What happened to Devon Loch in the Grand National?

On Saturday 4th April 2020, the national hunt spectacle that is the Aintree Grand National will once again be taking place. Televised on ITV at 5:15pm, with coverage beginning at 2pm, the nation will surely collectively be on the edge of their seat to watch this, the pinnacle of UK racing. A who’s who of racing excellence will be on display with the countries best jockeys, trainers, owners and of course horses all having one aim in mind, to cross the line in first place and become part of the history of this great race. Before long we’ll all be selecting our Grand National 2020 tips, via our own individual approaches, be that anywhere from tipsters to tea leaves!

The Grand National is a race that’s held such longevity that it’s given us everything over the years. Breathtaking back-to-back wins (Red Rum, Tiger Roll), ambitious outsiders, battling displays. The Grand National of course has also seen it’s fair share of examples of, if you will, defeat stolen from the jaws of victory. Jockey’s taking their foot off the gas too early, leading horses falling when they had the win in the bag, the list goes on. Perhaps the biggest, and some would say strangest (or most mysterious!) upset was the defeat in the Grand National of the Queen Mother owned Devon Loch.

In 1956, Devon Loch suffered what was later described as ‘the most tragic defeat in Grand National history’, but exactly what happened to him remains a mystery that endures to this day. What definitely did happen was that, 40 yards from the finish line, with the race at his mercy, Devon Loch suddenly and inexplicably fly jumped – that is, raised his forelegs as if to jump – before slithering to the ground in an unceremonious belly-flop, right in front of his owner, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, who was watching from the Royal Box. Jockey Dick Francis attempted to recover, but all chance had gone and ESB, ridden by Dave Dick, galloped by to win by 10 lengths.

Various theories have been put forward as to the cause of the demise of Devon Loch. One of the most popular is that, in the same way that horses occasionally fly jump at road crossings on National Hunt racecourses, Devon Loch caught sight of the water jump, or at least its shadow, on his inside, and instinctively tried to jump it. Francis, though, believes that Devon Loch was overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd – newsreel footage of the incident does, indeed, show the horse pricking his ears immediately beforehand – and, consequently, his hind-quarters refused to act.

It’s certainly an odd affair and one that stands out, even among all of the Grand Nationals that have come and gone over the decades. This unusual piece of sporting history has been viewed close to a million times on YouTube, which ironically make Devon Loch more of a household name than many of the actual Grand National winners from that era. A strange and unlikely chapter in the history of the event. I wonder if the 2020 race will bring any unexpected outcomes? We’ll soon find out!

What is a Group One race?

In Britain, and the rest of Europe, a Group One race is a horse race of the highest calibre, as designated by the European Pattern Committee. Group One races include some of the most prestigious, valuable and historic races in Britain, over distances between 5 furlongs and 2 miles 4 furlongs, on Grade One racecourses, such as Ascot, Newmarket and York.

Some Group One races, such as the ‘Classic’ races – that is, the 1,000 Guineas, 2,000 Guineas, Oaks, Derby and St. Leger – are restricted to certain age groups and others, such as the Nassau Stakes and Sun Chariot Stakes, are restricted to a specific gender. However, generally speaking, horses of the same age and gender compete at level weights in Group One races, with weight-for-age and weight-for-sex allowances for three-year-olds competing against older horses and fillies and mares racing against colts and geldings, respectively.

Of course, Group One races can occasionally be downgraded; to maintain Group One status, over a three-year period, the average official rating of the first four horses home in the race in question must be 115, or more. From 2018, in Group One races, other than two-year-old races, in Britain, a horse must have achieved an official rating of 80 to be allowed to run in the first place.

Can you call a racehorse anything you like?

I dare say any number of horses have been called a few ‘choice’ names in their time but, ‘officially’, Weatherbys – which administers horse racing under contract from the governing body, known as the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) – has various rules regarding what you can, and can’t, call a racehorse.

