At the time of writing, veteran trainer Sir Michael Stoute, 75, has won the Derby five times, twice before his knighthood – interestingly, awarded for services not to horse racing, but to tourism in his native Barbados, in 1998 – and three times thereafter. His most famous Derby winner was undoubtedly Shergar, who won, eased down, by 10 lengths in 1981. Shergar was owned by Prince Shāh Karim al-Husayni, a.k.a. Aga Khan IV, and ridden by the late Walter Swinburn, as was Stoute’s next Derby winner, Shahrastani, in 1986. Rather unfairly, the 1986 Derby is remembered more for the controversial defeat of the hot favourite, Dancing Brave, than the victory of Shahrastani.
In any event, Stoute had to wait a while for his next Derby winner but, in the style of ‘London buses’, two came along together, in the form of Kris Kin in 2003 and North Light in 2004. Both winners were ridden by Kieren Fallon. Last, but by no means least, in 2010, Stoute enjoyed another wide-margin, ‘Royal’ Derby winner, courtesy of Workforce, owned by the late Khalid Abdullah. Ridden by Ryan Moore, Workforce was soon clear and in command, winning by 7 lengths in a time of 2 minutes 31.33 seconds, which still stands as a course record.
Of course, the five ‘named’ Grand National fences are, in the order in which they are jumped, ‘Becher’s Brook’, ‘Foinavon’, ‘The Canal Turn’, ‘Valentine’s Brook’ and ‘The Chair’. Of that famous quintet, the two that are named after horses are Valentine’s Brook and Foinavon.
Originally known as the Second Brook, Valentine’s Brook is a 5′ high fence, with a 5’6″ wide ditch on the landing side. It is jumped as the ninth and twenty-fifth fence in the Grand National and takes its name from Valentine, a horse who performed an extraordinary feat of aerial acrobatics at the obstacle in 1840. Ridden by Irish amateur Alan Power, Valentine tried to refuse, but somehow managed to clear the fence, reputedly landing hind legs first.
Ironically, Foinavon, which is jumped as the seventh and twenty-third fence during the Grand National, is one of the smallest fences on the National Course, at just 4’6″ high. Nevertheless, the fence was the scene of a famous pile-up in 1967, when the riderless Popham Down ran along the take-off side, bringing most of the field to a standstill. Foinavon, ridden by John Buckingham, emerged from the melee with a clear lead, which he maintained to the line for famous victory at 100/1. In 1984, the fence was officially renamed in his honour.
Of course, the minimum distance for Flat racing in Britain is five furlongs. The fastest sprint course in Britain is the five-furlong course at Epsom Downs Racecourse, situated on the North Downs in Surrey. Races over five furlongs start on a chute at the top of the home straight and head downhill for all bar the last half a furlong or so, before climbing to the finish line.
Nowadays, the standard time for five furlongs at Epsom is just 54.00 seconds, but the world record for that distance was recorded in the Epsom ‘Dash’ – a five-furlong handicap run on Derby Day in early June – in 2012. On that occasion, the 4-year-old Stome Of Folca, trained by John Best and ridden by Luke Morris, belied odds of 50/1 to win the race in a time of 53.69 seconds, or 1.31 seconds faster than the standard time at the time, at an average speed of 41.67 miles per hour. Indeed, the winning time was not only the fastest recorded anywhere in Britain since the advent of electronic timing, but also a new world record, as sanctioned by Guinness World Records.
The term ‘steeplechase’ was coined in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century to describe an early form of point-to-point racing, in which the ‘course’ – which was, in fact, open countryside – started and finished at a church steeple. In fact, the first recorded race of this type was held in County Cork, Ireland in 1752. More recently, on enclosed racecourses, the original, natural obstacles were replaced with artificial fences and ditches, but the name endured. Nowadays, steeplechases are run over advertised distances between two miles and four miles and two-and-a-half furlongs.
With the exception of specialist, bank courses, such as the Cross Country Course at Cheltenham, steeplechasers jump three types of obstacle, namely the plain fence, the open ditch and, optionally, the water jump. The plain fence consists of a rigid frame filled with real or artificial birch and must stand at least 4’6″ high. The open ditch is simply a plain fence preceded by a shallow ditch, to create a wider, more challenging obstacle. The water jump, where present, must stand at least 3′ high, with an area of water at least 9′ wide and 3″ deep beyond the fence. Steeplechases must have at least twelve fences in the first two miles and at least six fences in each subsequent mile. One fence in each mile must be an open ditch.