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 recent years, in the interests of safety, the race conditions for the Grand National – particularly those relating to the eligibility of horses and jockeys – have been modified more than once. Nowadays, to be eligible to run in the National, horses must be at least seven years old and have an official handicap rating of 125 or more, according to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA). Furthermore, horses must have competed in three or more steeplechases during their careers, including at least one during the current season, and have finished first, second, third or fourth in a steeplechase over an official distance of 2 miles 7½ furlongs or beyond. To be eligible to ride in the National, jockeys, whether amateur or professional, must have ridden at least 15 winners – of which at least ten must have been in steeplechases – under the Rules of Racing in Britain or Ireland. Other changes to the race conditions for the Grand National since the turn of the century include lowering the maximum weight to be carried from 12st to 11st 12lb in 2002 and from 11st 12lb to 11st 10lb in 2009; as previously, no penalties are applied once the weights have been published.
The jockey who holds the record for the highest number of Cheltenham Festival winners in a single year is Rupert ‘Ruby’ Walsh. Walsh retired from the saddle on May 1, 2019, just two weeks shy of his fortieth birthday but, by the end of his career, had ridden a total of 59 Cheltenham Festival winners and become leading jockey at the Festival on 11 occasions between 2004 and 2017. Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner on Alexander Banquet in the Champion Bumper, as an 18-year-old amateur, in 1998 but, as a professional, rode seven winners over the four days of the Festival not once, but twice.
His first record-breaking haul came in 2009, when his notable winners included Master Minded in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle, now the Stayers’ Hurdle, and Kauto Star in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, all for Paul Nicholls. Of course, Walsh and Nicholls parted company in 2013, with Walsh choosing to concentrate on riding for Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins. However, the end of one of the most successful partnerships in the history of National Hunt racing did Walsh little harm as far as the Cheltenham Festival was concerned. Indeed, in 2016, Walsh equalled his own record by riding seven winners, all trained by Mullins, at the Festival. Notable winners that year included Douvan in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle and the ill-fated Vautour in the Ryanair Chase.
Nowadays, Paul Nicholls is best known as the eleven-time winner of the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship, with over 3,000 winners, including 45 Cheltenham Festival winners and a Grand National winner, to his name. It would be fair to say that Nicholls is a familiar, if rather portly, figure on British racecourses in his trademark tweed coat with a velvet collar, but he was, in his younger days, an accomplished National Hunt jockey.
In a seven-year riding career, Nicholls rode a respectable 133 winners, but was most closely associated with the late David Barons, for whom he was stable jockey between 1986 and his retirement, due to injury, in 1989. Indeed, it was for Barons that Nicholls recorded back-to-back victories in the Hennessy Gold Cup – now the Ladbrokes Trophy – at Newbury on Broadheath in 1986 and Playschool in 1987. Remarkably, Broadheath carried just 10st 5lb and Playschool just 10st 8lb.
However, in an interview long after his retirement from the saddle, Nicholls admitted that he often resorted to ‘cheating’, by constantly taking diuretic pills, known in racing circles as ‘pee pills’, to keep his weight down, or fiddling the scales when weighing out or in. He also admitted to having been close to anorexia during his career as a jockey.