Grand National 20 years on: Lord Gyllene’s trainer loved his ’15 minutes of fame’

Lord Gyllene led from start to finish in the Monday teatime 1997 Grand National
Randox Health Grand National
Venue: Aintree Date: Saturday, 8 April Race: 17:15 BST
Coverage: Build-up and live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live from 13:00, with text updates and pinstickers' guide on the BBC Sport website and app.

Lord Gyllene's trainer will never forget the day they won the Grand National 20 years ago – even if everyone else virtually always does.

1997 was the year when, in only his second year as a trainer under National Hunt rules, Shropshire's Steve Brookshaw prepared the New Zealand-bred horse so well that it galloped past the winning post at Aintree by 25 lengths, the largest winning margin since Red Rum's third win 20 years earlier.

But 1997 was also the year when the National had to be postponed because of a bomb scare. After several hours of confusion and delay, not to mention much deliberation, the race was run 48 hours later, on the Monday teatime. And, sadly, that's how it will always be best remembered.

"It was my 15 minutes of fame," Brookshaw told BBC Sport. "The biggest day of my life.

"A lot of people in Shrewsbury came round that night to see us home, there were bottles of champagne on the lawn and we had a bit of a party. Our social life picked up tremendously.

"We had a great social life for the next 12 months. We went down to the Dorchester Hotel in London for various do's and dances, as it had been the 150th National. Lord Gyllene even went down with us for one of them.

"But the race itself was obviously overshadowed by the fact that it was on the Monday after the bomb scare."

Lord Gyllene was comparable to Red Rum

Brookshaw maintains, however, that but for the bomb – or rather no bomb – and the injuries that followed the nine-year-old's Aintree triumph on 7 April 1997, the horse himself could have gone on to even better things.

"I've not seen many horses do it that easy," said Brookshaw. "Except Red Rum, when he was in his prime. And even he got beat once or twice.

"His two previous races were over four miles and nearly four miles (the National is run over four miles 514 yards) so there were no doubts about him staying. He'd had two hard races, so it was just a case of keeping him fresh. It was lovely to see his ears pricked coming past the line. He won by 25 lengths so could have carried a bit more weight and still won.

"We knew he'd do well. He was ideal for the National. My wife Zena used to ride him out most of the time and he was a real gentleman. You could not have had a better horse for the race. He loved the place."

Steve Brookshaw now works at Richard Kent's Mickley Stud, near Tern Hill, Market Drayton

Brookshaw's winners 'over the National fences'

Steve Brookshaw trained winners in all three of the only races run over the famous Grand National fences at the Aintree Festival.

  • 1996 – Rolling Ball (Foxhunters' Open Hunters' Chase)
  • 1997 – Lord Gyllene (Grand National)
  • 1999 – Listen Timmy (Topham Chase)
  • 2004 – Cassia Heights (Topham Chase)

Both the Foxhunters' Chase, run on the Thursday, and the Topham Chase, run on the Friday, are run just once round the course, as opposed to the two circuits in the Grand National.

Saturday's trip to Aintree

"I was only in my second season with a licence to train and it was all pretty new to me and, other than feeling nervous, everything had gone to plan when we set out from Shropshire that Saturday morning," explained Brookshaw.

"The owner, Sir Stanley Clarke, was taking no risks and, as the horse was so well fancied, he'd insisted on having nightwatchmen patrol the yard for a week before the race. He didn't want anyone to get to him.

"But, by the time we got home that night, that had had all gone out of the window.

"We were lucky that, although they had switched off phone signals on the course, Jim Mellow, the man who brought the horse for Stan Clarke, had a New Zealand phone so we were able to use that and get things organised. There was a only a bit of panicking and drove back the 60-odd miles to Shropshire that night.

"The organisers consulted a lot of people, including us trainers, and the groundswell of opinion was that everyone wanted to run on the Monday. They certainly handled it a lot better than the Esha Ness race four years earlier. It didn't help the nerves though. We didn't get much sleep over the whole of that three days."

Lord Gyllene had a good following to escort him to the winner's enclosure at Aintree

Monday's trip to Aintree

"Tony Dobbin had told me what he wanted to do and I agreed with him," continued Brookshaw. "He said he wanted to make the running, he'd done his homework and he knew what he was doing. He took lengths off the field at the Canal Turn and he dealt very well with the one moment of bother he did run into.

"Coming to the Water Jump at the end of the first circuit, a loose horse nearly took out Lord Gyllene but Tony was sharp enough to notice what we has doing and he pulled him back in again.

"It was not until he jumped the last that I felt totally sure he'd do it. It was always a risk going to Aintree and it's just a great relief when they come back safely, but it was still a great moment for everyone on the team. Especially for one of our group.

