There are many legends surrounding the Grand National but none stranger or incorrect than that of shipwrecked horse Moifaa, the Grand National winner of 1904.
Moiffa originally belonged to Alf Ellingham who in his day was the best hurdle and steeplechase jockey in New Zealand. He purchased Moifaa as a two year old for 50 pounds and went on to win numerous hurdle and steeplechase races with him, including the Great Northern, Wanganui & Hawke's Bay steeplechases.
Spencer Gollan, a wealthy all-round sportsman, was visiting at Ellingham’s ranch in Takapau in 1903. Gollan was examining Moiffa, checking his hooves and teeth, when suddenly it grew quiet and the ground beneath his feet began to tremble. A major earthquake followed and Moifaa, taking fright, took off and began jumping from paddock to paddock with astonishing agility. This display so impressed Gollan that he immediately bought him as a hunter for his daughter.
Moifaa wasn’t a pretty horse. At 17 hands, he was big and strong with a plain head and had been described as having the head and shoulders of a camel. “I would never ride that ugly looking bloody thing!” was the reaction of Gollan’s daughter when she first saw him. But despite the ugliness of the horse his placid temperament soon won her over.
Moifaa was taken to the Gollan’s sheep farm at Fernhill where he was allowed to run free and wild. They soon found that even without an earthquake Moiffa loved to jump; whenever they wanted to catch him he would jump from one pasture to another with exasperating ease. This gave Gollan an idea, one that he had cherished since his school days in England and one that his friend, the Prince of Wales, had achieved a few years earlier in 1900. Gollan had been sending horses to England since the early 1890's, his family having originally come from Scotland, and his ambition was to win The Grand National just as his royal school friend had done. A frustrated Gollan told his daughter. “Right, if he is so keen to jump – that's exactly what he will have to do!”
Gollan entered Moifaa for the 1904 Liverpool Grand National at Aintree. His decision to take a team of horses, including Moifaa, to England at that time was a bold one and startled the racing world. Travelling of any sort in the early 1900's was primitive and gruelling for horses, especially in the small sailing and steam ships of the day. Many horses were maimed or killed through mishandling or poor shipping; and it was around this backdrop that the myth – a case of mistaken identity – was born.
Legend has it that a ship set sail from New Zealand and had sailed nearly all the way to Liverpool when a terrific storm blew up in the Irish Sea. When it became obvious that the ship was going to sink the captain let the horse out of his box to roam free on deck, as he could not be put in a life boat. The ship sank beneath the waves and the horse was presumed dead – but then a local fishing boat called at an uninhabited island and the first mate heard a whinny. The crew searched the tiny island and found an exhausted horse near to the water’s edge. They managed to get the horse on board, and took him back to the mainland. When a local reporter heard the story and printed it. When the horse’s trainer heard of the story he went to claim his horse. It was later claimed in the same paper that the horse had swam for over 50 miles to safety and gone on to win the National! The story spread, gaining momentum as it went, and soon the American press had picked it up, assuming that the shipwrecked horse had been the winner of the 1904 Grand National.
The 1904 Grand National did have a shipwrecked horse in the race, but it wasn’t the winner, simply another horse bound for Aintree. Moifaa along with 3 other horses had boarded a steamship for England and by sheer co-incidence another steamship was England bound at around the same time carrying a couple of horses due to take part in the race at Aintree
The ship carrying Moiffa arrived safely in England, but the other ship – the S.S Thermopylae – struck a reef off Table Bay on the Cape of Good Hope at night on January 12th 1901. The crew abandoned ship and made land, but one brave officer swam back out to the ship and managed to free one horse; unfortunately though he couldn’t find the other, Kiora, in the half submerged vessel and turned back.
It seemed that Kiora had been drowned… but somehow the horse had broken free and managed to swim to Mouille Point where he landed on a shallow reef. The following day locals found the horse alive and exhausted, and eventually he continued his journey to England where he ran in the 1904 National alongside Moifaa. Somehow the two horses became confused through the press and the myth of a shipwrecked National Winner was born.
Moifaa’s reality was just as interesting though. He’d taken a while to adjust to English conditions when he first arrived and was unplaced in his first three races. Moifaa’s jockey for the National was meant to be Ben Ellis, but for some mysterious reason he never rode in the race, rumours of the time claimed that he was too drunk, and a journeyman jockey, Arthur Birch, rode in his stead.
On the day of the race the fences were even bigger than usual. Moiffa was racing against Ambush II, appearing in the Kings Colours, and the popular 16 year old, Manifesto who was making his final appearance. Amongst the fancied horses were Patlander, Detail and the following year’s winner, Kirkland. Moifaa wasn’t expected to do much, starting at 25/1.
As it turned out the larger fences that year gave Moifaa, with his huge frame and jumping ability, the edge that he needed. It was an exciting race from the start with Railoff falling at the first and the favourite Ambush and Dearslayer going at the third. Moifaa was going strongly and when the leader, Inquisitor, went at the 5th, Birch gave him his head and on he went – crashing through fences and keeping the lead all the way from there. Second time at Becher's, Detail got within two lengths of him but was tripped by the rider-less Ambush. Moifaa took his chance, jumping the last two fences perfectly to win by eight lengths from Kirkland with The Gunner coming in third.
The King had watched the race with keen interest and was so impressed with Moifaa that afterwards he asked his racing manager to buy the horse as a replacement for the aging Ambush.
In The National of 1905 Moifaa was set to run in the King's colours. George Williamson was booked to ride the horse but the day before the race he was kicked in the ankle as he dismounted and, like Moiffa’s first national jockey, was put out of the running. Eventually Bill Dollery rode Moifaa who started as the clear favourite with a huge amount of money riding on him. Moiffa was going well, but fell at Bechers the second time around and never rode in the National again.
After the race the King decided to retire Moiffa from racing as the horse had developed a breathing problem. He gave him to an old friend, Colonel Brocklehurst, who hunted him in the Leicestershire countryside. When the King died in 1910, Moifaa followed the gun carriage that carried the coffin though the streets of London, the Kings boots reversed in the stirrups and the saddle empty.
What happened to Moifaa after this is not certain, although he probably returned to Leicestershire and spent the rest of his days in full retirement. National winning jockey, Arthur Birch, was not so lucky. Two years after his most famous win he fell and broke his neck at Gatwick. He was confined to a wheelchair and died in 1911 at the tragically early age of 36. Spencer Gollan, the man who had brought Moifaa to England, was knocked down and killed by a London bus in 1934, aged 73.