It is perhaps surprising that when Bill Davies bought Aintree in November 1973 he did not seek to change the rather tired programme of the Spring meeting and so for the first half of the decade the National meeting repeated the same format that had been in place since the early fifties. The last remaining supporting races over the National course, the Topham Trophy and Foxhunters Chase were staged on the Thursday with the Lancashire Hurdle, the Liverpool Spring Cup and some other rubbish flat races. Friday saw the Mildmay Chase, the sole race left over the Mildmay course and two divisions of the Coronation Hurdle for novices and Saturday opened with the Liverpool Hurdle which was now run under a variety of sponsored guises and the National. What Davies` team did do however which history tends to overlook completely (or inaccurately attribute the act to John Hughes who took over the reigns at Aintree in 1976) was to make the decision to remove the scaled down National style fences on the Mildmay course and replace them with traditional birch fences. It was an extremely sensible move. Considering that the Mildmay course was originally designed as a nursery for future National runners it was indicative of just how meaningless the course had become that in the final five runnings over the old spruce fences just three of the fifty runners in the Mildmay ran in subsequent Nationals, (VULGAN TOWN (2nd) & BARONA (unplaced) in 1972 and the final winner WINTER RAIN in 1974) Changing the fences made it possible for Aintree to stage National Hunt only cards. When the meeting became an all jumps affair the Mildmay Chase remained the feature event of the second day although it was sponsored by Alpen breakfast cereal and by 1977 the name had been dropped completely in favour of its sponsor. The Mildmay Chase survives to this day but it is now run as the Maghull Novices Chase and is the second race on Grand National day. (The Mildmay Novices Chase run on the Friday over three miles and a furlong is a separate event first run in 1983)
By November 1975 after just two Davies staged Nationals the Jockey Club, at the end of their tether over the whole sorry saga that Aintree had become threatened that if Davies did not tow the line the National would be transferred to Doncaster. Thanks to Mike Dillon of Ladbrokes the betting giants stepped in with an agreement to stage the National meeting for the next seven years. Davies` team were removed and the clerk of the course at Chepstow John Hughes was set the task of revitalising the National meeting. His first task was to scrap flat racing although I have never understood why he staged flat races on the first day of the 1976 National meeting.
As Thursday 3rd April 1976 ended an era with the last ever flat races run at Aintree, Friday 4th April opened a new one with the first all jumps meeting over the revamped Mildmay course. From now on Hughes and his team would start to transform the National meeting into a Festival to rival Cheltenham
Apart from Churchtown Boys heroics in 1977 when his Topham win was followed up by the performance of his life chasing home Red Rum two days later the Topham was not really much of a National trial. Four other winners attempted the double and only Sunny Lad managed to complete the course (Charter Flight, Rigton Prince and Clear Cut failed). The greys Lictor and Inch Arran opted for the shorter course (Inch Arran providing the master of Fairlawne, Peter Cazalet with one final moment of glory before his death months later) whilst Canits victory in 1978 was the only time he made the trip to Aintree. Our Greenwood ran in the National of 1980 some five years after his Topham triumph.
The Topham did provide one moment of glory in the saddle for Jonjo O`Neill when he won on Clear Cut as he famously failed to complete the course in all his National rides whilst the race also saw the last racecourse appearance of the legendary Flyingbolt widely considered to be the second finest steeplechaser after Arkle. He was way past his prime when he lined up in 1971 and unseated at the fence after Valentines.
