David Owen ©ITG

How many Olympians have owned horses in the Grand National, the gruelling Liverpool steeplechase whose 2022 edition took place yesterday? My supposition would be very few.

Two who did were the Right Honourable Freddie Guest, a British Cabinet Minister in the 1920s who was a cousin of Winston Churchill, and the Belgian Alfred Grisar, whose biography on Olympics.com describes him as the "Father of Belgian Polo".

Grisar was in the Belgian polo team on home soil at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920. He also umpired the final. Guest won a bronze medal as part of the British team, also in polo, four years later in Paris.

In 1928, on the eve of the great race, Guest and Grisar bought a horse called Koko. This was not just any old racehorse: Koko had made every yard of running to land the Cheltenham Gold Cup, run at level weights and still regarded as the ultimate test of quality for steeplechasers in Britain and Ireland, in 1926.

Owned by a Belfast linen manufacturer called Frank Barbour, Koko was also well-fancied for the 1926 Grand National, but got knocked over at Becher’s Brook, the Aintree course’s most famous and daunting obstacle.

According to one account, the horse was jumping "beautifully" until being "banged into by Lee Bridge and put on his knees", whereupon he was "recovering himself quickly" when another horse "crashed on him and put him out of the race."

Other judges felt that Koko’s habit of sometimes skimming low over fences was asking for trouble at Aintree, with its sixteen stiff, upright obstacles, and in 1927 he sat out both the big English steeplechasing prizes.

Still a regular winner, he was back at Prestbury Park in Cheltenham the following year, having been moved to a new Barbour stable in Wiltshire, southern England, and looked on the point of reclaiming his Gold Cup crown going over the last only to fade to third on the run-in. The reported explanation was that he had broken a "small blood vessel".

This did not stop him winning a popular four-mile steeplechase at Hurst Park, near London, just four days later.

This year's Grand National took place yesterday at Aintree Racecourse ©Getty Images
This year's Grand National took place yesterday at Aintree Racecourse ©Getty Images

It may have been this that convinced Guest to buy him with the fast-approaching Grand National in mind. The price, paid by him and Grisar was reported to be £4,000 ($5,212/€4,800).

The canny Barbour also secured a contingency of half the stake in the event of victory in the Aintree marathon.

Some weeks earlier, Barbour had sold an even better horse - Easter Hero - under a similarly-structured but more expensive deal, to another Belgian, the electricity tycoon and financier Alfred Loewenstein.

At the peak of his riches, Loewenstein is thought to have been the world’s third-wealthiest individual. He was destined to die little more than three months after the 1928 race when he apparently fell from his private aircraft into the English Channel. A biography - The Man Who Fell From The Sky - has been written by William Norris.

The 90th running of the Grand National on March 30 1928, on a sodden but intermittently sun-streaked day, was the most melodramatic anyone had seen up to that point in the race's long history, stretching back all the way to 1836.

Chaos ensued at the eighth fence, the Canal Turn - in those days an open ditch - when Easter Hero, Loewenstein’s recent acquisition, mistimed his jump, landed on top of the obstacle and slithered slowly back into the ditch on the take-off side.

Distressed, he ran back and forth across this ditch, causing multiple refusals at a fence which already posed unique questions since runners tackle it while attempting to execute a 90-degree turn.

The wall of horseflesh quickly became impenetrable, and more than a dozen of the then record 42-strong field were put out of the race. Such was the aftermath that it was decided to do away with the ditch, as it turns out, for good. Nothing like this happened again at a Grand National until 1967, the race famously won by the rank outsider Foinavon.

The Canal Turn was not, however, where Koko came unstuck.

Widely enough fancied for at least one tipster to have made him his each-way selection, the new purchase had crashed out once again at Becher’s Brook, to the consternation of a small army of punters, as well, no doubt, as members of the Guest and Grisar families.

Studying footage, it looks like the unfortunate animal, well back in the field, caught the fence and lost all momentum, sending horse and rider plummeting almost straight down over the intimidating drop to a wet, muddy and very heavy landing.

