'I never once heard him mention Foinavon'
John Buckingham, who rode into racing immortality when he steered the 100/1 Foinavon through the melee at the 23rd fence to win the 1967 Grand National, has died after a short illness. He was 76.
Buckingham's role in one of the most improbable National winners of all time began three days before the race, when he was preparing to attend a funeral.
The then 26-year-old was asked to ride Foinavon, a no-hoper, because the owner, Cyril Watkins, had refused to pay the 'bonus' expected by jockeys for a ride in the National.
Offered the basic riding fee of £5 10s, Buckingham jumped at the opportunity to have his first ride in the race and spent the night before on two armchairs pulled together in a Liverpool boarding house.
There were 44 runners in that year's National and a much larger percentage than usual were still standing as the field jumped Becher's Brook for second time. But they were preceded by the first-fence faller, Popham Down, which was, crucially, blinkered.
Having jumped 21 fences loose, for some reason he refused and ran across the 23rd, the smallest on the course and now called Foinavon, from left to right, which led to unimaginable mayhem.
In the eloquent words of John Oaksey, who was riding, he "cut down the leaders like a row of thistles".
At the back of the field, and with time to see what was unfolding before him, Buckingham steered a wide course to avoid all the confusion, weaving his way through what looked like a battlefield - tanks against cavalry - and got Foinavon to show-jump what remained of the decimated fence.
He was the only horse to negotiate it unscathed and went to the next, the Canal Turn, 200 yards clear.
Foinavon - trained by a young John Kempton - was still, however, not home and hosed. But, nursed round by Buckingham's horsemanship as the rest of the field closed in on him, he kept going. Helped by Buckingham's cool head and the fact that some of the others tried to catch him too quickly, he was going away again at the end to beat Honey End, ridden by Josh Gifford, by 15 lengths.
To generations of jump jockeys, however, Buckingham will be much better remembered as the heart and soul of the weighing room in his role, unseen by the public, as master valet - a business he ran with his brother Tom for 30 years before selling it to another former jockey, Chris Maude, in 2001.
Valets ensure their jockeys are well turned out with clean kit, the right silks for each race, boots polished and have a ready supply of elastic bands, to stop sleeves flapping, and safety pins - almost like a nanny preparing her young charges for school.
In Buckingham's case, he was also a father figure - offering advice and lightening up any serious situation with his wonderful sense of humour, picking you up when you were down and, equally importantly, keeping your feet on the ground after a big winner.
I have no doubt making me look the part for 20 years was one of his harder challenges.
"I never once heard him mention Foinavon," said seven-time champion jump jockey John Francome yesterday.
"Valets have the worst job in racing. They drive there in the dark, are the first to arrive, do all the washing and drying, are the last to leave, drive home in the dark and get to see no racing because they're so busy, but I never once heard him complain.
"He kept a wonderful balance in the weighing room so that there was never any falling out, and if there was, he'd nip things in the bud. He was a wonderful man."
Maude said: "I heard the news this morning. It's very sad. John was a very kind, lovely man. He touched a lot of people's lives. He always had a joke and we always had a laugh.
"He always had a smile on his face and always loved going back to Aintree.
Maude recalled a story Buckingham told him about the occasion a fledgling Tony McCoy needed a valet's services in England for the first time.
"When AP had his first ride in England, he didn't have any gear. John lent him a pair of boots and said, 'You'll have to go some to fill these, young man - they were Peter Scudamore's'. The rest, as they say, is history."
Trainer Jonjo O'Neill, a former champion jumps jockey, tweeted: "Very sorry to hear of the passing of Johnny Buckingham. He was a top man and the heart of jockeys changing room for many years." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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