John Buckingham, forever remembered for riding Foinavon to win one of the most sensational Grand Nationals of all time, has passed away at the age of 76.
He was approached to ride Foinavon in the 1967 Grand National, after three other jockeys had already turned the horse down – and galloped on into turf history.
A pile-up at the fence after Becher’s Brook wiped out the field – and Foinavon, tailed off, under Buckingham, managed to weave a way through the ensuing melee and clamber over the fence, going on to win the race at 100/1.
He explained later: “I’d have ridden Dick’s donkey to be in the Grand National…”
After passing the elbow on the run-in, he got a final burst of energy from Foinavon, and later reflected: “Then there was no doubt, I knew I won it. I was absolutely over the moon.”
Foinavon’s trainer, John Kempton, had such little faith in the horse that he chose to go to Worcester for the day instead.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Buckingham, who became a jockeys’ valet when he retired in 1971 and ‘looked after’ 14 National winning jockeys in 30 years. “It was my first ride in the race. I was almost first out of the gate but they were going such a strong gallop that from then on I was struggling and had to keep pumping away at Foinavon.”
However, winning the National in such astonishing manner was no road to fame and fortune back then and in the 1970-71 season he only rode one winner and, aged 31, he retired from race riding.
Out of the blue, he was offered a job by the Jockey Association.
“They needed another valet” recalled John. “To be honest, it didn’t take me very long to make up my mind because I really don’t know what I would have done otherwise. And it’s a decision that I have never regretted.”
He built his own valeting business with his brother Tom. He sold it to fellow ex-jockey Chris Maude on Tom’s death in 2001.
Maude said: “I heard the news this morning. It’s very sad.
“He went into hospital last night and passed away during the night.
“He was my valet for 16 years and I bought the business from him 15 years ago.
“He was a very kind, lovely man. He touched a lot of people’s lives. He always had a joke and we always had a laugh. He always had a smile on his face.
“I think people are shocked and saddened by his death.
“He always loved going back to Aintree.
“When you go into the jockeys’ room scenario as a kid your valet is almost like a second family.
“They dress you and make sure you’re OK, patch you up and send you off again.”
Maude recalled a story Buckingham told him about the first time a fledgling Tony McCoy needed a valet’s services in England for the first time.
He said: “When AP had his first ride in England, he didn’t have any gear.
“John Buckingham lent him a pair of boots and said. ‘You’ll have to go some to fill these, young man – they were Peter Scudamore’s’.
“The rest, as they say, is history.”
Trainer Jonjo O’Neill, a former champion jumps jockey, tweeted: “Very sorry to hear of the passing of Johnny Buckingham. He was a top man and the heart of jockeys changing room for many years.”