Topham Tophy Role of honour
|1971||RIGTON PRINCE||W A Stephenson||J.Enright||15|
|1972||SUNNY LAD||T F Rimell||K B White||17|
|1974||CLEAR CUT||W.Hall||J J O`Neill||18|
|1975||OUR GREENWOOD||T W Dreaper - IRE||T.Carberry||18|
|1976||LICTOR||R C Courage||D.Sunderland||12|
|1978||CANIT||T F Rimell||C.Tinkler||15|
|1979||ARCTIC ALE||D L Moore - IRE||Mr J.Fowler||23|
My personal view is that the Foxhunters was a pretty ordinary event during the seventies although it was won by two great hunter chasers, Credit Call and Spartan Missile (probably the best hunter chaser of my lifetime so far). Whilst Spartan Missile went on to chase home Aldaniti in 1981 and run in two other Nationals of the eighties Credit Call stuck with the Foxhunters running in the race for six straight years. Only Bright Willow and Bullocks Horn attempted the National both in 1972 with Bright Willow finishing and Bullocks Horn disappearing on the first circuit. In 1976 the race was run before the Topham and was run for the final time over the Grand Sefton distance of two miles seven & a half furlongs. It was reduced by one and a half furlongs in 1977. Charlotte Brew made history in 1976 when she became the first female rider to compete over the National fences when she partnered Barony Fort to finish last of four finishers and in doing so qualified for the following years National.
Lady riders in the Foxhunters 1976-79
|1976||Miss Charlotte Brew||BARONEY FORT (4th)|
Miss C Caroe
Mrs Jane Sloan
BLACK FRIAR (bd)
MOONSTONR LAD (fell)
NE ARCTIC (ur)
Foxhunters Chase role of honour
|1971||BRIGHT WILLOW||G.Cure||Mr J.Chugg||15|
|1972||CREDIT CALL||W A Stephenson||Mr C.Collins||8|
|1973||BULLOCK`S HORN||R.Turnell||Lord Oaksey||14|
|1974||LORD FORTUNE||Mrs J Brutton||Mr D.Edmunds||10|
|1975||CREDIT CALL||W A Stephenson||Mr J.Newton||10|
|1976||CREDIT CALL||Mrs R.Newton||Mr J.Newton||9|
|1977||HAPPY WARRIOR||F T Winter||Mr N.Henderson||20|
|1978||SPARTAN MISSILE||M J Thorne||Mr M J Thorne||19|
|1979||SPARTAN MISSILE||M J Thorne||Mr M J Thorne||15|
All the old hurdle races were scrapped and whilst the Alpen sponsored Mildmay Chase remained the feature event of the second day five new events were added to Fridays card.
Maghull Novices Hurdle 2 miles 5 1/2 furlongs - still run today as the Mersey Novices Hurdle over 2 & a half miles. It now opens Grand National day.
George Novices Hurdle 2 miles - The popular Beacon Light won the inaugural running of the race. As the last flat race run the previous year had been the Knowsley Stakes it seems fitting that the race was renamed as the Knowsley Novices Hurdle in 1977 when it was moved to the Thursday to open the new look programme. It was staged in 2012 as the John Smiths Top Novices Hurdle and opens proceedings on the Friday.
Weetabix Hurdle 2 miles - An event for four year olds the race became the most prestigious juvenile hurdle after the Triumph Hurdle. Run over a variety of sponsored guises over the years the race is now known as the Anniversary Hurdle and is currently sponsored by Matalan and in 2012 was the second event on the Thursday
Burton Latimer Novices Handicap Chase 3 miles - This race was only staged once and was won by the useful Prince Rock who ran in two Nationals in 1977 & 1980.
Merseyside Handicap Hurdle 2 miles 5 1/2 furlongs - A handicap hurdle which continued to close the first day until 1980. In 1979 future Gold Cup winner Little Owl was unplaced in the race.
