Another National winner? I can do that!

April 10th, 2024 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

For a while Miss Alligator did her level best to earn a special place in the history books but an honourable sixth in the !949 Musidora Stakes at York was never going to be enough. Three years later she was bought for only 70 guineas at the Dublin Sales by Mr William Kennedy, a farmer based at Downpatrick in Northern Ireland.

It therefore came as something of a surprise when she produced Anglo, winner of the Grand National in 1966 and followed up with Red Alligator, successful at Aintree two years later. Even then most of the headlines missed this remarkable achievement, Miss Alligator becoming only the second mare in history to produce two winners of the famous old marathon, Miss Batty having given birth to Emblem and Emblematic, full sisters who triumphed in 1863 and 1864.

Quite what Mr Kennedy made of it all, having let Anglo go for £140 as a foal and Red Alligator for 360 guineas as a yearling we can only ponder. Pride in his own initial judgement must have been severely dented by this acute failure to turn a handy profit.

His disappointment almost certainly eclipsed my own when BBC Radio offered an all-expenses paid trip to Aintree  –  breakfast, lunch with the commentators, badges for the parade ring etc  –  and rejected both of my suggestions regarding the associated quiz question. The answers to these were Miss Alligator and Owen McNally, who was sidelined when Eddie Harty prevailed on Highland Wedding in 1969. Winning trainer Toby Balding had agreed to voice the question, ‘who was the unlucky jockey when…’ but it mattered little because the powers that be wanted a mass entry and preferred listeners to provide the name of the only horse to have won the big race three times. One chap even got it wrong.

If you love the game you’re bound to remember your first National  –  the first time you witnessed this unique test, the first time you were allowed a financial interest, the first time you realised how much it meant to your parents, even if it was only a matter of sixpences and shillings. My ‘first’ (I was 12) was Nicolaus Silver in 1961, who was nearly down at Becher’s second time round but recovered and kept on to become the first winning grey since The Lamb in 1871.

My Aunt Em still placed the bets with Ern, the bus inspector and (illegal) street runner for Johnny Denton in Belmont Road, Southampton. However, it was only a few weeks before betting shops were up and running, the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 having brought about a fundamental change in the way people could bet with bookmakers. What I remember most clearly is the queues stretching from the counter out to the street on Grand National day and customers worrying about how to fill out a betting slip correctly. (This worry soon became redundant.)

As a part-time freelance sports journalist I wasn’t always at Aintree on the big day. Indeed, I was reporting a match at Arsenal when Red Rum won for the third time in 1977. The policeman had sung his aria at the Clock End at Highbury and they read out the result over the tannoy to a ripple of applause, though I think it fair to say a home win mattered rather more to the faithful than a record being set two hundred miles north. That would still be true today, of course, and not only at the Arsenal.

Full-time employment at BBC Radio followed, as did the unforgettable events of 1982, when animal rights protesters set fire to two of the fences the night before the race. As soon as we’d relayed the details back to London, it was announced that Ken Bates had bought Chelsea for a pound and then, just to confirm the validity of the French saying ‘jamais deux sans trois’, Margaret Thatcher sent the troops to the Falklands.

The following day, Grittar won the National at 7/1 favourite. John Lawrence (Lord Oaksey),  the Daily Telegraph correspondent and later the highly-respected ‘noble Lord’ of television coverage, suddenly danced across Peter Bromley’s line of vision, urging Mr Dick Saunders to keep going.

Now, to describe the 1982 radio commentary box as a Heath Robinson construction would mean paying it a highly flattering compliment. The floor sloped quite alarmingly and the roof of the County Stand still had chains in place and ‘Warning’ signs here and there.

We assumed that John was so excited at the prospect of an amateur winning the great race that he forgot where he was. I’d never seen Peter quite so angry and he said he’d be taking his complaint ‘to the highest level’. That generally meant someone about three rungs down from Lord Reith and I wondered if John was worried but, having worked with Peter often enough, I knew his bark was worse than his non-existent bite and the moment soon passed. He was a fast driver, a qualified pilot and a no-nonsense broadcaster. He simply managed his own patch and the pressroom saw little of him. A sad loss indeed.

I enjoyed working with the team and talking to personalities who walked past the scanner. Sometimes you’d hear the strains of the ‘Z Cars theme’, the most popular recording being the Johnny Keating one from the ground-breaking police series which is still used before Everton’s home matches.

Keating enjoyed his racing, as did one of the programme’s stars Frank Windsor, whose face soon became even more familiar to punters via his television appearances during racing programmes, reminding us that it was ‘time to think about those final expenses’. Actors love it when you remember their early work. Frank was also in arguably the finest film ever set in north London, Sunday, Bloody Sunday with Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson. He played the harassed, amiable paterfamilias in a Hampstead house full of casually neglected but very expensive clutter.

We stayed at the Atlantic Towers rather than the Adelphi. Both were more than comfortable; dinner paid for by the BBC, a selection of famous or semi-famous faces, Desmond Lynam’s among them, and a few last-minute preparations for the big day.

Looking back at it now, though, it’s worth recalling that 1982 was also the year of Alan Bleasdale’s biting social commentary The Boys From The Blackstuff, in which a gang of Liverpool builders struggle to stay afloat against a backdrop of a collapsing local economy. It was very bleak and made a deep impression on viewers around the country. The main character, Yozzer Hughes, became famous for his familiar cries of ‘Gizza job!’ and ‘I can do that!’ The series lasted only five weeks but tee-shirts with the slogans on were printed and youngsters hailed each other in the street with the familiar sayings. It was a superb programme but probably persuaded people, especially youngsters, that that was just the way ‘Scousers’ were. The golden days of Merseybeat suddenly seemed a long time ago and opposing football crowds were quick to alter the words to You’ll Never Walk Alone to suit their own attitude.

1983 was all right, I made sure the champagne cork popped on air when Desmond interviewed winning trainer Jenny Pitman following Corbiere’s victory and 1984 was just about perfect because I tipped Hallo Dandy on the Radio 4 Today programme and introduced his owner Richard Shaw to presenter Mike Ingham on Friday before inviting him to have dinner with the team. When Hallo Dandy won, you could say the celebratory interview went quite well!

It was a last hurrah, though, and when I didn’t present in 1985 I realised I was surplus to requirements. Last Suspect’s 50/1 triumph left me cold and if one more person had told me about Captain Tim Forster’s jokey instruction to Hywel Davies to ‘keep remounting!’ I think I’d have walked all the way to Southport. I could be tricky, no doubt about it, and a couple of months later it was best for both sides that I move on.

I miss being at Aintree, just as I miss fronting the Liverpool Lions’ charity dinner at the Holiday Inn the night before the National. The joke about the man who used some Viagra eye-drops because he wanted to look hard isn’t the greatest but wait until you hear it in a Scouse accent.

I was reading Paul Du Noyer’s seminal work Liverpool  – Wondrous Place again the other day and came across the bit where he says you can be on a train on the Bakerloo Line in London and you’re oblivious to everything and everyone and never utter a word. But you can walk down Lime Street in Liverpool and you’re right there in the play because you never know what might happen. And that’s me, really. I just want to be in the play.

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