Owned by Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, otherwise known as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, trained by Peter Cazalet and ridden by Dick Francis, Devon Loch has the distinction of being arguably the unluckiest loser in the history of the Grand National. The world famous steeplechase is often won, or lost, in the last furlong or so, from the famous Elbow, halfway up the 494-yard run-in, to the winning post, but no-one could have predicted what happened in the closing stages of the 1956 renewal, which British Pathé News called “the most sensational Grand National Aintree has ever seen”.
The widely fancied Devon Loch was left in the lead by the fall of Armorial at the twenty-sixth fence and rejoining the racecourse proper had ESB, ridden by Dave Dick, for company. However, having safely negotiated all thirty obstacles and apparently beaten off the challenge of his nearest pursuer, Devon Loch set off up the run-in, with Dick Francis riding with just hands and heels.
A Royal victory looked assured until suddenly, inexplicably, 50 yards from the winning post, Devon Loch pricked his ears, half-jumped into the air and slithered to the ground in an awkward belly flop, with his forelegs out in front of him. Francis wasn’t unseated but, despite his best efforts, could only watch helplessly as ESB streaked past to win by 10 lengths. Devon Loch regained his footing, but almost collapsed again, so Francis dismounted.
Dick Francis, who died in 2010, aged 89, always maintained that Devon Loch didn’t rear up, or try to jump, but was simply overwhelmed by the wall of noise from the Aintree crowd. He once said, “I’ve looked at the newsreel time and time again and just as we were approaching the water jump, which he jumped on the first circuit, you see the horse prick his ears and his hindquarters just refused to work.”
Another popular theory was that Devon Loch caught sight of the water jump on his left and, in his distressed condition, instinctively took off. The newsreel to which Francis referred does appear to show his front feet leaving the ground at, or around, the take-off point for the water jump, but whether his collapse was caused by cramp, exhaustion, noise, or simply slipping on a muddy patch of ground, non-one will ever really know.