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Monday, April 5, 1999 Published at 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK


The world's greatest steeplechase

Moiffa - swam 50 miles and then took National victory in 1904

This Saturday all eyes will be on Aintree, as racing followers and part-time punters alike turn their attention to the world's greatest steeplechase.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup may be the event everybody in national hunt racing wants to win the most - but the Martell Grand National is, without doubt, the general public's favourite event on the racing calendar.

The distance of four-and-a-half miles is a marathon in racing terms and combined with the stiff fences at the Liverpool course and the large number of runners it is the highlight of the jumping season.

The history of the race dates back to 1839 when Lottery won the first race.

In those days the field had to jump a stone wall (now the water jump), cross a stretch of ploughed land and finish over two hurdles.


Over the years, there have been many Aintree heroes but possibly the most remarkable was a horse called Moiffa.

[ image: Becher's Brook - one of the most frightening fences at Aintree]
Becher's Brook - one of the most frightening fences at Aintree
In 1904 the horse's owner, Spencer Gollan, sent the stallion by ship from New Zealand to Liverpool. The vessel got caught in a terrible storm in the Irish Sea and when it was evident that the ship was sinking, the horse was taken from his box and left to roam free on the deck.

A day later, a fisherman heard a strange noise coming from an uninhabited island and went to investigate. There he found Moiffa and managed to get him aboard his vessel and took him to the mainland.

A journalist heard of the fisherman's find and published a story about the horse.

When Moiffa's trainer read of the curious tale he reclaimed the horse - and Moiffa won the National after swimming nearly 50 miles to safety.


Aintree has a fence named after the 1967 winner Foinavon - an unfancied outsider with a tendency to fall - who won at odds of 100-1.

On the day of the race his jockey could not make the 10 stones weight that the horse was due to carry so he went to Worcester to ride another horse.

John Buckingham picked up the spare ride and thought he would be lucky to even get round.

[ image: Foinavon - won at Tote odds of 444-1]
Foinavon - won at Tote odds of 444-1
On the first circuit nothing seemed remarkable about the race and the fancied horses were going as well as could be expected.

But it was all to change at the fence after Becher's Brook on the second circuit, as the virtually the whole field was wiped out.

At one of the smallest fences on the course all the other horses either fell or refused after loose horses got in their way.

Foinavon - who was out of contention - avoided all the carnage in front of him and jumped the fence successfully, albeit at a rather pedestrian pace.

Although some 17 horses remounted and finished the race the distance Foinavon had "stolen" at the fence meant that he led over the final seven fences to go on to collect the prize.

Devon Loch

Possibly the most famous horse racing owner in the world is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In 1959, her horse Devon Loch ended up one of the most unlucky losers of the race.

After winning twice in the season the horse's owner and trainers were confident of the ability of Devon Loch to land the race that had eluded the Queen Mother.

The horse's jockey Dick Francis had Devon Loch going nicely and said that he still had a "double-handful" as he jumped the last.

But disaster struck just 50 yards from home when the horse appeared to jump a fence that was not there and collapsed onto his stomach.

Although Francis managed to get the horse going again Devon Loch was passed by ESB and the prize had gone.

Red Rum

It would be impossible to talk about the history of the National without mentioning Red Rum.

The Irish-born horse won the National three times and was placed second on the only other two occasions he ran in the race.

[ image: The Nation's hero Red Rum wins his third title in 1977]
The Nation's hero Red Rum wins his third title in 1977
Rummie first won the race in 1973 after managing to out-stay the Australian horse Crisp, who was top-weight and struggled in the ground at Aintree.

The following year Red Rum repeated the feat and became a favourite with the public and racing aficionados alike.

In 1975 Red Rum was beaten by double Gold Cup winner L'Escargot but as Rummie was giving away 11 pounds the result was far from remarkable. In 1976 he was beaten by Rag Trade after giving away even more weight.

The following year Rummie gave possibly his most convincing performance in the race and spread-eagled the field to win by 25 lengths - becoming the greatest ever National horse.

Red Rum was retired and finished with a career record that included three Flat race wins, three Hurdle race wins and also 21 Steeplechase victories. He was also placed 37 times in various events.

He died at the age of 30 in 1995 and he lays buried with his head facing the winning post at the Aintree course.

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