It is with great sadness over the last few weeks that we have lost three Grand National legends in John Buckingham, Brian Fletcher and Denys Smith.
The passing of John Buckingham at the age of 76 on December 22nd is particularly poignant as the 2017 Randox Grand National will be the 50th anniversary of his extraordinary victory on Foinavon – one of, if not, the most famous runnings of the race in 1967 when the pair benefited from a pile up at the 23rd fence from an impossible position to win at 100/1 on John’s first ride in the race.
Seventeen jockeys remounted but none could catch Foinavon on which John steered a wide course to overcome the melee and clamber over the obstacle, from which point both jockey and horse were assured of a place in horseracing’s folklore.
Michael O’Hehir’s commentary of the incident to this day remains one of sport broadcasting’s most enduring and, that fence, the smallest on the course, was renamed Foinavon thereafter. John retired from the saddle four years later at the age of 31 and set up a jockeys’ valet business with his brother for 30 years before selling it on to Chris Maude.
Brian Fletcher rode the Grand National winner on three occasions, only one of three jockeys to have achieved this feat highlighting what a remarkable horseman he was, twice on Red Rum in 1973 and 1974 after he guided Red Alligator to victory in 1968 a day after enduring a fall that many felt would rule him out of the race. He passed away aged 69 on January 11th.
Brian started his career as an apprentice with Denys Smith in Bishop Auckland as a sixteen-year-old but such was his progress that he was entrusted to partner Red Alligator only three years later in Foinavon’s Grand National where he remounted to finish third. He also finished third on the mare, Eyecatcher, in 1976 but retired later that year aged just 29 having ridden 371 winners. He was never champion jockey but finished second to Josh Gifford in the 1967/68 season falling five winners short.
His greatest ride will forever be remembered as his first Grand National victory on Red Rum, where he slowly but surely reeled back the Australian superstar and top weight, Crisp, over the final two miles in sole pursuit having been 30+ lengths adrift, was another sporting, let alone horseracing, iconic moment that is replayed to an admiring older and wide-eyed new audience year after year.
After his retirement from race riding Brian farmed sheep and bred Welsh Cobs near Bishop Auckland before moving to Wales.
Denys Smith died aged 92 on November 13th having enjoyed a long life, 45 years of which training racehorses.
The highlight of his career was on the Fletcher-ridden Red Alligator in the 1968 Grand National by 17 lengths at 12/1 having won both the Durham National and Yorkshire National.
A former taxi driver and point-to-point trainer, Denys took out a full licence in 1958 after which he sent out over 1,600 winners before retiring in 2002. During the 1969/70 jumps season and the 1970 Flat Season, he became the first trainer to saddle 50 winners over both codes so was very much a trendsetter during a time when it was considered very difficult to train Flat and Jumps horses.
In addition, he was also self taught and enjoyed nothing better than getting one over the southern aristocratic racing gentry. To this day he remains the only trainer to have won the Grand National and Lincoln.
A short drive from where Denys trained, you can raise a pint to the man and his achievements in a pub named after his most famous horse in South Church. Whilst you are at it, also raise a glass to John Buckingham and Brian Fletcher.
Cheers. And thank you for the memories.