Better than sex – the story of the 1996 Grand National


Rough Quest: had been second in the Gold Cup before the National

  PICTURE: Getty Images  

 By Scott Burton 3:36PM 20 OCT 2016 

FOLLOWING the sad news of Rough Quest’s death at the age of 30, relive his finest hour through the words of those closest to him.

Just 16 days after chasing home Imperial Call in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Rough Quest went to post for the 1996 Martell Grand National with just 10st 7lb on his back and the tag of good thing, in the words of his jockey Mick Fitzgerald. But the ten-year-old had to be delivered daringly late – a tendency that led to a dramatic conclusion to the famous race.

Andrew Wates, owner: “Immediately after the Gold Cup we more or less decided not to run him in the National. Then about a week afterwards I was riding him out alongside Terry [Casey, trainer] and he was in such good form I said ‘he’s far too dangerous for me to ride, we’d better run him instead’. He came out of the Gold Cup better than before he’d run in it. They do say the Gold Cup is the best trial for the Grand National and I think there is something in that.”

Mick Fitzgerald, rider: “A couple of days after the Gold Cup Terry couldn’t believe how well he was. He asked me what I thought but there was no point asking. I had only ridden in one Grand National before and had fallen at the first. Richard Dunwoody, who was brilliant round Aintree, was also available. I shall be forever indebted to Terry Casey and to Andrew Wates for allowing me the opportunity to ride the horse.”

Rough Quest was sent off the 7-1 clear favourite in an unusually small field of 27. Aidan O’Brien saddled his only National runner, Life Of A Lord, to finish seventh, while Donald McCain led the field for a circuit in his only ride in the race aboard the 200-1 chance Sure Metal, trained by father Ginger.

Fitzgerald: “Rough Quest had run in the Topham [then the John Hughes Memorial] two years previously when he was trained by Tim Etherington. He fell three out so he had some experience of the fences. It’s very much a case of once they land over the first two or three, you’ve got a fair idea of how they’re going to take to it. Maybe not so much now but definitely back then, you knew very early on. It was almost the case when he landed over the first. He landed so sure-footed it was almost like he remembered where he was. He was brilliant over those first three fences and I was almost at ease that early in the race.”

David Bridgwater, rider of runner-up Encore Un Peu: “Anything of Martin Pipe’s you’d fancy in the race in those days, everything had a chance. Encore Un Peu had just finished second in the Kim Muir. I knew instantly when we jumped off he’d take to it. You can feel the rhythm and when horses fall it’s to the left or the right. Things just happen and straight away we were in that bubble, lobbing away and just having a great spin. He took me into the race and it was a fantastic ride round.”

Fitzgerald: “When Rough Quest went up past the stands with a circuit to go it was almost like the crowd lit him up. Crossing the Melling Road going out on the second circuit, he got a bit of a run on me and I knew if we flew the first again he’d be way too handy and he wouldn’t get home. So I went very tight on a short stride to the first [17th] and he really brushed through it. It was almost like dabbing the brakes because he dropped the bridle completely and I was able to switch him off again.”

Wates: “The plan was for Mick to hold him up and he did a fantastic job. In that sense he was quite a difficult ride. You had to get him switched off and Mick did that beautifully. I don’t think the horse knew he’d got into the race until after the last.”

With long-time leaders Three Brownies and topweight Young Hustler (who had been brought down when ridden by Bridgwater 12 months earlier) beginning to feel the strain, the race settled into a game of cat and mouse between Rough Quest and Encore Un Peu over the last half-mile.

Fitzgerald: “It’s funny the things that go through your head. When I landed over the third-last and crossed the Melling Road, I honestly thought to myself: ‘I’ve only got two more fences to jump and I’ll have got round in the National!’ It’s such a big race and for any jockey it means a lot just to be able to tell your kids or your grandkids you got round.

“I thought about going up Bridgy’s inner. There are some jockeys you could try that with, but there was no point with Bridgy because you knew he’d shut the door. So I knew I had to come round him, and as I went by him I could feel Rough Quest lean to the left. You think you’re clear but you’re not 100 per cent sure. He ended up on the rail and he was still going forward even though he’d gone slightly left. You’re praying you haven’t caused too much interference. I didn’t feel anything so I knew I hadn’t knocked him over. It’s only when you see the replay in the stewards’ room that you s**t yourself.”

Bridgwater: “I was about four lengths clear at the last and trying to hang on to nothing until I got to the elbow. Coming to the elbow I looked behind and saw Rough Quest sat on my arse. As soon as I saw him sat up my backside, knowing how good he was, it was a bit deflating. But I did actually have time to think about it and I knew Rough Quest always lugged left. I knew if he came past me he’d definitely interfere with me. He was always going to beat me and I was just hoping he tripped me up or something daft like that.”

Wates: “We saw it side on from the roof of the County Stand and I thought he was clear and there was no problem. Then when I saw the head-on and David Bridgwater did his audition for RADA, I must say I did begin to feel less confident.”

Fitzgerald: “One side of you wants to celebrate and give it the big fist pump when you come into the winner’s enclosure; the other side doesn’t want to think like that in case you have the race taken off you. There’s an awful lot of emotions going through you. When I won my Gold Cup [in 1999 aboard See More Business] I walked into that winner’s enclosure and gave it a fist pump like never before. I don’t know if that’s to do with not being able to do it at Aintree.”

Bridgwater: “If it had been any other race on any other day I thought we’d have probably got it. But then if it had been an ordinary race he’d have been giving us about two stone. That weekend we were lucky enough to be sat on the same table as Lester Piggott at the Lesters and the great man himself said we should have won it.”

The stewards took 15 minutes to decide that Rough Quest would keep the National, by which time the BBC was halfway through its slow-motion rerun of the race. The consensus of opinion was that the right decision had been made, although there was some irony in that among the panel of five stewards was Dick Saunders, who had denied the Wates family’s Hard Outlook when riding Grittar to victory 14 years earlier. In a further twist Casey had been head man to Grittar’s trainer Frank Gilman at the time of his National triumph. After the BBC had finished its analysis, a relieved Fitzgerald informed Desmond Lynam that “sex will be an anticlimax after this”.

Fitzgerald: “Now that I’m on the other side of the microphone I can appreciate what a cool customer Des Lynam was because he hardly batted an eyelid at my statement. When you look back on it I probably said it in front of eight or nine million people. My excuse is that my emotions were all over the place after the stewards’ inquiry and it was such a relief that I lost the run of myself. I hate to think how I’d react if someone said it to me because I am no Des Lynam.”

While Encore Un Peu was to run just once more, Rough Quest went on to contest two King Georges and another Gold Cup before running well for a long way on very deep ground in Earth Summit’s National in 1998.

Fitzgerald: “Going back there it just sparked him up again because he travelled like the best horse in the race all the way round. But he just got absolutely bottomed late on and that was it.”

Wates: “Rough Quest became more difficult to train in terms of soundness and we went hunter chasing with him as a 12-year-old. He went to Haydock and slipped up. He’d always had slight trouble behind the saddle and that slip-up made the problem worse.”

Fitzgerald suffered a career-ending neck injury when falling from L’Ami in the 2008 National. Terry Casey died in July 2001 after a prolonged fight with throat cancer. He was just 56.

Wates: “Terry was a great man and I still miss him now. He was such a nice chap and a very instinctive trainer. We’d quite often ride a bit of work together and what he ended up doing would bear no resemblance to what he had said beforehand. He would just say ‘the horse felt well so I thought I’d go off for a bit’. He was a very natural horseman.”

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