There were also five new events for the Saturday
Sun Ratings Chase 2 miles - The inaugural running attracted the winner of the Two Mile Champion Chase Skymas, the legendary Tingle Creek and a horse who would later put up one of the best displays of jumping ever seen over the National fences (in the 1980 Topham) the popular Uncle Bing in a ten strong field. None of these however got close and the race went to a surprise winner with the 25-1 outsider Menehall prevailing by five lengths. In the races early days it was not unusual to see the top two mile chasers run but only Skymas in 1977 managed to win the Champion Chase at the Festival and this race in the same year. In 1997 the race was renamed in honour of Aintrees greatest champion and became the Red Rum Chase. It was moved to the Thursday of the meeting in 2001 and has had something of a change of identity. When it was run on the Saturday it always attracted a small select field of the top two mile chasers. On a Thursday it is a competitive handicap but the top two milers tend to be aimed at the Melling Chase instead
Templegate Hurdle 2 miles 5 1/2 furlongs - Until this race appeared in the calender there was no championship event for top hurdlers at this distance and Aintree was rewarded with another stunning field which included dual Champion Hurdler winner Comedy of Errors and the great Grand Canyon who fought out a desperate struggle with the champion hurdler just prevailing by a short head. A year later the race produced one of the greatest hurdle races of all time when two giants of the hurdling world Night Nurse and Monksfield dead heated for first place. When News International stopped sponsoring the meeting in 1984 the race became the Aintree Hurdle and its role of honour over the years has included Champion Hurdlers Dawn Run, Beech Road, Morley Street and Istabraq. The legendary Danoli is also on the honours board.
George Whigg Chase 3 miles - A very good idea this. Make the race after the National open only to conditional jockeys and amateurs to enable the top professionals time to catch their breath after their exploits in the National. In 1977 the race became synonymous with its sponsors when it became known as the Page Three Chase. It was staged until 1983 when it was replaced with a similar race for conditional jockeys only.
Jay Trump Handicap Hurdle 2 miles - A race for amateur riders the race title only lasted one year before it was known by a variety of sponsored guises before the race was dropped from the programme in 1990 to be replaced by an amateur riders novice chase. In 1985 it was won by future Grand National winner Seagram.
Tarporley Junior Novices Hurdle 2 miles - Another race for four year olds to complete the programme. Extended to two and a half furlongs in 1983 it was last staged in 1984.
Having dropped the flat racing the 1977 National meeting was for the first time an all jumping affair and we saw more new races. The first day also saw a record number of runners for a National Hunt meeting at Aintree which to my knowledge has never been surpassed. 121 horses competed in the six races.
Sporting Chronicle Handicap Chase 2 1/2 miles - The Peter Cundell trained Bachelors Hall won the first edition of this race. We didn`t know too much about him then but by the end of the year he had won the Mackeson Gold Cup, Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup and King George Vi Chase. The David Barons trained King or Country won this race three times in the eighties. It was last run in 1994.
The Allied Manufacturing Handicap Hurdle 2 miles - Dual champion hurdler Sea Pigeon carried an incredible twelve stone six to victory in a twenty runner field in what was possibly his best weight carrying performance over timber. Known for most of its life as the Holiday Inn Handicap Hurdle a two mile handicap hurdle was staged on the first day until 1985.
Three new events were added to the second day
George Hurdle 2 miles - Rather confusingly a new race for four year olds and up was given the same name as the novices hurdle that had been staged on the corresponding day the previous year. However despite the racecard stating that this was the same race that Beacon Light had won in 1976 this was a completely new event. Beacon Light very nearly won this inaugural event too but he crashed out at the last when holding a commanding lead. The race was gifted to the Irish trained Cooch Behar who gained his second success over the course and distance having won the inaugural Juvenile Hurdle the year before. The race was replaced by a selling hurdle in 1980.
Weetabix Chase 3 miles 1 furlong - Another race that has survived in a variety of guises to the present day and as the John Smiths Handicap Chase it is now the race before the National.
Red Rum Novices Handicap Chase 2 miles - Not to be confused with the Red Rum Chase, Aintrees greatest son became probably the only horse to have a race named in his honour when he was still in training. It was first run on the eve of his finest hour as it closed the second days programme. Extended in distance to two and a half miles the race was staged until 1985.
The enterprising John Hughes attracted a host of new sponsors to Aintree so the race names for most of the events changed almost yearly but the programme remained the same for the remainder of the decade.