Bumping into an old comrade at Becher's Brook
(Filed: 29/10/2003) Telegraph
Former Telegraph correspondent's autobiography reveals how his first ride in the Grand National finished with him sitting next to a Russian friend on the Aintree turf
The Grand National first registered in my infant mind two days before my eighth birthday in March 1937, when my nanny organised a sixpenny sweepstake on the race. At that point I had no idea what the Grand National was, let alone that I would ever ride in it, and the name on my ticket - Royal Mail - meant nothing much to me either. But after we had crowded round the radio at Hill Farm to hear Evan Williams bring Royal Mail home three lengths ahead of Cooleen and I had pocketed the five shillings in the pool, I was hooked, and the stranglehold which the great Aintree race exerted on my imagination grew steadily tighter over the years. (In 1937 I had no way of knowing, of course, that Evan Williams would breed Taxidermist, the best steeplechaser I ever rode; and I certainly did not know that Jack Fawcus, who rode the runner-up, would, two years later, be taken prisoner in France with my future brother-in-law Freddy Burnaby-Atkins!).
From then on I won many an imaginary Grand National on the nursery rocking-horse and on Mince Pie, but I had reached the ripe old age of 32 before I got my first ride in the real thing - on 'Taxi' himself in 1961.
At his very best Taxi would have been the ideal Grand National horse - well endowed with stamina and class, and a wonderfully accurate and clever (as opposed to flamboyant) jumper. I used to dream of unleashing the final charge which won him the Whitbread and Hennessy Gold Cups, and on the right - fast - ground he would have been a formidable proposition on Aintree's interminable run-in. By March 1961 he was still only nine - but he had not won for two years, and was, truth to tell, past his best: a condition doubtless reflected in his starting price of 40-1.
So we set off with more hope than confidence. Approaching Becher's Brook, the sixth fence, we were balked three strides from take-off by a riderless horse called Tea Fiend. Taxi, like the brave, agile and careful jumper he always was, 'fiddled' neatly to meet the fence dead right - but because of lost momentum landed half a stride short. At any other fence in the land it would not have mattered a damn. But this was Becher's and, landing against a 45-degree counterslope - the 'lip' of the brook - at 30 miles an hour, a horse needs the balance of an Olympic gold medalwinning gymnast to stay on his feet.
I have a photograph which shows the angles involved - including the one at which we landed. As when hitting a fence, it is the sudden deceleration that matters. Unless you, the rider, anticipate it - and take all necessary precautions in far less time than it takes to read those words - you tend to be ejected like a spent cartridge case. In John Hislop's book Steeplechasing there is a sequence of line drawings by the author's great friend John Skeaping which illustrates, with amazing clarity, the correct way to cope when your horse hits a fence and, equally clearly, the wrong way - complete with undesirable consequences. But, understandably, I was not in a position to consult the book as Taxi pitched on landing over Becher's, and off I tumbled.
As I sat there lamenting my luck, there came a resounding thump beside me closely followed by a loud and robust curse - in Russian. The latest victim of Becher's was none other than my friend Vladimir Prakhov, and how this indefatigable Russian jockey came to be prostrate beside me on the Aintree turf requires a little explanation.
A former Russian premier, Georgi Malenkov, had been a guest of the redoubtable Mrs Mirabel Topham, whose family firm owned Aintree racecourse, for the 1956 Grand National, the year of Devon Loch's disastrous, unexplained fall 50 yards from the winning post and certain victory. Possibly, Malenkov saw that notorious incident as proof that literally anything can happen at Aintree - because five years later (one year after the first televised Grand National) the Russian racing authorities suddenly entered three horses in the race: Epigraf II, Grifel and Reljef. Just a little more fact-finding reconnaissance would have told them that their two actual runners (Epigraf II was withdrawn) would both be lumbered with top weight of 12st - in the belief that the British handicapper 'had no access to their form'. That ridiculous rule has, thank heaven, now been modified - but in any case, Grifel and Reljef did not at first sight, strike terror into either the handicapper or their rivals.
