Apart from the John Smith’s Grand National, no race has a longer history at Aintree than the John Smith’s Fox Hunters’ for amateur riders which was first staged in 1923.
Until after the Second World War, it was run over the same course and distance as the Grand National, around two circuits and over 30 fences.
It changed to a one-circuit contest in 1950. The inaugural running was won by Gracious Gift, whose rider Captain ‘Tuppy’ Bennet was one of the very best amateurs of his time and he also partnered 13-year-old Sergeant Murphy to capture the Grand National in the same year. The rider died in a Wolverhampton fall the following season.
Two years after Gracious Gift’s success the Bill Dutton-ridden Upton Lad won and his jockey rode the 100/1 shot Tipperary Tim to Grand National victory in 1928. The rider became a successful trainer, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the King George VI Chase with Limber Hill and sending out many winners on the Flat.
Reg Tweedie, whose chaser Freddie was later to be such a distinguished Aintree warrior and finish second in two Grand Nationals, owned the 1932 winner Ballyback. Alec Marsh, who went on to have a long and distinguished career as the Jockey Club’s senior starter, rode Don Bradman to victory four years later.
In 1948, the second year of the race’s reappearance after the Second Word War, the formidable amateur Major Sir Guy Cunard was successful on San Michele, with winning connections collecting £417. After only five lined up for the 1949 event, won by John Straker on Ballyhartfield, it was decided to do something and the 1950 race was staged over half a furlong short of three miles.
There was a field of 14 for the 1950 Fox Hunters’ which was won by the 100/7 chance Hillmere. John Bosley, who subsequently trained Eyecatcher to finish third in two Grand Nationals, rode the 1954 winner Dark Stranger.
Two winners of the Fox Hunters’ have gone on to Grand National glory. The first was Merryman II, ridden by Charlie Scott to score by a distance in 1959 and partnered by future Jockey Club starter Gerry Scott (no relation) when the horse won the following year to give trainer Neville Crump the final of his three Grand National victories.
Grittar also followed up success in the Fox Hunters’ with victory in the Grand National. The Frank Gilman-trained chaser became the third horse in as many seasons to win both the Cheltenham Foxhunter Chase and the Aintree show-piece for amateurs in 1981 – emulating Spartan Missile (1979) and Rolls Rambler (1980).
Grittar returned to Aintree a year late to give his regular rider, 48-year-old amateur Dick Sanders, a famous victory in the Grand National.
There have been five dual winners of the Fox Hunters’ – O’Dell (1937 & 1938), Colledge Master (1957 & 1961), Sea Knight (1963 & 1965), Spartan Missile (1978 & 1979) and Katarino (2005 & 2006), while Credit Call was the only horse to score on three occasions – 1972, 1975 & 1976.
Spartan Missile’s first victory was all the more impressive due to the fact that his owner, trainer and breeder John Thorne had to ride with no stirrups for much of the race after tack broke at Becher’s Brook. The gelding went on to finish second to Aldaniti in the fairytale Grand National of 1981.
Chris Collins owned and rode Credit Call to his first success in 1972 but subsequently sold the gelding to Mrs Urkie Newton. Her son Joey, who became head of the Aintree stewards’ panel, was on board for his two further victories in 1975 & 1976.. Mrs Newton took over the training of Credit Call for his third win, with the chaser having previously been under the care of Arthur Stephenson.
Andrew Wates, whose colours were carried to Grand National success by Rough Quest in 1996, won the Fox Hunters’ in 1970 on his family’s Lismateige. Only five ran; the previous year’s winner and hot favourite Bitter Lemon refused, while the runner-up Lady Kin was twice remounted by Dick Saunders.
The distance of the Fox Hunters’ was changed to two miles and five and a half furlongs in 1977, when Nicky Henderson (pictured), now a leading jump trainer, triumphed on Happy Warrior trained by Fred Winter to whom he was assistant, while Peter Greenall, now the chairman of Aintree Racecourse as Lord Daresbury, came close to winning in 1978 when he and Timmie’s Battle were beaten by Spartan Missile.