"On the Saturday, we'd got him in from the local agency in Shrewsbury to feed the horses and let the dogs out. We ended up getting him a ticket for the Monday, so he skived off work and, when the TV cameras picked him out in the owners and trainers stand pulling all these faces after the horse had won, he was interviewed by Des Lynam, who thought he was the winning owner. Really, he was just the dog watcher."

Lord Gyllene's team

Owner, trainer and horse – Steve Brookshaw, Stan Clarke and Lord Gyllene the morning after their 1997 Grand National victory
  • The horse: Bred in New Zealand, winning twice down under before coming to England after being brought by Stan Clarke in 1995. Was trained at Steve Brookshaw's yard at Preston Farm, Uffington, near Shrewsbury, winning five and being placed in five of his 13 races, seven of them at Uttoxeter, before being retired in 2001. He remained with his owner's family until he died in December 2016 – at 28.
  • The owner: Staffordshire-born Stan Clarke was a self-made property developer millionaire, who briefly trained horses before becoming a racecourse owner, buying Uttoxeter, his local track, then Brighton, Fontwell Park, Yarmouth, Bath, Hereford and Sedgefield under the Northern Racing banner. Bought Dunstall Hall, now owned by Nottingham Forest owner Fawaz Al Hasawi. Died in September 2004 aged 71.
  • The trainer: Coming from a long line of horsemen in his family, Steve Brookshaw began his racing career as a jockey who rode 148 point-to-point winners, as well as having 25 winners under National Hunt rules. Took out a training licence in 1996, enjoying an Aintree winner in his first season, prior to Lord Gyllene's success in 1997. Now 66, and works on a stud farm in North Shropshire.
  • The jockey: Northern Irishman Tony Dobbin rode over 1,200 winners in his career, of which winning the National in 1997 was the highlight. Rode mostly for Nicky Richards, son of Shropshire-owned One Man's trainer Gordon Richards, at his yard at Greystoke, near Penrith, Cumbria, where he met his future wife Rose. Retired from racing in 2008. Now 44 and helping to run his wife's yard in Northumberland.
Tony Dobbin's 1997 Grand National win was the biggest of his 1,200-plus winning rides as a jockey

So why did Brookshaw get out of racing?

Within a decade of Lord Gyllene's win, Brookshaw had packed in the racing game. But why?

"We weren't making enough money," he says with great honesty. "If you won the National every year you might do well.

"Lord Gyllene was still improving but he had a lot of leg trouble. Twice we aimed him at Aintree again but he we had to pull him out each time and we never quite got him back up to his peak. He'd done quite a bit of racing back in his days in New Zealand and so much racing takes its toll in the end eventually.

"To make money and survive, you have to win big races and you need good horses and we just weren't getting the material to work with. It was best to get out and go down another route.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people who own horses don't really know about horses, don't know what can go wrong and how long for. You have a lot of explaining to do several times over. Owners end up thinking 'can someone else do a better job?' But that's why you often see a horse go round several trainers. It's usually because the horse itself wasn't good enough in the first place.

"I don't really miss it. I was putting myself under too much pressure," admits Brookshaw, who still rides out daily, for his daughter. "I like a nice quieter life."

Steve and Zena Brookshaw's daughter Heidi now trains on her own, mostly for point-to-point races

Carrying on the Brookshaw family tradition

Steve Brookshaw comes from a great Shropshire racing family. His father Peter won the Foxhunters Chase over the National fences on Hillmere in 1950 and his uncle Tim was champion jockey in 1958-59 before ending his racing days after a bad fall at Aintree in 1963. Steve himself even rode the Aintree fences in the Foxhunters on Solar Green in 1995.

Now he has his hopes for his daughter Heidi, who trains in an adjoining yard, Helshaw Grange, to where her father is now based, at Richard Kent's Mickley Stud, Brookshaw's old home in North Shropshire.

"My father farmed here," said Brookshaw. "He then retired and sold the farm and now I'm helping out Richard out as I know the place."

Heidi has already trained plenty of runners, including two winners, both at Cheltenham with Sam Cavallaro, who fell at Becher's Brook in the Foxhunters Chase, on the opening day of this year's Aintree Festival on Thursday.

"We've had horses all our lives. If she wants to carry on, she might have to go professional. There's very little money in point-to-pointing. It's done for the love of the game. Same training costs without getting the rewards. She had a winner the other week. The owner had been waiting two years. He was delighted.

"It's a lot more competitive at Aintree now. It's very hard to get in now. Back in 1997, half the field were there just for a run round but now there's a lot of horses in with a chance, a better-class horse. But, if Heidi managed to get one good enough to enter for the National, now that would be something."

One of the horses at Shjopshire's Mickley Stud is Proconsul – full brother to the great Frankel

Steve Brookshaw was talking to BBC Sport's Ged Scott and Nick Southall

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