Foinavon's trainer jumps at the chance to see plaque in Limerick village

Donal O'Regan


Donal O'Regan


Foinavon's trainer jumps at the chance to see plaque in Limerick village

Ger O’Connell presents a framed copy of the plaque to Foinavon – erected to celebrate the horse’s Pallasgreen links – to John and Trish Kempton Picture: Mike O’Riordan

THE STORY of Foinavon is one of luck, perseverance and coincidence – and it continued in Pallasgreen on Sunday.

In April, a plaque was unveiled to the horse that won the Aintree Grand National 50 years ago at odds of 100/1. It famously avoided a pile-up at a fence because it was so far back. 

Foinavon was bred by Ted Ryan, of Cross Pallasgreen, and broken in by local men Gus McCarthy, Dan Kavanagh, Willie Harding. Only keen racing fans could remember who won the race this year but everyone knows the name of the horse that won it 50 years ago.

The Leader did a story on the ceremony in April and it was spotted by David Owen, author of Foinavon, The Story of the National’s Biggest Upset. He told Foinavon’s trainer John Kempton, who emailed this reporter that he would like to see the plaque. Ger O’Connell, whose idea it was to honour the area’s link to the famous horse, was the man for the job.

John and wife Trish flew to Cork in their plane on Friday and landed in Pallasgreen on Saturday. The sprightly 79-year-old remembers every detail about how he acquired the animal like it was yesterday.

“I was very lucky, I had an owner who desperately wanted a horse to run in the National. Cryil Watkins and his partner McIntyre Benellick put up the money. They said, ‘We will go up to 2,000 guineas’, which was a lot of money and especially to a small yard like mine. We were used to spending 300, 400, 500 guineas on a horse.

“And this is a very lucky thing that quite a few don’t know about,” said John, who gave the exclusive to the Leader as he looked over the beautiful plaque set in stone under a leaden Limerick sky.

“I started looking and the Doncaster sales were coming up. There was an ex-horse of Anne Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster called Foinavon. It had won a qualifying race for the National so my ears pricked up.

“We went to Doncaster, checked the horse over and it was sound. Bidding started and we got it for 2,000 guineas bang on the money. If it had gone to 2,100 guineas I couldn’t have bought it. Isn’t that the luck of Joab?” laughed John.

He praised the Limerick men who bred and broke the horse 

“They did a wonderful job. He was an absolute gentleman of a horse and a lovely ride.”

As Foinvavon had fallen four times in successive races in Ireland and as the Duchess already had the supreme Arkle and Ben Stack, Foinavon was surplus to requirements. All three were named after mountains in her estate.

The young trainer got to work. He went hunting on Foinavon and schooled him every day. “His whole life was jumping. I rode him myself in races and we never had him fall, ever.”

Part of the media spin on Foinavon is that he was such a no-hoper, neither his trainer or owner bothered to go to Aintree in 1967.

“It is wonderful folklore and may it continue,” smiled John. 

But the truth is that Cyril Watkins – McIntyre Benellick pulled out of the ownership partnership in 1966 – worked every Saturday.

He was a Littlewoods football pools concessionaire, collected the tickets from factories and looked after the vast sums of cash. Foinavon rarely ran on a Saturday as his owner could never go racing.

And John couldn’t ride the horse in the National because the 10 stone weight was too low for him.

Instead, he went to Worcester where one of his charges was a sure thing and it duly obliged with John onboard.

“I watched the National in the jockeys’ room in Worcester. They had a little tiny 12 inch television. 

“When the pile-up did happen and Foinavon came through, I probably spotted it before anyone else because I recognised the colours and he had yellow blinkers on.

“John [Buckingham] popped him over the fence and I screamed out loud. I leapt on the table where all the saddles were, the jockeys were shouting ‘John, that’s your horse!’ I knew he would just carry on jumping, he was a magnificent jumper. How he did fall in Ireland, I don’t know. It was all so exciting. I rushed out of the jockeys’ room and threw my hat in the air. Then I started to think have I just had a dream because this doesn’t happen.” 

But crates of Moët & Chandon weren't ordered as he and his wife had to rush back to the yard to look after the horses. Fast forward 50 years and John is standing in Pallasgreen after a visit to Coolmore organised by Ger O’Connell.

“I can’t believe the plaque is so big and it is so well done. It is fantastic. It is a wonderful legacy,” said John before he and Trish headed back to their accommodation in the appropriately named Bit and Bridle Inn. Yet another coincidence in the remarkable story of Foinavon.