The first thing to say is that Devon Loch was, of course, a steeplechaser owned by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, so the ‘nearly man’ should, strictly speaking, be his jockey, Richard ‘Dick’ Francis. However, while Devon Loch was, undoubtedly, the unluckiest Grand National loser in history, on the fateful day in March, 1956, when he collapsed within sight of the winning post, Francis was little more than a disconsolate passenger.
Indeed, Francis, who had been Champion Jockey in 1953/54, had safely negotiated all 30 Grand National fences but, inexplicably, with the race at his mercy, Devon Loch fly-jumped into the air and belly-flopped, unceremoniously, to the ground. His nearest pursuer, ESB, ridden by Dave Dick, galloped past to win by ten lengths. Dick later confessed to being a ‘terribly lucky winner’.
Countless theories, none of which are altogether convincing, have been put forward for what happened to Devon Loch. Devon Loch did prick his ears approaching the wings of the Water Jump, which is bypassed on the second circuit, lending some credence to the theory that he was simply overwhelmed by the crescendo of crowd noise. Had he completed the race, he may well have broken the course record, so out-and-out exhaustion, latent circulatory problems and a condition technically known as ‘equine rhabdomyolysis’, or ‘setfast’, are other possibilities.
Granted that Devon Loch collapsed from the back, but appeared unhurt afterwards, Francis was in favour of the latter condition, which causes tightening of the muscles in the hind quarters. It is interesting to note that Devon Loch had, in fact, done the same thing before, sprawling in full flight during a racecourse gallop at Navan on his last piece of work before moving to England in 1951. Whatever happened, his hind quarters temporarily seized, leaving Francis with no option but to dismount and walk away.