Grey Horses & The Grand National

All grey thoroughbred horses are supposedly descended from the Alcock Arabian, an Arabian stallion of indefinite origin, but probably imported, via Constantinople, by Sir Robert Sutton, English Ambassador to the Porte, in the early eighteenth century. Certainly, grey horses are a rarity, representing about 3% of the thoroughbred population in Britain.

Grey colouring is determined by a dominant gene which, if inherited from a parent, is expressed, over other colour genes, in coat colour. In other words, all grey thoroughbred horses have at least one grey parent. Grey horses are usually born black, brown or chestnut, but gradually grow lighter in colour, to become dappled, grey or white.

In later life, most grey horses develop dark-pigmented tumours, called melanoma, on their skin, but these are mostly benign and require little or no treatment. However, influential Italian breeder Fedrico Tesio insisted that grey horses were ‘diseased’, leading to them falling out of favour. Nevertheless, it’s the scarcity of grey horses, coupled with the fact that they’re easy to spot, which has led to their enduring appeal in horse racing circles.

As far as the Grand National is concerned, in 179 years since the inaugural running of the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase, as the race was originally known, just three grey horses have won. One crackpot theory suggests that grey horses have fared poorly at Aintree because they’re more susceptible to the vagaries of the Merseyside weather in early April than horses of other colours. Anyone who subscribes to that theory, though, would do well to remember that Desert Orchid – possibly the most popular grey in the history of British horse racing – enjoyed his finest hour, in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, on a foul, rainy day when racing only went ahead after a midday inspection.

Of course, Desert Orchid never ran in the Grand National – although he did win the Irish equivalent at Fairyhouse the year after his Gold Cup triumph – but the roll of honour at Aintree does include The Lamb (1868 and 1871), Nicolaus Silver (1961) and Neptune Collonges (2012).

Owned by William Henry, sixth Earl Poulett, The Lamb stood less than 15½ hands high – about the same height as the 2018 Grand National winner, Tiger Roll, who was affectionately described by his owner, Michael O’Leary, as ‘a little rat of a thing’ – and was apparently so named because of his diminutive size and placid nature. He had the distinction of winning his first National as a 6-year-old, under amateur jockey George Ede, in 1868 and, having subsequently contracted an illness that kept him off the course for two years, won his second as a 9-year-old, under another amateur jockey, Tommy Pickernell, in 1871. Mysteriously, some paintings and sketches depict The Lamb not as a grey, but as a black horse.

The second grey to win the Grand National, Nicolaus Silver in 1961, was unmistakably grey, in fact, almost white, with a hint of dapple on his quarters and legs. He was bought, for £2,600, by Kinnersley trainer Fred Rimmell, on behalf of owner Charles Vaughan, following the sudden death of his previous trainer in 1960. The following spring, Nicolaus Silver lined up at Aintree as an unheralded 28/1 chance but, relishing the firm ground, drew clear in the closing stages to beat the previous year’s winner, Merryman II, by 5 lengths.

The third and, so far, final grey to win the Grand National was Neptune Collonges, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by Daryl Jacob, in 2012. Classy enough to complete a Nicholls’ 1-2-3, behind Denman and Kauto Star, in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in his younger days, Neptune Collonges was, by now, a doughty 11-year-old, whose coat had grown even lighter with age. Nevertheless, he became the first horse since Red Rum to carry 11st 6lb or more to victory in the National and his winning margin, a nose, was the narrowest in the history of the celebrated steeplechase.

Films Featuring the Grand National The history of the Grand National dates back to 1839 and British Pathé News has newsreel footage dating back to ‘Victory’ Grand National – so-called because it was the first to be run at Aintree after the cessation of World War I – in 1919. Newsreel footage of the real Grand National, often accompanied by jaunty background music and a typically British voiceover, is entertaining enough, but over the years the celebrated steeplechase has also provided the subject, or at least the backdrop, for several fictional or fictionalised accounts.


Champions (1984)

Based on the true story of jockey Bob Champion, played by a suitably irascible, not always likeable, John Hurt, and the 1981 Grand National winner, Aldaniti, played by himself. Yes, we know how the story ends, but that doesn’t make it any less inspirational.


Dead Cert (1974)

Adapted from a novel by Dick Francis, with a screenplay co-written by Lord Oaksey – or John Lawrence, as he was known in his riding days – who also acted as technical adviser. A chaotic crime caper, starring a young Judi Dench as Laura Davidson, the widow of Bill Davidson, a jockey killed under suspicious circumstances. A weak plot and poor characterisation made Dead Cert a flop at the box-office but, by contrast, the racing footage – which includes races from Fontwell, as well as the climactic Grand National – is eventful, realistic and compelling.


