The Story of Devon Loch and the 1956 Grand National

The Story of Devon Loch and the 1956 Grand National
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Devon Loch is etched into horse racing folklore as the horse that couldn’t lose – but did.

The 1956 Grand National is a story of remarkable drama and a moment that stunned the packed Aintree grandstands into instant silence. No one could believe their eyes.

Owned by the much-loved Queen Mother and ridden by future thriller writer Dick Francis, Devon Loch was not favourite for his Aintree assignment (sent off a 100/7 chance) but was strongly fancied by his illustrious connections after finishing third in that season’s National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

His chance was boosted by the early fall of 7/1 market leader, Must and Early Mist who was a previous winner of the race.

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The 10-year-old took over at the head of affairs with three fences of the famous Aintree circuit to go and began to stretch away from his nearest pursuer, E.S.B.

But, with a five-length lead and the biggest prize of his career at his mercy, disaster struck right in front of the packed grandstand as Devon Loch, for no apparent reason, appeared to jump and sprawl on the ground, ejecting Francis onto the turf.

Francis tried to cajole the horse into renewing his effort, but he was unable to continue and the race was gifted to fellow 100/7 chance E.S.B who crossed the line under jockey Dave Dick in an eerie silence.

First Of Four For Fred Rimell

E.S.B.'s win was the first of four for trainer Fred Rimell, who went on to train winners Nicolaus Silver (1961), Gay Trip (1970) and Rag Trade (1976).

Devon Loch’s jockey, who was left in tears by the incident, explained afterwards: “In one stride he was bounding smoothly along, in the next his hind legs stiffened and refused to function. He fell flat on his belly.

“I'm convinced that the roar of the crown frightened the horse.

“The dream was over and the race was lost.”

One theory for the bizarre incident was the state of the Aintree turf on that particular area of the track, with an on-duty police officer on record saying: “There was a dark wet patch on the course and that caused the horse to stumble.”

The Queen Mother famously said, “Oh, that’s racing.”

Dick Francis retired from the sport the following year and became a crime writer, where he emphasised that his novels must be put in perspective: “There has never been a more sensational story than Devon Loch. Never,” he maintained.

However, for Francis the scars of that day have never really healed and in an interview with The Guardian in 2010 he said: “The Devon Loch episode is still a terrible memory, even after all these years.

“I had had a terrific ride for four-and-a-quarter miles on him and he pricked his ears up and I believe that is when the noise of the crowd hit him.

“I've looked at the newsreel time and time again and just as we were approaching the water jump, which he jumped on the first circuit, you see the horse prick his ears and his hindquarters just refused to work.”

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How Successful was Dick Francis?

Francis was a successful amateur jumps jockey before turning professional in 1948, after which he rode nearly 350 winners, including a number in the distinctive pale blue and colours of the Queen Mother, with whom he remained in touch for the rest of her life.

He was champion jockey in the 1953-54 season.

11 years after the ‘Devon Loch Grand National’, the race provided the stage for yet more stunning equine drama.

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The 1967 race was won by unconsidered 100/1 outsider Foinavon but that doesn’t tell half the story.

Foinavon was adrift from the main field and appeared to have very little chance until the most dramatic pile-up at the 23rd fence where almost all of his rivals either fell, refused or were severely hampered.

Foinavon, ridden by John Buckingham, picked his way through the carnage and went on to land the most unlikely of victories.