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Foinavon: The 100-1 Outsider Who Stunned the Grand National

From more than 150 runnings of the Grand National, the 1967 race is remembered for perhaps the biggest upset in the event's history. Hardly a surprise given that a 100-1 outsider upset the odds to win.
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The Grand National – as we have already discussed today – is as steeped in controversy as it is in history. The purpose of this piece is not to weigh in on that debate, but to look at a significant moment from the event's past. Questions over its future should be discussed, but a history column is not the place to do so.

Held annually at Aintree Racecourse, the National was first run in 1839, less than two years into Queen Victoria's reign and almost half a century before the foundation of the football league. Few sporting events can claim such an extensive history.


Of the 168 runnings, the 1967 race is remembered for perhaps the biggest upset in the National's history. That year, Foinavon – a 100-1 outsider whose very place in the race was questionable – took a shock win, some 15 lengths clear of the field.

At one stage, that lead had been more like 30 lengths; in the early stages, however, Foinavon had lagged at the back of the field. It was this that paved the way for his highly improbable victory.

Described by his winning jockey as "nice and quiet, very reliable and honest", the horse had previously been owned by Anne Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster, whose other charges included the considerably more successful Arkle. Both were named after mountains, with Foinavon's moniker coming from the Highlands of Scotland.

While Arkle had found fame for winning three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups between 1964 and '66, Foinavon's form in racing's prestige events was less impressive, albeit not as hopeless as his odds might suggest. Though it is perhaps apocryphal, one story has him falling at a jump and then, rather than getting to his feet and resuming, remaining on the ground to chew at the grass.

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His does not sound like the character of a Grand National winner, which perhaps explains why the Duchess was happy to sell him on. His entry to the 1967 National came with owner Cyril Watkins and trainer John Kempton. His rider would be Grand National first-timer John Buckingham. He was not initially the man chosen for the job, however.


"Two jockeys turned him down because they wanted £500 and John [Kempton] didn't want to pay," Buckingham later told The Telegraph. "It was going to be my first National ride and I'd have ridden Dick's donkey for nothing."

It would be unfair to make comparisons between Foinavon and a donkey – the horse had achieved success in other races – and you don't suspect Buckingham was doing so. Nevertheless, his chances of achieving anything in the 1967 National were rated as slim, and Buckingham was likely just happy to be making his debut in the event. Tellingly, his owner did not attend the race, while trainer John Kempton had travelled to Worcester to ride a horse considered a better bet for success.

The bookies' favourite that day was Honey End, ridden by Josh Gifford, with odds of 15/2. The opening stages of the race did not suggest that anything spectacular was about to unfold but, at the 23rd fence, the National was turned on its head.

Popham Down – another outsider, with odds of 66-1 – had lost his rider early on and continued along towards the head of pack. At the then-unnamed fence following Becher's Brook, Popham Down veered left and into the path of the following horses.

Chaos ensued, with few horses making it over the fence, and those who did throwing their jockeys. The scene bordered on farce, with dismounted jockeys chasing horses in an attempt to remount, while some had come to a standstill on the other side of the fence (among those to fall was Different Class, owned by To Kill a Mockingbird star Gregory Peck).


But amidst this, one horse had time to slow at the fence, take stock of the situation, then calmly leap over and into a huge lead. It was Foinavon.

Such a luxury was afforded by the fact that he was some way behind the pack. Had he been near the front, Foinavon would have been consumed by the pile up; it was a rare case of slow and steady actually winning the race.

The advantage he'd gained from this effectively guaranteed him the win. Back at the scene of the melee, Gifford had managed to clamber back on to Honey End and begin pursuit of Foinavon. A handful of others were able to do the same, but with an advantage of 30 lengths the surprise leader just needed to keep going. His lead was halved, but Foinavon and Buckingham held on to take a shock with, with Honey End second and Red Alligator (who won the following year) coming in third.

"I never usually looked behind, although I did take a peek just after I'd jumped the last to see what the situation was," Buckingham recalled.

After the race, TV commentator Michael O'Hehir – who memorably described Foinavon emerging from the chaos – suggested that the 23rd fence could be renamed after the shock winner. In 1984, Aintree officially made that change, which remains to this day. Ironically, the horse named after a mountain had given his name to the smallest fence on the course.