to water (this was after all a very wet National) he made most of the running. He was still in contention when he blundered and unseated Simon McNeill four fences from home. He could still have been remounted and got some place money but it had been a desperately hard slog in the mud and McNeill saved his horse any further exertion.
MERRY PEOPLE (1999) - When Merry People arrived at Aintree in 1999 for his first National the only prize he was looking at winning was my annual "Never heard of him" award. He had won eight chases in his native Ireland but had shown no form for two years and started at 200-1. Now you and I know that the longest price for a National winner has been 100-1 but for a few short strides it did look like the record would be smashed. Patiently ridden on the first circuit Merry People was slowly making ground on the leaders from Valentines second time and on the approach to the second last was amongst the leaders. Watch the race again and he appears to be going the best of all until he hit the top of the fence and came down. What would have happened had he stood up ? A place at worst. He was remounted to finish the course and ran in the next two Nationals unseating both times.
MAJED (2002) - I cannot be too critical of a multiple champion trainer who showed his commitment and love of the Grand National by saddling an incredible eighty one runners between 1981 & his retirement in 2006. However some of his choices were bizarre to say the least especially his young imports from France who would line up at Aintree with such little experience over fences in Britain that they were still classed as novices. Horses of the likes of Diwali Dancer (98), Tamarindo (99), Khaki Crazy (01) & Manx Magic (02) were all failures but Pipe surprised us with his most inexperienced National runner of all Majed who was making his British debut over fences in the National. Whilst Majed had run over fences in his native France he hadn`t won over them and was still a maiden when he came to Pipe in the autumn of 2000. He was certainly a useful hurdler and had not been out of the first two in his nine starts over hurdles prior to his assault on the National. To my knowledge Majed is the only UK trained horse to have lined up in an modern day National having never jumped a steeplechase fence in public. Barry Fenton, a replacement for the very sensibly injured Rodi Greene must have had mixed feelings as he accepted the mount at the eleventh hour but to his credit Majed got as far as Bechers second time a lot further than many others that day. To show he was not a bad National horse Majed completed the course in his other National start a year later.
PUNTAL (2004) - After the exploits of Majed you would have thought anything was possible but Puntal was still a very inexperienced horse to be running in a National . A six year old novice he had never run further than two and half miles and on his last start had unseated his rider in the Arkle Trophy at the Festival. As I scoured the final declarations the Thursday before the race and seing Puntals name a friend dryly remarked "Pipe is trying to kill that horse." How wrong we were. Puntal appeared to love Aintree and was up with the pace throughout and was still full of running when he unseated his rider at he nineteenth. He ended the season winning the Betfred Gold Cup at Sandown and became something of an Aintree stalwart completing the course in both 2006 & 2007.
THE ENTIRE FIELD (2013) - After the misery of 2011 & 2012 when it seemed that the National was staring at the abyss several changes were made most notably to the cores of the fences. It clearly worked - who would have expected the forty runners to all still be standing after seven fences ?
For every delightful surprise there is crashing disappointment and somehow it was easier to come up with the list below which I have put in order. A brief mention here to those that just failed to make the top ten
JOLLYS CLUMP (1976) (jumped and stayed but clearly hated Aintree), SANDWILLAN (1979) (had completed in 1976 got as far as Bechers second time a year later but when ridden by Jenny Hembrow, the second lady rider to attempt the National he fell at the first), SPARTAN MISSILE (1981) (I know he finished second but he left his challenge too late having been hunted in the rear for most of the race), LAST SUSPECT (1986) (Loved it first time hated it the second), THE ELLIER (1987) (replacement jockeys tactics left connections fuming), CHALLENGER DU LUC (1998) (this talented but wayward animal could not redeem himself at Aintree with a first fence fall), dual King George VI Chase winner SILVINIACO CONTI (2016) (having failed in previous attempts at the Gold Cup was re-routed to the National but despite being prominent early had lost his place so dramatically by the fourteenth fence was wisely pulled up)
1. DOUBLE THRILLER (1999) - Double Thriller came to Aintree in 1999 as potentially the hottest favourite since Golden Miller despite only having had five races over fences. Running in the colours of west country dairy farmer Reg Wilkins (who had saddled Double Silk possibly the best Hunter chaser of the nineties in 1994) and trained by Paul Nicholls Double Thriller came to prominence in a Cheltenham hunter chase in 1998 when he had beaten a then little known grey hunter chaser called Teeton Mill. Teeton Mill in a short space of five months went on to become the best chaser on the UK with back to back victories in the Hennessy, King George & Ascot Chase. When Double Thriller destroyed a small field in the John Bull Chase at Wincanton it looked as if greatness beckoned. A credible fourth place in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in his prep race for the National and the bookies were bracing themselves for a thrashing. However come Grand National morning he was surprisingly easy to back and he did not even start favourite (that honour falling to the little known mare Fiddling the Facts). In the National itself Double Thriller got no further than the first fence. His star shone brightly for a very short time and he disappeared into obscurity thereafter.