The Galloping Major (1951)

Based on an idea by, and starring, Basil Radford as retired Major Arthur Hill, who assembles an ensemble of British comic talent – including Joyce Grenfell, Sidney James, Charles Hawtrey, Leslie Phillips and Alfie Bass, to name but a handful – with a view to buying a horse which, more by luck than judgement, turns out to be a Grand National winner. Brisk, entertaining comedy from a talented cast, without being laugh-out-loud funny.


National Velvet (1944)

A whimsical, if overly-sentimental, family film starring 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown, who wins her horse, The Piebald, a.k.a. ‘The Pi’, in a raffle and, with the aid of a youthful Mickey Rooney, trains and rides him to win the Grand National. Escapism for younger viewers, who may not be distracted by the tropical foliage of Uplifters Ranch, Santa Monica, which stood in for Aintree.

Red Marauder The Grand National in 2001 was run with foot-and-mouth precautions in place but, while strong biosecurity measures were obviously paramount, jockeys in the celebrated steeplechase had more immediate concerns. The race was run on extremely heavy – in fact, nigh on unraceable – ground, with standing water on parts of the National course, and in high winds.

By the time the field reached Becher’s Brook on the first circuit, 11 of the 40 starters had fallen or unseated rider. Three more runners departed at Becher’s Brook and, in scenes reminiscent of 1967, Paddy’s Return, who’d unseated jockey Adrian Maguire five fences earlier, ran down the Canal Turn, effectively taking another eight out of the race. The well-fancied Edmond fell at The Chair but, minus Richard Johnson, caused three of the half a dozen that headed out on the final circuit to refuse or unseat rider at the first open ditch.

So, after 19 of the 30 fences, just three of the 40 starters had survived unscathed. In a blunder at the first fence on the second circuit, though, Carl Llewellyn on the leader, Beau, had ended up with both reins on the same side of the horse. He managed to postpone the inevitable for another two fences, but he was unseated at the twentieth fence, leaving just two to fight out the finish.

Those two were, in racecard order, Red Marauder, trained by permit holder Norman Mason and ridden by Richard Guest, and Smarty, trained by Mark Pitman and ridden by Timmy Murphy. Red Marauder, a 33/1 chance, had fallen at Becher’s Brook on his only previous attempt over the National fences and again made a series of jumping errors. A blunder at the Canal Turn and another mistake at the fourth last fence handed the initiative to his 16/1 rival Smarty, but having been ‘gifted’ a clear lead, Smarty weakened quickly, leaving Red Marauder to saunter home in splendid isolation.

Smarty finished second, beaten a distance, while Blowing Wind and Papillon, who had both been remounted, completed in their own time to finish third and fourth. The winning time, a fraction over 11 minutes, was not the slowest ever recorded, but far and away the slowest of modern times.

Mr Frisk The 1990 Grand National had the distinction of being the first to be run in under nine minutes – 8 minutes 47.8 seconds, to be precise – and, even after the overall race distance was shortened in 2013, remains the fastest in history. It was also the last renewal to be won by an amateur rider, 25-year-old Marcus Armytage, who partnered the 11-year-old Mr. Frisk to victory, by three-quarters of a length, over Durham Edition.

The winner was something of rarity, insofar as he was a steeplechaser who truly relished firm going; on rattling fast ground at Aintree – parched brown after the driest spring since 1910 – Mr. Frisk was in his element. Having finished a creditable fourth in the Kim Muir Memorial Challenge Cup at the Cheltenham Festival on his previous outing, Mr. Frisk was sent off co-sixth choice of the 38 runners at 16/1, behind favourite Brown Windsor at 7/1.

Mr. Frisk was always prominent and, after moving into second place heading out onto the second circuit , was left in the lead when Uncle Merlin, who’d made most of the running, blundered and unseated Hywel Davies at Becher’s Brook. Thereafter, he made the best of his way home and, although challenged by second favourite Durham Edition, ridden by Chris Grant, from the final fence, held on well on the famously long, 494-yard run-in to prevail in a driving finish. His winning time beat the previous course record – set by Red Rum after his epic duel with Crisp in 1973 – by 14 seconds.

Mr. Frisk returned to Aintree for the 1991 Grand National, but, on rain-softened ground, soon weakened and was tailed off when pulled up before Becher’s Brook on the second circuit. Nevertheless, he had already written his name, indelibly, into Grand National folklore and, with the National Course now routinely watered to provide going no faster than ‘good to soft’, his course record may never be beaten.