Last updated February 12th, 2020
When you are looking through the Grand National runners, don’t necessarily shy away from horses that have had physical problems and overcome injuries. Many winners would not have passed a thorough vetting yet they still provided fairytale outcomes, securing themselves legendary status in Aintree’s rich history.
The most successful Grand National horse of all time, Red Rum, was almost a write off when he joined the used car salesman and trainer, Ginger McCain.
Having persuaded Noel Le Mare (whom McCain often drove around in his other job as a taxi driver) to part with a few thousand pounds, he bought Red Rum from Doncaster bloodstock sales. It was not long before Red Rum went lame.
Pedal osteitis was eventually diagnosed. That’s an incurable condition affecting a bone in the foot (the pedal or coffin bone). It is thought to be caused by working a horse on hard ground and is certainly aggravated by it. Back in the 1970s it was often considered a career-ending condition for a racehorse.
Fortunately McCain kept his horses round the back of a car showroom at Southport, Merseyside with easy access to the beach. Red Rum’s physical problem seemed to be alleviated by spending hours in the sea.
Cantering at the water’s edge and trotting up sand dunes also provided a much more forgiving environment than that available to trainers based inland. Had Red Rum ended up in a conventional yard, he would probably not have made it on to a racecourse.
Unconventional training methods enabled McCain managed to keep Noel Le Mare’s purchase sound and race fit for five years. Red Rum clocked up a record breaking trio of Grand National wins as well as two second places between 1973 and 1977.
After suffering a hairline fracture just before the National in 1978 Red Rum was retired from racing. He enjoyed a long and busy retirement as an equestrian celebrity and died aged 30.
Veterinary advice deprives champion trainer of National winner
Another Grand National winning veterinary write off was the 2007 winner, Silver Birch. He was the first Grand National runner for a young trainer from Ireland, Gordon Elliott.
Silver Birch had started his National Hunt career in the more prestigious stables of the champion jumps trainer, Paul Nicholls. Ironically Nicholls had sent out dozens of horses in pursuit of Aintree’s ultimate prize. Although he did finally land it in 2012 with Neptune Collonges, Nicholls had not won the race at that time.
There must have been serious hopes for Silver Birch. In November 2004 he demonstrated his ability to handle the National fences by winning the Becher Chase. His stamina was showcased by a win in the Welsh National at Chepstow, on bottomless ground a month later.
He became one of the ante-post favourites for the 2005 Grand National soon afterwards but had to be withdrawn from the race after he suffered from a serious tendon problem. That problem kept him away from the racecourse for over a year.
He was nursed back to health by the team at Ditcheat and ran again in 2006 but did not appear to be the force of old. Blinkers were tried but failed to deliver any improvement. He started as a 40/1 shot in the 2006 Grand National. He was within sight of the leaders when he encountered traffic problems that resulted in his falling at the Chair, second time. He also sustained a career-threatening injury.
Silver Birch was sent to the sales at Doncaster in the following month. He was bought for just 20,000 guineas in 2006 for Brian Walsh and moved to Gordon Elliott in Co. Meath. Paul Nicholls subsequently admitted that he had been advised to move him on by his veterinary team. His purchase price at the sales suggested that Nicholls’ vets were not the only ones who thought that he was too fragile to withstand the rigours of jump racing.
Elliott persuaded Walsh to fork out for expensive stem cell tendon treatment for Silver Birch. It seemed to work. In November 2006 he came third in a point-to-point in Ireland. By March 2007 he appeared to be completely rejuvenated when finishing second in the cross country race at Cheltenham.
He started as a 33/1 outsider in the 2007 National and beat Peter Bowen’s Mckelvey (12/1) by three quarters of a length. Nicholls had sent out four runners, including the 16/1 shot, Eurotrek. None of them finished.
Don’t discount damaged partnerships
In 1981 it was not just the horse but also the jockey who had overcome horrendous physical problems before triumphing in the Grand National. Bob Champion’s win on Josh Gifford’s Aldaniti was one of the happiest outcomes ever to occur in National Hunt racing.
In 1979, the 32-year-old jockey was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Left untreated he would have died within nine months. Fortunately he decided to undergo chemotherapy.
Champion had always liked Gifford’s Aldaniti and believed that he could be a potential Grand National winner. Gifford maintained contact with Champion throughout his treatment, keeping him updated on his favourite horse’s progress after he suffered injuries that threatened his racing career.
Gifford had bought the four-year-old Aldaniti at Ascot Sales for just 3,200 guineas in 1974. After winning a decent hurdle race at Ascot, beating the Queen Mother’s Sunyboy, he was bought by Nick Embiricos.
In January 1976 he broke down quite badly after running at Sandown and was fired on both forelegs (the view was that the process would strengthen them). It was just over a year before he reappeared on a racecourse. He stayed sound long enough to win three races but, after finishing a heroic third in the Hennessy as a seven-year-old, he was seriously lame.
This time it was a hind leg. X-rays revealed that he had somehow chipped two pieces of bone near his fetlock on his off hind during the race. It was either a bullet or seven months’ box rest for Aldaniti. Fortunately connections chose the latter option as they believed he had the necessary temperament to cope with prolonged confinement.
In December 1978 Aldaniti was well enough to return to a racecourse. He repaid their confidence in him by coming third in the Gold Cup in 1979 and finishing second in the Scottish National. Unfortunately, later that year Aldaniti broke down yet again, this time on his off foreleg.
While Champion was undergoing treatment, Aldaniti was once again confined to his stable. Aldaniti spent most of his time as a ten-year-old recovering from the tendon damage he had sustained.
After more than a year off, Aldaniti re-emerged on a racecourse in February 1981. Gifford had done a great job with his super-fragile charge and he was fit enough to win a decent chase. Meanwhile, Champion had successfully overcome his cancer and was booked to take the ride in the big race.
They started as the 10/1 second favourites in the Grand National betting with only John Thorne’s Spartan Missile (whom he owned, trained and rode) attracting more support. Aldaniti made a mistake at the first but otherwise gave Champion a dream ride. Spartan Missile finished a gallant second under the 54-year-old Thorne who had obviously never forgotten the ‘pony club kick.’
Aldaniti lined up again in 1982 at Aintree but fell at the first and was immediately retired. He enjoyed a long retirement and died in 1997 as a 27-year-old.
Is it a coincidence that so many past winners have had seemingly insurmountable problems? Possibly not. Time and money is most likely to be spent on horses with the potential to deliver in the Grand National.