2. POINT BARROW (2007) - "It is not hard to find the National winner " I announced to my twelve year old son on Grand National morning in 2007. Armed with my copy of the Racing Post and "Ten Year Trends" I then showed him how easy it was to whittle down the forty strong field to this one sure fire certainty. How we laughed as the 2006 Irish Grand National winner fell at the very first fence.
3. FEATHERED GALE (1997) - Forgetting the drama surrounding the "Monday" National this was a National where a large number of fancied horses all seemed to hate the National experience. Go Ballistic, New Co, Dextra Dove and Lo Stregone all looked to be ideal National horses and none ran any sort of race at all. Feathered Gale was the most disappointing of all as he had won a Kerry National and was the reigning Irish National champion. He also unlike the others mentioned had form over Aintrees unique fences with his second place in the 1994 Becher Chase. Yet in the National itself he ran abyssmally, sulking in rear throughout before pulling up at the 27th fence. It was a miserable performance and made worse by the fact that I chose him over runaway winner Lord Gyllene.
4. MIINNEHOMA (1995) - Some National winners return to the scene of their great triumph and disappoint. Anglo, Seagram and Last Suspect all pulled up when tailed off a year after their victories. Miinnehoma`s performance in 1995 gets into the top ten however because he was a much better National winner than the others mentioned. In his National prep race he had run superbly in the Gold Cup finishing (an albeit distant) third to Master Oats. What went wrong at Aintree ? A mistake at the first fence and he was tailed off by Bechers first time. He raced in company with Gold Cap (who himself had survived a monumental blunder at the second) a fence behind the others until Richard Dunwoody wisely called it a day before the 21st fence. It was so bad that the stewards enquired of Dunwoody afterwards who confirmed that a combination of the first fence mistake and the ground had contributed to this lifeless performance. Miinnehoma never completed the course in a chase again and it was tragic to see him running in a hurdle race at Newton Abbot a year later.
5. GARVIVONIAN (2006) - He won the Becher Chase convincingly but never got into the National at all pulling up tamely at the Water Jump.
6. MARLBOROUGH (2002) - What could Marlborough have achieved if it were not for the wretched foot and mouth epidemic which ruined the 2000-01 National Hunt season ? Arguably the best chaser of the year he had remained unbeaten in three chases but had to settle for the now forgotten Gold Cup substitute that was run at Sandowns Whitbread Gold Cup meeting. Marlborough was the class horse of the 2002 National field and although he was without a win all season he had been placed in the Gold Cup. A good performance looked on the cards yet he was one of nine fallers at the first fence. This was a great pity as jockey Mick Fitzgerald (with his tongue firmly in his cheek) said that they were going really well at the time.
7. TWIN OAKS (1992) - A record winner of eight races at Haydock including the valuable Peter Marsh Chase and Greenalls Gold Cup Twin Oaks seemed an ideal Aintree type. Yet in his one attempt at the National he never really got into the race and whilst he stayed on to finish fifth there was a sense that he did not really take to the fences. He did not get another chance to prove his detractors wrong as he was retired after pulling up lame in the 1993 Greenalls Gold Cup.
8. GAY VULGAN (1977) - He came to Aintree with great credentials, unbeaten in five starts including the Bass Chase over four miles at Cheltenham and the National Hunt Handicap at the Festival. In Bill Smith he had a jockey with a 100 per cent completion rate in the National. Starting 9-1 joint second favourite he was badly impeded at the first which seemed to scare him as he tamely jumped round in rear thereafter and was tailed off when pulled up at the twenty first fence. Still only nine his career fizzled out thereafter and he only raced on two more occassions.
9. TRINITRO (2000) - We all knew deep down that the first ever Scandinavian assault on the National would end in failure but we did hope that this gallant effort would at least get further than it did. Trinitro was clearly the best Norwegian chaser in training but in a country where there were only about five steeplechases a year (they have since abolished steeplechasing altogether) that was perhaps not saying a great deal. Trinitro had won the Norwegian Grand National on his last start before Aintree but the Norsk equivalent was run over 2 mile 5 furlongs and attracted a seven runner field. Furthermore this race was run in September and Trinitro had not seen a racecourse for seven months. Taking a fearsome hold Trinitro was amongst the leaders at the first where he hit the top of the fence and came down in a typical "too fast too steep" fall. He continued riderless and did lead the field briefly before running out after one circuit. Trinitro did not return to Aintree but later in his career he added a Swedish National to his Norwegian triumph. He continued racing until the age of thirteen and also ran twice over the Cheltenham cross country course.
10. HANAKHAN (2001) - By backing this horse at 100-1 I was convinced that this former Sun Alliance Chase winner was going to be the biggest National shock of all time (and in doing so make me look very clever). Despite being ravaged by injury since his moment of glory in 1997 and the fact that he had showed nothing for new trainer Ginger McCain in two starts at Haydock I was convinced that McCain would train another National winner and that Hanakhan was the horse to do it. He even had top Irish jockey Barry Geraghty on board. What could possibly go wrong ? The second fence and a crashing fall that`s what. Hanakhan did at least win some point-to-points later on in his career and McCain and Geraghty subsequently tasted National success.