Each racehorse must be registered with a unique name or, in other words, a name that is not on the ‘protected’ list, e.g. Frankel, or registered to another horse. The name cannot even sound the same, or similar, to one on the protected list or one registered to another horse within the last ten years. Beyond that, the name must start with a letter and contain no more than 18 characters, including spaces, no punctuation marks, except apostrophes, and no more than seven syllables.

Vulgarity is frowned upon by Weatherbys, as is any name that may cause offence, to anyone, or confusion, in the day-to-day administration of horse racing or betting on the sport. If you want to name a horse after a living person, or one who has been dead for less than 50 years, you need to seek permission from that person, or their family. Even if a particular name is listed as ‘available’ it is still subject to approval by the BHA and will, almost certainly, be rejected if it contravenes any of the naming rules.

Can racehorses make more at stud than racing?

The very simple answer to this question is yes they can. A successful racehorse can win a great deal of prize money during its career. But that’s not the end of its ability to make cash for its owners. Once a racehorse has retired, it can go to a stud farm and be even more financially lucrative.

Success follows in the family

When you next check out the form of a horse you fancy backing with the bookmakers, don’t just look at how they got on in their last race or two. Look at the breeding because that is an important part of horse racing. It’s the same in other sports. For example, the England cricket team has Stuart Broad and Johnny Bairstow, both whose fathers also represented cricket. The phrase ‘it’s in the genes’ is one to use here. A successful horse can breed others that will follow in its footsteps and have highly profitable careers.

Most of the horses that enjoy success over the flat only race for a few years before retiring. After winning big races, their stud value will rise. Rather than going on for another year and perhaps tarnishing their reputation, owners can retire them and send them off to the stud farm.

Top stallion on and off the track

Sea the Stars is a prime example of how much money can be made at stud. His career is regarded as one of the most successful stallions ever. Wins came in the 2000 Guineas, the Derby and the Eclipse Stakes. A win in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe followed, but it wasn’t a great surprise that he was so successful. Sea the Stars is a half-brother to Galileo who also won the Derby and both are sons of Urban Sea who won the Arc.

With that kind of family history and success on the track, it’s no surprise that there’s a big queue at stud for Sea of Stars. He’s expected to cover (so much nicer than saying ‘have sex with’) at least 100 mares a year.

The owner of the mare currently must pay $150,000 (around £115,000) for this to happen, but if a successful horse is bred, that could turn out to be a fantastic piece of business. His racing career saw Sea the Stars earn just over £4m, so his time at stud is going to raise a considerably higher amount. He could be covering mares for well over a decade!

Tiger on a Roll

It’s not just horses that race over the flat that can go to stud. Tiger Roll has won the last two Grand Nationals. He bids for a historic hat-trick this year. He’s the current 5/1 Grand National favourite at many of the bookies, who know a thing or two about a horse’s pedigree. If he does win the National again, it’s likely to be the end of his career and he could well head off to stud to make even more money for his owners.

Frankel keeps on delivering

You don’t have to be a winner of the Derby or the Arc to make millions at stud. Frankel bagged just under £3m in a career that saw him win all 14 of his races. His victory in the 2000 Guineas was one of ten Group 1 race wins. Frankel was never tried at the mile and a half distance of the Derby but by the time he retired, had become the horse with the highest ever rating. No wonder a figure of $175,000 (£135,000) can be charged at stud. He’ll make far more money off the track than he ever did on it.

Those fees can increase in time if the resultant racehorses go on to be successful. That’s been the case with Sea the Stars with several classic winners being bred. 2014 saw Taghrooda win the Oaks and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. The 2016 Derby was won by Harzand whose sire was Sea the Stars, so going to stud and paying to have your mare serviced by Sea the Stars can be well worth it.

Current stars can do the same

A horse such as Anthony van Dyck (who also has Galileo as his sire) who won the 2019 Derby can be expected to head off to the stud farm when retiring and make even more money.

The current favourite for this year’s 2000 Guineas is Pinatubo, just 11/10 at and 6/1 to win the Derby. Unbeaten last year in five races, he was rated the best two-year-old in 25 years. A successful career as a three-year-old would see his stud farm value rocket. So, when you back top horses this year, don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you’ll be backing their offspring at the bookies, too.

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