Thursday, 4 February 2010

Spartan Missile and the Grand National

Arguably, Spartan Missile was the best Point to Pointer/Hunter Chaser of all time. He stood head and shoulders above the other horses in his class and almost won the Aintree Grand National.

The horse's owner, John Thorne, an amateur rider in his 50s, came out of retirement to ride this horse that he had bred and trained because he believed it would allow him to attain his dream of riding the winner of the Grand National.

John Thorne had also bred and ridden Spartan Missile’s dam, Polaris Missile, and returned to race riding after his son Nigel was killed in a car accident. After graduating to Hunter Chases from Point to Points he won the Aintree Foxhunters in 1978 and again a year later. The 1978 win was particularly memorable as the pin in one of his leathers broke and he had to ride over the last 8 jumps with no stirrups.

Spartan Missile missed 1980 through injury and, on his return a year later, John Thorne weighed in at 13 stone. Needing to get down to a race weight of 11 stone 2lbs, he trained with the soldiers at his local barracks and managed to achieve 11 stone 5lbs, just over 3lbs heavier than his target.

John Francome, the champion jockey at this time, offered to ride Spartan Missile in the big race, but John declined. The likelihood is that if John Francome had ridden, it would have won, thereby denying Aldaniti and Bob Champion of their fairytale ending.

Spartan Missile was settled at the back in the race and made a bad mistake at the first fence on the second circuit setting him even further back. Slowly he made his way through the field but Aldaniti had set sail for home already. Clawing his way past horse after horse, at the last fence only Aldaniti was in front of him. Relentlessly gaining length after length on the run-in, the post came just in time for Aldaniti. The galloping grandpa had just failed.

Great sportsman he was, John Thorne was pleased for Bob Champion, the rider of Aldaniti, and even had a drink with him in the local pub that evening.

Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. The following year, John Thorne was tragically killed in a fall at a Point to Point and Spartan Missile never ran again.