Book Review – Go Down to the Beaten – Tales of the Grand National
For every Grand National winner’s story, there are thirty-nine (it used to be more) others that go untold. Chris Pitt’s Go Down to the Beaten (Racing Post Books, 2011) relates some of the best of these in a chronicle of arguably the world’s greatest horse race, from the first post-war National in 1946 right up to 2010.
First there are the horses: Pitt (who watched his first Grand National on television in 1962 aged nine) recalls both heroic and heart-rending stories of some of the also-rans. Of Wyndburgh, three times runner up; of Elsich, who fell in almost every race he ran (“My son was supposed to ride him but I didn’t want him to get hurt”) and of Ormonde Tudor, who romped his way through eleven different trainers. We also get new angles on some of the most famous Grand National stories ever: on what might have caused Devon Loch’s infamous run-in collapse in 1956 and a slow motion, from the saddle view of the 1967 Foinavon pile-up.
Then there are the humans: Tony Grantham, the first Royal jump jockey, Clive Chapman, who became a household name due to the Hamlet cigar ads and Brod Munro-Wilson, a ‘rogue in brogue’ who liked “to ride like a gentleman, not a monkey up a stick”. Pitt examines the three types of Grand National jockey: those who were there to win, those who were there to get round and those who were there just to take part for the ‘greatest thrill of all’. We get to ride the National course with Lorcan Wyer, talk to ‘AP’ about the existence of chance and meet the jockey who woke up on the morning of the 1973 National (the famous duel between Red Rum and Crisp) unable to see.
Finally there is the race: Its history, the changing times, sponsorship, the first televised race, and how in the 1960s the Soviets planned to rule the Grand National as some thought they did to rule the world. Pitt takes an in-depth look at two recent headline-grabbing Nationals, the void race in 1993, ‘the day horseracing hurled a brick through its shop window’; and the 1997 ‘bomb scare’ National that resulted in a Liverpool free-for-all.
But more than anything, Go Down to the Beaten offers a unique insight into the last sixty years of horseracing. Ten years in the research and writing, it’s a book any fan will enjoy.
Also by Chris Pitt: A Long Time Gone chronicling the history of Britain’s defunct racecourses and When Birmingham Went Racing (co-authored with Chas Hammond) which charts the history of some forty racecourses that once existed in and around the city.