In his 16-year riding career, John Francome was British Champion Jump Jockey seven times, including the title he shared with Peter Scudamore in 1981/82, and notched up 1,138 winners. However, despite contesting the Grand National on ten occasions, he never won the celebrated steeplechase.
The young Francome made his debut in the National in 1972, aboard Cardinal Error, trained by his boss, Fred Winter. The eight-year-old had already won four steeplechases that year and was sent of 12/1 joint-second favourite at Aintree, but refused as early as the third fence. In 1976, Francome famously turned down the ride on the eventual winner, Rag Trade – whom he had described as the ‘most horrible horse’ he had ridden after finishing tenth, and last, in 1975 – in favour of the lesser-fancied Golden Rapper, again trained by Winter. Golden Rapper led approaching Becher’s Brook on the second circuit, but took a terrible fall and Francome woke up in the Walton Centre in Fazakerley. Francome did manage to finish a close third, beaten just 1½ lengths, behind Rubstic and Zongalero in the 1979 renewal and a remote second, beaten 20 lengths, behind Ben Nevis on the same horse in 1980, but that was the close as he came to winning the National.
In the last two decades or so, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has encouraged better horses to participate in the Grand National by ‘compressing’ the weights. What this means, in practical terms, is allowing horses at the top of the handicap to run off lower handicap ratings than would otherwise be the case. This, in turn, decreases the difference between the highest and lowest weighted horses in the National field, creating, at least in theory, a more competitive race.
The notion that horses at the top of the handicap had previously been disadvantaged by carrying additional weight over the extreme distance of the Grand National appears to be borne out by results since the turn of the twenty-first century. Since 2001, seven horses have carried 11st or more to victory in the National, whereas in the preceding two decades only Grittar (1982), Corbiere (1983) and Rhyme ‘N’ Reason (1988) did so. At the other end of the handicap, no horse has carried the minimum weight of 10st to victory since Bobbyjo who was, in fact, 14lb out of the handicap proper, in 1999.
Valentine’s Brook is, of course, one of the five ‘named’ fences on the Grand National course. Originally known simply as the ‘Second Brook’, Valentine’s Brook consists of a 5’ high fence, followed by a 5’6” wide brook, and is jumped as the ninth and twenty-fifth obstacles in the National. Valentine’s Brook is generally regarded the lesser of the two ‘brook’ fences but, like Becher’s Brook, owes its name to an event in the early history of the Grand National.
In 1840, in what was just the second ‘official’ running of the Grand National, a horse named Valentine set off lickety-split and, by the time he reached the obstacle that now bears his name, was well clear of his rivals. Valentine attempted to refuse, but his momentum carried him forward and, somehow, he corkscrewed, or pirouetted, over the fence, reputed landing hind legs first, with his jockey, John Power, still intact. After a remarkable recovery, Valentine continued and eventually finished third behind Jerry and Arthur.
Ever since the Grand National was first broadcast on television, in 1960, the Melling Road, along with the ‘named’ fences, such as Becher’s Brook and the Canal Turn, has crept into the public psyche as part of the familiar Aintree infrastructure. The National Course crosses the Melling Road at two points.
The first is on the approach to the first, and seventeenth, fence, while the second is after the twelfth, and twenty-eighth, fence. The second, near the Anchor Bridge, marks the point where the runners rejoin the ‘racecourse proper’ and, on the second circuit, where the race really begins in earnest. Indeed, back in the days when the Grand National was televised on BBC, it was the point at which John Hanmer handed commentary ‘over to Peter O’Sullevan’, who traditionally called home the winner.
Obviously, the Melling Road is best known for its association with the Grand National, but is a bona fide, mile-long thoroughfare through the village of Aintree. On National Day, the road is covered with Fibresand to allow the horses to cross safely.