The newborn Sunday Telegraph was keen to establish the credentials of its first racing correspondent - which position I had recently added to my duties on the daily paper - and as I was due to have my own first National ride that year I was dispatched to Moscow (plus interpreter) to assess the Russian challenge. My interpreter was a charming former White Russian called Boris who, as he told us at Heathrow, had got out of Moscow by the skin of his teeth in 1919 and had not been back. To say he was nervous about the reception he could expect from the KGB would be a grave understatement. Happily (for him) he quickly discovered the ideal anaesthetic in vodka - and was quietly under its influence shortly after take-off. As it turned out, the Russian chef d'equipe, a tough-looking cruiserweight called Volchkov, spoke excellent English and was well able to interpret between us and the two jockeys, Brian Ponomarenko and the reigning Russian champion, Vladimir Prakhov.
We had brought several not-too-horrific films of past Grand Nationals and, apart from the crowding at some of the early fences, there was nothing to spoil the sleep of the two jockeys, each of whom had ridden more than once in the great Czech cross-country race the Grand Pardubice. One thing they enquired about was remounting - because apparently in the Pardubice they have squads of strong-arm thugs down by the difficult fences ready to load the poor little so-and-sos back on! Well, we tried very hard to convince them of the old weighing-room adage that 'There are fools, bloody fools, ****ing idiots - and people who remount in a steeplechase!' Except perhaps at the last few fences, once you are down or unseated in a Grand National that, 99 times out of 100, is that. We tried really hard to convince them - and, as you'll see, we failed.
So it was that the first man to land beside me at Becher's was my (by then) good friend Vladimir. I was just about to start commiserating in my fluent Ukrainian when from out of the crowd on the take-off side sprang Colonel (probably a KGB rank, we decided later) Volchkov. Heedless of my cries of 'Niet, niet!', he grabbed poor Vladimir and hoisted him back aboard. The unfortunate Grifel set off towards the next (to become notorious six years later as Foinavon's fence) but then, to my delight, Vladimir pulled him up and addressed some words to his superior on the ground. I hoped he was telling him to jump in the Mersey - but not a bit of it. What he actually said was: 'Comrade Colonel, will you please pick up my whip?'
When it was handed back, Vladimir continued on his way, and got all the way round to the water jump. He was, I can tell you, a real, game boy - and I have good reason to believe that an ex-chambermaid at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Southport would confirm that view. She, like the rest of us, wished Vladimir could stay on instead of going home. These were the days when unsuccessful Russian sporting teams were not exactly guaranteed a red-carpet welcome. We tried in every conceivable way to confirm Vladimir's safe arrival - but all in vain.
Then, by a little long-range miracle, early in 2001 word came through from a holidaymaking ex-reader of my Audax columns in Horse and Hound. He claims to have been introduced to a Vladimir Prakhov who, although over 70 (I should think so, too) is not only alive and well but a successful trainer of Flat racehorses down by the Black Sea. If any interested party who knows him ever happens to read this book, I would be eternally grateful for his address and, if possible, telephone number.
I am ashamed (well, only slightly) to say that Vladimir and our search for him have found their way into one of my most used after-dinner stories. With apologies to anyone who has heard it more than once, this is roughly how it goes.
Letters, cables and telephones having failed to contact the missing Prakhov (which rhymes with a rather rude Anglo-Saxon dismissal beginning with 'f'), I thought I had surely cracked the problem when my nephew Geoffrey joined the Foreign Office and found himself posted to Moscow. Geoff left England with instructions to leave no stone unturned - and under no circumstances to come back without news of the much-missed Prakhov.
I am sure he would have succeeded - but for an unhappy incident at his very first embassy dinner. Geoffrey, of course, was extremely junior - but, though a long way below the salt at this dinner, he found himself sitting next to an amazingly attractive dark-haired Russian lady. She, it transpired, did not speak much English so, since Geoffrey had only beginner's Russian, conversation was minimal. But when their eyes met she did not take hers away and when, as the vodka flowed, his hand fell on her knees, she did not take that away either. After another glass or two, my nephew, a bachelor in those days, was beginning to think that this might signal a much better-than-expected start to his stay in Moscow when the lady spoke for the first time - in English, and a surprisingly deep voice. 'Don't show surprise when you get to my balls. I'm Fotheringay-Phipps, MI5.'