By Marcus Armytage – The Telegraph
Nickel Coin may have earned her place in racing history 70 years ago as the 13th and last mare to win the Grand National, but less well known is the fact that she was the first National winner to be led up by a stable lass rather than lad.
In racing circles these days, Jo Wells, the then 19-year-old who looked after the nine-year-old bay mare, is better known as the mother of Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion. Despite turning 90 this year, Mrs Motion is still at the helm of the Middleburg Tack Exchange in Virginia, a tack shop she set up 30 years ago at an age when most people are contemplating retirement.
“I was watching the race where we let the horses go, listening to the commentary on a small radio, and was standing next to Peter Cazalet’s head lad,” she recalls. “The commentator said Nickel Coin had come down at the first, so I shoved the radio at him and went to go and catch her. But then I started hearing her name in the racecourse commentary again.”
It is no surprise that the commentator erred viewing the maelstrom at the first fence in 1951. The starter inexplicably raised the tape to let the 36 runners go without warning, while 20 horses were still milling around. In the rush to catch up, 12 fell at the first, which earned the race the title “Grand Crashional” in the next day’s papers. As they passed the stands in front of 250,000 spectators, only five remained upright setting out on the second circuit.
From the Canal Turn second time, that had been reduced to a match between the 40-1 shot Nickel Coin, trained at Priory Stables in what is now the centre of Reigate by genial Irish horseman Jack O’Donoghue, and Royal Tan (the 1954 winner). Still locked together at the last, Royal Tan rooted the fence, allowing the mare and her jockey Johnny Bullock, a former paratrooper and prisoner of war, to come home six lengths clear.
If the story of Jo Wells is National Velvet, the story of Nickel Coin herself is more Black Beauty; so weak when she was born that the vet suggested she be put down. A housemaid threatened to quit if the foal was not spared, and volunteered to bottle-feed her by a fire in a back kitchen until she had gained in strength.
She was bought as a yearling by Surrey farmer Jeffrey Royle for 50 guineas, but he sold her on at three to a Welshman who turned her into a proficient show-jumper – she once jumped off against the legendary Foxhunter and Harry Llewellyn.
But he reckoned her too slow for point-to-points, so sold her back to Royle for £300 for his recently demobbed son, Frank, to ride. After he had fallen off in a point-to-point, she was sent training with O’Donoghue.
“Until the war, girls didn’t work in yards,” says Mrs Motion. “Jack’s yard was nearly all girls, but that was a rarity and I’m pretty sure I was the first girl to lead up the winner of any big race, let alone the National.”
From the age of 14, she had been riding out for O’Donoghue at school and joined him full time when she left. She was given Nickel Coin to look after because she was considered slow.
“She was a very kind mare with big, loppy ears,” she says. “I was the newest in the yard and I think I only got to look after her because she wasn’t the fastest thing in the world. Having been a show-jumper, we spent a lot of time on the gallops trying to teach her to lengthen her stride like a racehorse.”
Reigate to Liverpool was a two-day journey broken by a night with friends of O’Donoghue’s. “I remember walking the course the night before and it half scared me to death, the fences were very upright and in your face,” she says. “But, in that respect, having been a show-jumper was a huge help.
“On the morning of the race, we took her out for a trot round the course to stretch her legs. Everyone was there, it was a big deal then, and the whole thing got more and more intimidating. After the race, I went flying down the course. I think I was a little breathless and you just get caught up in the glow.
“I can remember holding Nickel Coin in a cloud of rising steam in the winner’s enclosure and Mrs [Mirabel] Topham [the formidable owner of the racecourse] appearing. You never think you have a snowball’s chance of winning the race, but I suppose that was the point when it really hit home. People wanted to pull strands of hair from her tail, so we were given a police escort back to the stables.
“I don’t think we got back to Reigate until halfway through the following week and on the Saturday I took her hunting – it was the closing meet of the Surrey Union’s season – so we made the News of the World for the second weekend in succession!”
At the end of 1952, because she “always had straw in her hair”, Nickel Coin’s stable lass was sent to Toronto to work for Canada Life Assurance and get away from horses. It lasted six months and she was back in racing, pioneering again, this time as one of the first females riding work on the backstretch in the United States.
She returned home to marry Michael Motion, with whom she was brought up in the Pony Club, in 1956 and they ran Herringswell Stud in Suffolk until 1980 when he was posted to the US by Tattersalls, for whom he worked.
She has remained there and involved, one way or another, with racing ever since and is doubtless the only person who can claim to have played a part in “winning” the biggest race in both Britain and the US.