When the late, great racing commentator, Sir Peter O`Sullivan passed away in July last year, there were many column inches devoted to what his most memorable commentaries were. Shergar destroying the opposition when winning his Derby, Grundy beating Bustino in the race of the century or his unforgettable description of Red Rum`s third and final win at Aintree.
For me, every time I heard his sepulchral tones, much like Proust and his madeleines, a line of O`Sullivan commentary would enter my head, namely: “…The Duke of Alberquque has gone…..”
This one phrase summed up the Grand National exploits of the one of the most colourful and without doubt eccentric characters ever to sit in a saddle. The Duke in question , to give him his full name, Beltran de Osorio y Diez de Rivera, was a Spanish aristocrat who became the man who was obsessed with trying to win the Grand National.
The young Albuquerque was given his first pony at the age of five and on his eighth birthday was given a Pathe newsreel of the 1926 Grand National by his doting father . He fell instantly in love with race. He was later quoted as saying “I had loved horses as a child. Now I saw this beautiful race, the greatest test of horse and rider in the world. I said then that I would win that race one day”. Try he did, but sadly with nearly the same outcome each time.
His gallop into the Aintree history books started in 1952, when the Duke already 35 years old, rode in the race for the first time. He rode his own horse, the 40/1 chance Brown Jack III, and putting up nearly a stone overweight was in the leading quartet until he fell at the sixth fence, which then allowed the Duke the first of his many visits to the Liverpool Royal Infirmary with a broken vertebrae. He remarked to well wishers “Poor animal, it was past it” possibly overlooking the fact the same may already be true of him!
The Duke went back to Spain to recuperate and plot another attempt. He returned 11 years later to team up with a 13 year old 66/1 shot named Jonjo. The horse was not a forlorn no-hoper as he had been favourite for the race two years previously. Full of confidence, the Duke blazed away in front and got as far as the 19th fence before capsizing, this time without inflicting much in the way of either party.
Attempt number three came in 1965 when he purchased and partnered Groomsman, a strapping bay 10 year old who had the reputation of being a bold jumper. Sadly nobody told the horse, as he jumped like a wrecking ball throughout the early part of the race until the fence at Valentines claimed them both. So once again the Duke went on his now familiar journey to the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, this time with a broken leg, an occupational hazard for this adventurous daredevil, who had by now chalked up an eyewatering 22 fractures from his time in the saddle.
Not at all deterred, he returned to Aintree the following year, by which time the newspapers had now dubbed him the “Iron” Duke. Sadly the same script was followed as he and his 100/1 outsider, L`Empereur galloped around the first circuit before the horse decided that he had done enough and pulled himself up.
Seven years passed, during which time the Duke went elsewhere to get himself injured, succeeding with honours as he collected 10 more fractures.
His fifth attempt to win the race arrived in 1973, this time in collaboration with the 7 year old Nereo, a 66/1,shot, which was his own horse and was trained by the redoubtable Fred Winter. They were a unique combination, the youngest horse and the oldest jockey. That year he decided upon new tactics by staying off the pace and taking a wider course. This seemed to be working well until his stirrup broke at the third fence and then the 55 year old Spanish nobleman tried to cling on for dear life before finally parting company at the eighth.
Some weeks before the 1974 National, the Duke, had a fall whilst taking part in a flat race in Seville, which necessitated the insertion of sixteen screws into his leg. These were removed a mere fortnight prior to the race. A week later, whatever luck he had left seemed to have finally deserted him, for while exercising his mount for the race, Nereo, he took a nasty fall breaking his collarbone. He then confused all the nurses and doctors at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary by arriving before the race had started.
Somehow he managed to convince the racecourse doctor that he was hale and hearty and promptly set off to ride in the National with a broken collar-bone. He posted his best ever result for the race finishing a more than acceptable eighth behind Red Rum.
“I sat like a bag of potatoes and gave the horse no help” he later explained to reporters. He had managed to complete the course for the first time in his less than illustrious career.
There is a lovely anecdote from Jeff King who was upsides when the Duke nearly jumped across Ron Barry on Straight Vulgan at the second Canal Turn. Barry took avoiding action and shouted at the hapless Duke “What the **** do you think you`re doing!” To which the Duke replied, in wonderfully measured tones ,“My dear fellow, I haven’t a clue…I have never been this far before!”
The Gods of Racing made another unwelcome appearance in February the following year, when he managed to break his leg at Newbury. At this point you would think that most men would have given up, but not our dotty Duke. He was still considering taking his chance until Fred Winter intervened, pointing out how unfair it would have been to the horse. In an interview in the Sporting Chronicle he was quoted as saying “I have often been afraid on a horse, but fear is like any other habit, you learn to live with it. If a horse crashes, you may break a bone. If a car crashes, you may die. Do you then stop driving?”
A year later in 1976, the Duke, whose own riding career often resembled a car crash, attempted his seventh ride in the race. Riding his own horse, Nereo, he reverted back to his front running tactics of yesteryear. Racing up with the leaders, there was an air of inevitability that sooner or later Peter O`Sullivan, would once again, with that uniquely patrician voice of his, be compelled to say, “…The Duke of Alberquque has gone…..”
The Duke duly obliged by falling at the 13th fence, which with classic understatement he later remarked “I have been superstitious of that number all my life”. Once again he took up residence in his second home, the Royal Infirmary, having been trampled upon after the fall, and did not regain consciousness for two days. Later it was discovered that he had broken seven ribs, a vertebrae, his wrist and top it all off, fractured his right thigh bone in two places.
Such a minor setback was not going to deflect his Dukeness from his eighth crack at the Aintree marathon. His intended ambition this time was to win the race on a Spanish horse.
It must have been this intention of bringing a horse over from Spain which finally stirred the previously unperturbed Jockey Club into action. Following a meeting (in which he turned up in a neck brace), they decided to protect the Duke from himself by withdrawing his license to ride over fences. They also introduced a new rule requiring amateur riders over 50 summers (the Duke was nudging 60 by this time) to undergo a stringent medical examination.
When he was refused again the following year, the Duke finally admitted defeat. All those years of falling off had finally taken their toll.
Even though he never won the Grand National , he certainly enchanted the viewing public. If there ever was a prize for indomitable spirit, the grand old Duke of Albuquerque would have been a worthy winner.