Charlie Fenwick and the American steeplechaser Ben Nevis clearing the last fence at the 1980 English Grand National

By Harold Heys (Lancashire, England)
(first appeared in the March 2015 issue of The Equiery)

For an Old Etonian, English racehorse trainer Captain Tim Forster was rather a pessimist. His glass was always half empty. And when American amateur rider Charlie Fenwick asked for his instructions just before the 1980 Grand National he got a less than encouraging response: “Keep remounting.”

The lack of confidence was perhaps understandable, as Fenwick’s mount, Ben Nevis, the star of the show in Maryland, had run up a string of a dozen defeats over the strange English fences and on unusual heavy going during his buildup for the big race at Aintree, Liverpool.

Foster’s response didn’t bother Fenwick, who coasted home to become only the second American rider–after Tommy Crompton Smith on Jay Trump in 1965–to win the race. Redmond C. Stewart, Fenwick’s father-in-law, had once said to an English friend, “The whole of foxhunting America would rather win your Grand National than any other race.”

Fenwick told me, “I have watched the video [of that race] countless times, and it still brings chills to my spine.” He also spoke warmly of the many friends he made over in England.

Those Who Have Tried
American owners vied for the prize many times over the years but now, for 25 years, there hasn’t been one challenger from “across the Pond.” And that’s in spite of the fact that the race, now sponsored by Crabbie’s, a popular alcoholic cider, has a prize pool of more than one and a half million dollars and a global television audience of 500 million.

Maryland Hunt Cup winner Billy Barton came second in the 1928 National behind 100-1 plodder Tipperary Tim after a stumble at the last fence. Billy Barton had had a successful career on the flat. He was bought by Howard Bruce, Master of the Elkridge Foxhounds and Charlie Fenwick’s grandfather, and became the top timber horse in the U.S. in the late 1920s.

Hunt Cup winner Uncle Merlin followed a similar path to that of Jay Trump and Ben Nevis in 1990. He was leading and going great guns when he pitched badly at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit. A couple more American horses were sent over for a sniff but didn’t get near Aintree. It all seemed to knock the stuffing out of the American challenge.

Across the Pond 
In the spring of 2004, my wife and I went over to watch the Maryland Hunt Cup in the rolling greenery of the Worthington Valley. I remember Margaret Worrall being most helpful.

Time Magazine depicting Billy Barton sailing over Becher’s Brook at the 1923 English Grand National

We stayed with some friends we had first met in China some 20 years earlier and we drove up from Virginia for the race. I plugged the Grand National and its history to anyone who would listen. It’s time for the English Jockey Club, which owns Aintree, and the race sponsors to do the job properly and start to make some discreet welcoming noises over in Maryland.

The Maryland Hunt Cup that year was won by a lass named Blair Waterman, on Bug River. The crowd was close to 8,000 and everyone had piled-up picnic tables in the 90-degree sunshine. Champagne was in full flow from silver ice buckets. A couple of tables even had silver candelabra. Our friend Bernice was well miffed she hadn’t thought of that elegant touch.

Just the one race and no bookmakers, of course. It was all a long way from a meat pie or a bag of chips [fries] and a pint of beer on a cold and damp wintry afternoon at Aintree.

Changing Times
It was over 50 years ago that I saw my first Grand National and I was spellbound. I watched more than 40 in succession and another handful over the next few years. I remember Jay Trump holding on to beat Freddie and Charlie Fenwick’s smile as wide as the River Mersey long after his win on Ben Nevis.

Sadly, I have to say that the race has lost a lot of challenge and excitement–the Glorious Uncertainty that made it so thrilling.

The course has been modified considerably after a sustained assault from animal welfare activists and most of the fences are now considerably less daunting than in the days of old when fences were upright, forbidding and not for the fainthearted horse or jockey.
Becher’s Brook and The Chair aren’t exactly hop-overs, but neither can they be called “intimidating” any more. The unique, right-angled Canal Turn has been reduced to a gentle curve.

Steeplechasers in the UK don’t “climb” upright wooden rails; they face wider brush fences, and several obstacles have ditches either on the approach or on the landing side. Oh, and a water jump adds extra spice.

The Grand National covers almost four and a half miles and there are 30 fences but it isn’t half what it was when Smith and Fenwick were showing the U.S. team how it’s done. However, any intrepid challengers will need patience and determination and plenty of planning. And it won’t be cheap.

Charles C. Fenwick, Jr., now president of Valley Motors in Cockeysville, told me, “It was a daunting task getting a horse qualified for a handicap mark in the Grand National–and it still is.”

He recalled his instructions from Forster before one race with Ben Nevis at Wincanton in the southwest of England. The combination just had to get around. Forster pointed to “a mountain” in the distance and told him, “If you fall off, I don’t care if you have to chase him to the top of that mountain, you do, remount, and finish the race!” Luck was with them and they finished a handy fourth.

The Challenge
So, come on, America! Where has all that spirit of adventure gone? Let’s see what your Maryland Hunt Cup winners are made of! We’ve had it all our own way for far too long. Jay Trump and Ben Nevis managed it; Billy Barton almost did, and Uncle Merlin might well have done. Not a bad record for Hunt Cup winners who chased the biggest prize in the world of steeplechasing.