The Kiplingcotes Derby is reputedly the oldest and arguably the ‘wackiest’ horse race run in Britain. As the name suggests, the race has been run, on the third Thursday in March, on a four-mile course from Etton to Londesborough Wold Farm, near Kiplingcotes, a hamlet in the East Riding of Yorkshire, every year – with a few notable exceptions – since 1519. The course is virtually straight, but precipitous in part and easily waterlogged; country lanes, roadside verges and farmland all form part of the four-mile journey.
The traditional rules of the Kiplingcotes Derby state that if the race is not run once it can never be run again. So, in the event of cancellation – as happened in 1947, because of snow, 2001, because of foot-and-mouth disease, 2018, because of damage to the course and 2020, because of coronavirus –
a lone jockey ‘walks’ the course to ensure the survival of the race.
Horses and riders of any age or ability can enter, subject to payment of an entry fee and a minimum weight requirement of 10st 0lb, without tack; they simply need to assemble at the winning post by 11.00am on the morning of the race, for the formal reading of the rules. Paradoxically, also riders weigh in at the winning post before making their way to the start and racing back in the opposite direction. According to the rules, the winner receives fixed prize money of £50, but the runner-up receives 80% of the remainder of the entry fees on the day; at £5 per person, at the last count, it is not difficult to see how the winner often comes off second-best in terms of prize money.
Formerly stable jockey to David Barons, for whom he won the Hennessy Gold Cup, now the Ladbrokes Trophy, on Broadheath in 1986 and Playschool in 1987, Paul Nicholls retired from the saddle in 1989 with 133 winners to his name. He subsequently spent two years as assistant trainer to Barons before starting out on his own, at Manor Farm in Ditcheat, Somerset, with just a handful of horses, in 1991. He gradually increased his winning tally, season by season, but first came to public attention in 1998/99, when he saddled 110 winners and won £1.19 million in prize money.
Indeed, at the Cheltenham Festival in 1999, Nicholls became the leading trainer for the first time, courtesy of victories for Flagship Uberalles in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, Call Equiname in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and See More Business in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. In an era dominated by Martin Pipe, Nicholls regularly played ‘second fiddle’ to the Master of Pond House in the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship; it was not until 2005/06 season, at the end of which Pipe retired, due to ill health, that he claimed the trainers’ title for the first time.
However, Nicholls has gone on to win the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship eleven times in total, most recently in 2018/19, and has handled some of the out-and-out superstars of National Hunt racing. He has saddled 46 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, where he is, jointly, the leading trainer in the history of the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He has also won the Cheltenham Gold Cup four times, the Stayers’ Hurdle four times – with the same horse, Big Buck’s, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 – and the Champion Hurdle once.
In 2015/16, Richard Johnson finally emerged from the shadow of perennial champion Sir Anthony McCoy – to whom he had finished runner-up on no fewer than 16 occasions – to win the National Hunt Jockeys’ Championship for the first time. Indeed, Johnson went on to win the jockeys’ title again for the next three seasons running and, in 2019/20, was only three winners behind eventual winner Brian Hughes when sustaining a broken arm following a fall at Exeter in early January, which effectively ended his hopes of a fifth jockeys’ championship.
Champion conditional jockey in 1995/96, at the age of 18, Johnson has enjoyed a long, illustrious career. However, despite winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Looks Like Trouble in 2000 and Native River in 2018, he has never won the Grand National. In fact, Johnson holds the record for the most rides in the Grand National, 21, and, less enviably, the most rides without a winner.
Johnson first rode in the infamous ‘Monday National’ in 1997, but was unseated when his mount, Celtic Abbey, blundered at The Chair, the penultimate fence on the first circuit. Since then, the closest he has come to winning the National was in 2002, when What’s Up Boys was eventually beaten a length-and-three-quarters by the rallying Bindaree, having held a three-length lead at the Elbow, halfway up the run-in. Johnson also rode the runner-up, Balthazar King, in the 2014 Grand National.
The most successful jockey in the history of the Grand National was George Stevens, who rode five winners of the renowned steeplechase during the nineteenth century. Stevens opened his account in 1856, aboard 25/1 chance Freetrader, trained by William Holman; the lightly-weighted seven-year-old took advantage of a mistake by his nearest rival, Minerva, at the final obstacle – in those days an artificial hurdle – to surge ahead and win by a length.
In the 1863 renewal of the Grand National, Stevens’ mount, Emblem, a 10/1 chance trained by Edwin Weever, knocked down the final hurdle, but was so far in front at the time that the mistake had little effect on the result. The seven-year-old eventually won by 20 lengths from Arbury, who would also finish second in the 1864 Grand National, behind 100/7 chance Emblematic – a six-year-old full sister to Emblem – also ridden by Stevens for the same connections. Emblematic and Arbury jumped the final flight upsides, but the former drew away in the closing stages to win easily by 3 lengths.
Stevens also recorded back-to-back victories in the Grand National in 1869 and 1870, aboard The Colonel, trained by R. Roberts. In 1869, as a six-year-old, The Colonel carried 10st 7lb to an easy, 3-length victory over Hall Court at odds of 100/7; the following year, despite the welter burden of 11st 12lb, he was sent off 7/2 favourite and prevailed by a neck from Primrose in a driving finish.