Events of 1997 still vivid in the memory of Tony Dobbin

Lord Gyllene was majestic in ‘bomb scare’ National that will never be forgotten.

  • Saturday 04 April
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Tony Dobbin’s rollercoaster path to Grand National glory on Lord Gyllene was like no other – in the 150th edition of the great race, delayed by two days because of a bomb scare which cleared Aintree.

Dobbin’s vivid recollection of events between April 5 and 7 1997 is further enhanced this year, with recordings of his victory and its “surreal” backdrop replayed by broadcasters bereft of a 2020 renewal because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Save for a slice of mid-race drama at the water jump, once the National was given its unique Monday evening go-ahead 23 years ago, the winning horse and jockey had a near seamless front-running passage.

It was instead what happened, and what did not happen, in the previous 48 hours which still provides much of a gripping first-person account.

Dobbin, and 35 other jockeys, found themselves all dressed up with nowhere to go when a sudden, initially unexplained racecourse alarm – and then protracted delay – turned out to be the result of an IRA bomb warning.

He and thousands of others had to leave Aintree in orderly haste, for their own safety, as police scoured the venue for possible suspect packages – and it became clear there would be no National that Saturday.

“It’s been on (television) again a couple of times, because of what’s been happening, which has been quite eerie to see back again,” said Dobbin.

“It was very strange for everyone.”

All had seemed fine, if naturally a little tense in the weighing room, as Aintree built towards its annual spectacle.

“We went down there, like any normal Grand National day,” he added.

“I had a few decent rides – then when the alarm went off, we were all tied up to go out for the race.

“We had our caps on, ready to go, get called out. Next thing we got sent out of the weighing room in our britches and boots, and we knew when we were out for so long it’s not going to happen.

“It was quite surreal.”

The jockeys were still trying to make sense of the interruption.

Dobbin said: “We just thought ‘Oh, some drunken nutter’s smashed the fire alarm in one of the stands, and it’ll be sorted out in 10 or 15 minutes.

“But obviously that was wrong.

“I can’t even remember when we found out that it was a bomb scare.

“We were pushed off the track, and all the people were coming out.”

Many of his colleagues were soon embarking on an early night out in Liverpool, in full-silks fancy dress – but he had a more staid evening at home, trying to come to terms with the anti-climax.

“I was walking up the street with some friends, and all the (other) jockeys were going for a night out to the Adelphi (Hotel),” he said.

“But I only lived up in Cumbria, about an hour and 20 minutes away, and a friend of mine, Barry Murtagh, came down and picked me up after I’d walked up to the motorway roundabout.

“So I went home, didn’t stay – which to be honest, I was quite jealous about. I wanted to stay with the boys.”

It was not until the next day that, equally unexpectedly, it was announced the race would be taking place after all.

On Monday, still without his car left at the course, he got a lift back down the M6 with his “boss” Gordon Richards – whose Buckboard Bounce would go on to finish fourth behind Steve Brookshaw’s 25-length winner Lord Gyllene.

“On the Sunday, my agent rang me in the afternoon and said ‘you’re racing tomorrow, it’s going to be on’ – which I couldn’t believe,” said Dobbin.

“It was amazing when he told me it was going to be on – quite weird, but brilliant.”

It was a slings-and-arrows upturn, after the hammer blow of apparently having an obvious shot at the National taken away by a cruel turn of events beyond his control.

Recalling his mood on the way home on Saturday, Dobbin said: “I was gutted. I thought he had a right chance.

“Obviously he hadn’t run over the fences, so you never know. But all his form said so.

“I’d only ridden him twice before. But I went down there very confident, he was one of the favourites.

“It was only my second ever ride in the race. I was very excited about it – (so) then for them to say it’s cancelled because of something stupid like a bomb scare, I was gutted.”

A new day brought the unexpected revival of all those hopes – and by Monday evening, confirmation from Lord Gyllene that it was meant to be.

Dobbin’s own big-race report bears telling again, too.

“He loved going out in front, and he just took to the fences,” he said.

“He loved the decent ground, and he got the run of the race really.

“You hear a lot of people say ‘Oh, this fella, he just loves it round there, or has taken to it well – or this fella hasn’t’. This horse, from the minute he saw the first fence, he was looking for the second one.

“I was quite lucky over the National fences – I’ve ridden five winners over them, so I’ve quite a bit of experience of it, and this fella just took to it like nothing else.

“He was a good jumper over a normal fence, but not amazing – whereas around there, he was something else.

“It switched him on.”

There were just two moments of doubt in transit – the first a suspicion of possible mind games from two high-profile old pros in opposition, and the second the attentions of a loose horse at the smallest fence on the course.

Dobbin and Lord Gyllene batted both away.

“I can remember turning in, with a circuit still to go – and Richard Dunwoody was behind me, upsides Jamie Osborne,” he said.

“I could hear them talking – Dunwoody was saying to Jamie Osborne ‘we’re going some gallop here’, and I thought ‘is he saying that to make me slow down?’.

“I was a young lad, and these were two of my absolute heroes – behind me, in the Grand National, saying we’re going too fast. But I thought ‘I know this horse’ – you couldn’t have gone fast enough with him, he’d run a marathon with you.”

Osborne eventually had to settle for a distant runner-up spot on favourite Suny Bay, while Dunwoody and the ill-fated Smith’s Band fell.

A couple of furlongs later, Lord Gyllene himself proved he was not going to let anything divert his destiny.

“It was the water jump,” said Dobbin.

“Right from the start, I was in front. But there a loose horse came upsides me, and it was the only time we saw another horse.

“He came past me after The Chair, and then ran out at the water.

“My horse, I swear, had every right in the world to go with him.”

Lord Gyllene refused to do so, and almost a quarter of a century later a forever grateful Dobbin can therefore always have the last word on the 1997 Grand National.

He said: “It wouldn’t have been the horse’s fault, or my fault, but at the last stride he actually just ducked in when he could so easily have ducked out.

“He got over it – and then we were away again, never saw another horse again.”

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