Caroline Beasley made history as the first woman to ride a winner over the Grand National fences when she partnered her Eliogarty to victory over Paul Webber on Venture To Cognac in 1986. This was the second year that the race was run on the Friday of the meeting and it remained on that day until changing places with the Topham Chase in 1999.
The last three decades have seen a welter of long-priced winners; beginning in 1982 when Peter Greenall won on the 25/1 shot Lone Soldier. There were even bigger shocks with success for 50/1 chance Newnham six years later and in 1991 with the 100/1 victory of Double Turn. The 13-year-old Gee-A, ridden by trainer Ferdy Murphy’s son Paul, won in 1992 at 66/1, Cavalero scored at odds of 33/1 in 1998, while Silver Adonis posted a 50/1 shock in 2010.
Success in the Fox Hunters’ is rare enough and only three riders have won twice since 1977. John Thorne not only trained and owned Spartan Missile but was also in the saddle for both his wins in 1978 & 1979, while Alan Hill partnered Border Burg (1987) and Sheer Jest (1995) to victory. Leading current amateur Sam Waley-Cohen rode his father’s Katarino to both of his triumphs in 2005 and 2006.
Caroline Bailey saddled a marvellous one-two in 2001 as Gunner Welburn proved too good for Secret Bay. It was a tremendous moment for the Northamptonshire-based trainer whose father Dick Saunders had so much success on Grittar. Gunner Welburn’s victory meant Bailey had trained the winners of all four major hunter chases – at Aintree, Cheltenham, Stratford and Punchestown.
A year later Polly Gundry became the third woman to succeed over the Grand National fences and only the second to win the Fox Hunters’ when partnering the Paul Nicholls-trained Torduff Express to victory over Gunner Welburn.
Carrie Ford won on Forest Gunner in 2004, surviving an incident at the second fence to beat Sikander A Azam. The victory was another good Aintree story as the jockey had given birth just 10 weeks earlier and husband Richard trained the winner. Dido Harding, owner of the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Cool Dawn and now chief executive of TalkTalk, also rode in the race, coming home ninth on Unlimited Free. Forest Gunner was partnered by Ford, who turned professional especially, to be fifth of the 21 finishers in the 2005 John Smith’s Grand National.
Katarino provided a poignant moment for the Waley-Cohen family when the 10-year-old won the 2005 renewal. He was given a tremendous ride by Sam, who lost his brother Thomas to cancer in 2004. The chaser returned to Aintree the following year and became the first dual winner of the race since Spartan Missile. It was also a superb feat of training by Robert Waley-Cohen as Katarino had not run since his victory 12 months earlier.
Despite having won as a jockey in 1977, Nicky Henderson had to wait until 2007 to enjoy Fox Hunters’ victory as a trainer when Scot’s Grey produced a gallant display of jumping under Richard Burton.
Robert Waley-Cohen returned to Aintree in 2008 with Katarino, who was aiming to emulate Credit Call and become the second three-time winner. The 13-year-old had enjoyed a far from ideal preparation and was making his first appearance under Rules since his victory two years earlier, but he still led for much of the second half of the race, only to be passed two fences from home by 2006 runner-up Christy Beamish, who gained revenge over his old rival with a nine-length victory under Josh Guerriero.
Trust Fund, ridden by Tom Greenall in the colours of his father, Aintree Racecourse chairman Lord Daresbury, powered to victory in the 2009 John Smith’s Fox Hunters’ Chase. It was a first Aintree success for the top Dorset-based point-to-point trainer Richard Barber.
Thomas’ brother Jake also rode in the race but fell on Sonevafushi at the Canal Turn. Tom ended the 2008/9 point-to-point season as champion rider with 56 successes, equalling the record number previously achieved by his brother Ollie.
The 50/1 chance Silver Adonis became the longest-priced winner of the race for 18 years when he obliged in 2010 for his trainer and Birmingham GP Dr Richard Newland. The victory was especially sweet for rider Tom Weston, who had finished second in 2005. Despite being 6ft 2ins tall, Weston hails from a family of point-to-point enthusiasts and his father, Martin, trained Flimsy Truth to win one of the other highlights of the amateur season, Cheltenham’s National Hunt Chase, in 1997.