People from all over the world flock to see what is perhaps the most exciting racing event anywhere on the planet. The Grand National is over four miles long and the height of the fences legendary. They’ve caused more injuries to horses and jockeys alike than any other set of fences in the world and their reputation is well earned. The event is a real day out with racing fans getting dressed in their most flamboyant and expensive outfits, parading around and hoping to be picked as best dressed at the national.
Perhaps one of the most colourful characters ever to have been seen at Aintree, and certainly one who fell foul of those legendary fences on a number of painful occasions, was the eccentric aristocrat Beltran de Osorio y Diez de Rivera. Beltran, or the “Iron” Duke of Albuquerque as he came to be known.
The Duke was an immensely popular figure in British racing for many years and cut a distinctive and debonair figure. A tall, slender man with a prominent nose and chin, he had the look of a traditional Spanish grandee, although he was sometimes described as closely resembling the cartoons of Mr Punch.
As well as being one of the most colourful figures on the European equestrian scene and a courtier to the Spanish royal family, he holds one other claim to fame, another title – that of probably the worst jockey in racing history.
Albuquerque was given his first pony at the age of five and on his eighth birthday was given a film of England’s National Steeplechase by his father. He immediately became obsessed with the race once recalling; “I said then that I would win that race one day.” And he nearly died trying.
He first attempted to win the race in 1952 but fell from his horse, waking up later in hospital with a cracked vertebra – the first of many. He tried to win again in 1963 but once again fell from his horse, delighting the bookies who had placed a bet of 66-1 against him finishing still in the saddle. In 1965 he fell once more, this time breaking his leg after his horse collapsed beneath him. Still determined not to be beaten, in 1974 he had 16 screws removed from his leg after a bad fall so that he could ride in the race but promptly fell again and broke his collarbone. Once he even competed in a plaster cast and this time (incredibly) managed to finish – but only in eighth place and a long way behind Red Rum.
In 1976, he sustained his most serious injuries and spent a long spell in a Liverpool hospital after being trampled in a race by a number of other horses. Throughout his eventful and painful racing career he suffered seven broken ribs, a large number of fractured vertebrae, a broken wrist and thigh, suffered a major concussion, and was once in a coma for two days. Incredibly when he awoke he promptly announced to the attending nurse that he planned to race yet again. He was 57!
Race organisers wisely decided to revoke his license rather than allow him to suffer further injuries “for his own safety“. He was declared medically unfit to ride in the race in 1977, although brave Beltran continued to ride competitively in Spain up until 1985 – at the age of 67!
Beltran Alfonso Osorio y Díez de Rivera, 18th Duke of Alburquerque, The “Iron” Duke of Aintree, died on the 18th of February 1994 at the age of seventy-six. He never did win the national but he gave it a very good, if agonising, try.