Not to be confused with the winner of the Badminton Horse Trials in 2017, the titular Nereo refers to the horse bred by Beltran de Osorio y Diez de Rivera, otherwise known as the Duke of Alburquerque. In the mid-1970s, the “Iron” Duke, as he was dubbed by the British press, became a household name in Britain thanks to his unsuccessful attempts to win the Grand National on Nereo.
Inspired, as an eight-year-old boy, by a newsreel of the 1928 Grand National, the Duke had tried, and failed, to complete the National course on Brown Jack III, in 1952, Jonjo, in 1963, Groomsman, in 1965, and L’Empereur, 1966. In so doing, though, he had collected a total of 22 fractures, including cracked vertebrae and a broken leg.
After a seven-year sabbatical, during which he “didn’t have the horses for the race”, he returned to Aintree for his first attempt aboard the 7-year-old Nereo, trained by his “very good friend” Fred Winter. The Duke, now 53, rode a more patient race and steered a wider course than had been the case in the past but, having broken a stirrup leather at the third fence, parted company with Nereo at the Canal Turn on the first circuit.
The partnership was back for the 1974 Grand National, the Duke riding in a plaster cast after breaking his collarbone in a fall at Newbury a week earlier. Remarkably, for the first time, they completed the course, albeit finishing eighth of eight finishers. The Duke later recalled, “Fred [Winter] was furious that I was riding in the race and his instructions were monosyllabic. Ironically, it was my best performance in the National, when I was in the worst condition. The poor animal had to do everything on his own. He didn’t have a jockey on board, but a sack of potatoes.”
Having missed the 1975 National with multiple compound fracture of his right leg, the Duke rode Nereo for the third and final time in the 1976 renewal. Nereo fell at the thirteenth and the Duke was trampled by other horses, sustaining multiple fractures, severe concussion and spending two days in a coma. In typical style, the Duke recalled, “I spent most of my time there [Liverpool Walton Hosiptal] unconscious, but when I did wake up, the staff were charming.”
In 1977, at the age of 57, the Duke had his riding licence revoked “for his own safety”. Fred Winter said at the time, “I am both very sad and very relieved”.