Dorothy Crosby, my riding instructor, whose judgment I honor even when I disagree with it, has advised that my balance is impaired. Accordingly, she believes riding is unsafe for me and the horse. My condition can be corrected through exercise.
But, after six years in the saddle, for the moment I’m dismounted. Knowing my assigned horse, Merlin, 16 hands 2 and 1800 pounds of muscle, appetite, courage, and attitude, who frequently tries to use me as a chew toy, I can’t imagine anything I could do being unsafe for him. But I can’t disregard Dorothy’s counsel.
Some years ago, she paid me the finest left-handed compliment of my life: “If compassion, courage, and intelligence were enough to make you a good rider, you would be one. But they’re not and you’re not.”
Better to turn to the adventures of another rider, the “Iron” Duke of Albuquerque. Don Beltrán Alfonso Osorio y Diez de Rivera, Duke of Albuquerque, Duke of Algete, Marquess of Alcañices, of Balbasesa, of Cadreira, of Cuéllar, of Cullera, and of Montaos, Count of la Corzana, of Fuensaldaña, of Grajal, of Huelsma, of Ledesma, of la Torre, of Villanueva de Cañedo, and of Villambrosa, Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece and of the Order of Santiago, Knight Grand Cross of Justice of the Order of St. Lazarus, six times a Grandee of Spain, cavalry officer, courtier, and head of the Household of H.R.H. the Count of Barcelona for nearly 40 years, was born into an distinguished and wealthy Spanish noble family in 1918.
He rode a pony from the age of five. For his eighth birthday, he received a newsreel film of the 1926 Grand National, the great English steeplechase. He was overcome: “I had loved horses as a child. Now I saw this beautiful race, the greatest test of horse and rider in the world. I said then I would win that race one day.”
First run in 1838, the Grand National’s a national institution. It’s considered the supreme test of the courage and stamina of horse and rider. It has inspired novels and poems, from Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, which as a film gave the 12 year-old Elizabeth Taylor her breakout role, to John Masefield’s stirring book-length poem, Right Royal.
Tall, thin, elegant, exquisitely polite, kind, and loyal, Albuquerque was extremely popular in the racing community. He entered the Grand National seven times: 1952, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1973, 1974, and 1976 as a “gentleman rider:” an amateur jockey. His results were heroically consistent. When the ribbon dropped, he set off with the others at the gallop. He usually regained consciousness in the Royal Liverpool Infirmary, where he always booked a private room in advance when he rode in the Grand National.
In his first Grand National, in 1952, he rode his own horse, Brown Jack III, at odds of 40/1. He was in the leading quartet until he fell at Becher’s Brook, the sixth fence.
Parenthetically, the jump is named for Captain Martin Becher, who rode in the first Grand National in 1838. His mount, Conrad, refused the jump and Becher flew over his head into the brook. He remained there until the rest of the field had charged over the brook. He then climbed out, soaked through, cursing at the filthy taste of water without the admixture of whiskey. Anyway, Albuquerque awoke with a severe concussion and a cracked vertebra. He murmured of Brown Jack III, “Poor animal, he was past it.”
Eleven years later, in 1963, Albuquerque rode Jonjo, a 13-year-old at 66/1. They parted ways at the 21st jump, but the Duke didn’t need hospitalization this time.
Thereafter, the Grand National’s commentator, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, gravely intoned after each such flight, “And the Duke of Albuquerque’s gone.” The bookies began offering odds of 66/1 against him even finishing the race astride his horse.
In 1965, he purchased and rode Groomsman, a strapping 10-year-old bay with a reputation as a bold jumper. As one commentator quipped, “Sadly, nobody told the horse.” He charged through the jumps like a wrecking ball until he collapsed on Albuquerque at Valentine’s Brook, the ninth fence, breaking the Duke’s leg.
In 1966, the Duke rode L’Empereur at 100/1 for trainer Tony Balding. They were four jumps from home when the horse apparently felt he’d done enough for one day and pulled himself up.
Balding, an excellent trainer, found the Duke challenging: “He was a total kamikaze pilot and brave as a lion. But if he didn’t want to listen to you, he suddenly wouldn’t remember any English.”
In 1973, his stirrup broke at the third fence, yet he remained on Nereo, a fine horse trained by Balding, for eight fences before he was, as one journalist put it, “sent into inevitable orbit.”
In 1974, after having 16 screws removed from a leg he’d broken in another race, he fell again while training for the Grand National and broke his collarbone. His appearance weeks before the start of the race astonished the Infirmary’s medical staff. Undaunted, he had a plaster cast specially made in Spain and practiced how to mount and dismount without putting pressure on his collarbone.
That year, the BBC cameras focused on a jockey who limped from the weighing room toward the parade ring. A commentator said, “He doesn’t look at all fit to take part in one of the greatest steeplechases in the world, but there he is, the 55-year-old Duke of Albuquerque.” While jumping a fence, Nereo solidly bumped Straight Vulgan. Its rider, Ron Barry, screamed at the Duke, inquiring with obscene emphasis what Albuquerque thought he was doing. “My dear chap,” the Duke replied, “I haven’t a clue.
“I’ve never gotten this far before.”
The Duke finished the race, still in the saddle, in eighth and last place. He said, “Ironically, it was my best performance in the National, when I was in the worst condition. The poor animal had to do everything on his own. He didn’t have a jockey on board, but a sack of potatoes.”
Yet, in 1976, as shown by the videotape, he astonished the crowd, riding magnificently, moving Nereo up to pass and take the lead from the defending champion, the incomparable Red Rum. Then Nereo took Albuquerque over the 13th jump and the Duke, as the Irish say, went out the side door. The ground came up to meet him. Then he was trampled by the rest of the field. Albuquerque was carried away with seven broken ribs, several broken vertebrae, a broken wrist, a thigh broken in two places, and a concussion that left him in a coma for two days.
Otherwise, he was fine. The Duke recalled, “I spent most of my time there unconscious but when I did wake up, the staff were charming.”
What broken bones couldn’t do, the Jockey Club did. In 1977, it declined to renew his license for “the good of his own wellbeing, as well as the safety of the other jockeys and horses.” Balding, Nereo’s trainer, admitted, “I am both saddened and relieved.” The Duke, ever the gentleman though heart-broken, watched the race from the stands.
Albuquerque had broken 107 bones in his seven tries. He rode competitively in Spain for another six years without disasters. The “Iron” Duke died peacefully in 1994.
Journalists described the Duke as crazy, stupid, beyond brave, “absolutely the worst jockey in history,” or “magnificently barking mad.” Others might admire an indomitable soul who disdained ridicule and pain to pursue an impossible dream.