Paul Brown’s 1930 book Aintree: Grand Nationals - Past and Present describes how the horse "seems to get in too close, and before he can tear his knees out of the tangle of boughs, he is head-down in the air".

So thoroughly stuck did Koko turn out to be that ropes had to be requisitioned hurriedly to winch him to safety. Wrote Brown: "He was nearly drowned in the shallow water of the brook."

Freddy Guest's son Raymond, leading horse, won the 1975 Grand National with L'Escargot ©Getty Images
Freddy Guest's son Raymond, leading horse, won the 1975 Grand National with L'Escargot ©Getty Images

With so many casualties in one place, the Canal Turn, it was not altogether surprising that, approaching the 30th and last fence, only two runners were left standing.

One of them was Tipperary Tim, an unconsidered outsider - named after a talented early 20th-century distance runner called Tim Crowe - whose best days had been considered far behind him. The other was an American challenger called Billy Barton, an irascible Maryland Hunt Cup-winner, trained near Baltimore and carrying, in the words of one observer, "a fortune of dollars", though priced at longish odds of 33/1.

Yet still one private calamity remained to unfold: clearing the last, Billy Barton slipped and unseated his jockey, leaving his only rival to plod away to an entirely unexpected victory.

The US challenger did secure a distant second place after his rider had the presence of mind to remount, assisted by spectators.

An enormous crowd had turned up to witness this surfeit of sporting melodrama. It included a 2,000-strong American contingent, lured by the presence of at least nine United States-owned runners, and also King Amanullah, Governor of Kabul.

The atmosphere inside the swanky Adelphi Hotel near the city centre was such, according to the New York Times’s correspondent that "one would think oneself back in America at such a sporting event as the Yale-Harvard football game".

Those who could not be accommodated in the city’s full-to-bursting hotels were able to try their luck on one of three steamships berthed in the docks. King Amanullah and his wife, for example, occupied a suite on the Cunard liner Scythia.

In another innovation, the packed racecourse was also served by direct air excursions to and from Croydon, south of London. A number of 21-seater Armstrong-Siddeley biplanes covered the 200 miles in just over two hours. Croydon’s new £260,000 ($338,780/€312,000) aerodrome had opened for business only in January.

US interest in the event was so high that the race became the first to be broadcast live to a transatlantic radio audience.

The infrastructure involved was of course primitive by today’s standards. An apparatus was rigged up at the top of Aintree's County Stand capable of transmitting a telephoned commentary, via London and a high-power wireless station at Rugby in the English Midlands, to New York and onwards to the Billy Barton team's home city of Baltimore.

Tipperary Tim won the 1928 Grand National ©Getty Images
Tipperary Tim won the 1928 Grand National ©Getty Images

A United Press correspondent, C.P.Williamson, travelled to Aintree to provide the commentary. From a perch adjacent to the press box, at the corner of Tattersall's Stand, this would have been a tough task on a day of mist and little sunshine.

The very considerable outside noise had to be muffled, a requirement achieved by swaddling Williamson in a blanket. From this vantage point he did his best to follow the intensely dramatic proceedings around the two-mile circuit with the aid of his field glasses.

On arrival in Baltimore, after a fraction of a second’s delay, the intrepid correspondent’s words were picked up by an announcer and relayed to what the Irish Times described as "thousands of radio listeners throughout the country".

Poor Koko was reported to be "greatly shaken" and "very stiff" after his ordeal, so much so that he did not run in the Welsh Grand National at Cardiff on April 10, as originally planned.

Nevertheless, both he and Billy Barton were back at Aintree a year later for the equally extraordinary 1929 Grand National.

This was the year when a staggering 66 horses lined up to start, a record which, thankfully, will not be broken.

Guest expressed an owner’s confidence before the race, opining: "He should win if he stands up." By this time, however, the 11-year-old had probably had his fill of racing and was acquiring a reputation as an erratic performer.

Sent off at odds of 66/1, he was slowly away and lasted only as far as the first open ditch.

It was left to Freddie’s son Raymond to fulfil his father’s ambition of winning the race, which he did 46 years later, in 1975, when his horse L'Escargot outstayed the mighty Red Rum.