From Athboy to Aintree

This year, 2016, sees the 169th running of the English Grand National which has been held at Aintree, Liverpool (with the exception of a few occasions during the war years) since its inception in 1839. What’s not realised by most people, or perhaps long forgotten by others, is the incredible connection between the town of Athboy and what is undoubtedly the greatest steeplechase in the world.

Manifesto (Source:

The legend of Manifesto is well known in Grand National folklore but perhaps less well known in his native area of Athboy. Bred by local solicitor and landowner Harry Dyas, Manifesto was by Man O’War out of Vae Victus, both of which were owned by Dyas himself. Foaled in 1888 and trained in his early career by Harry Dyas at his stables in Gillstown, Athboy, Manifesto was lightly raced early on, thus giving him time to mature. He fell in his first race in 1892 before winning a maiden hurdle over two miles. He went on to win The Irish Champion Steeplechase and the 1894 Lancashire Chase.

The following year 1895 saw Manifesto’s first attempt at the Grand National. Carrying 11st 2lbs he finished fourth and was ridden by Terry Kavanagh. In 1896 he returned to Aintree to be ridden in the big race by his owner/trainer, Harry Dyas himself. However they got no further than the first fence where Manifesto fell following a mid air collision with another horse.

In an effort to improve his luck in the race Dyas now sent the horse to trainer Willie McAuliffe. Ridden again by Terry Kavanagh and carrying 11st 3lbs Manifesto started the 1897 National at 6-1 fav and went on to win by 20 lengths from second horse Filbert.

The following year, 1898, Manifesto won a two mile chase at Gatwick before being sold by Harry Dyas to Mr. J. G. Bulteel for £4000, a rash decision in hindsight. However in the run up to the National in that year the horse was injured when he escaped from his stable in Willie Moore’s yard and hurt himself jumping over a gate.

In 1899 Manifesto was again entered in the big race for his new owner and carrying 12st 7lbs he started at 5-1 second favourite with his half sister, Gentle Ida, owned by Harry Dyas himself, starting at 4-1 fav and carrying 11st 7lbs. Once Gentle Ida had fallen Manifesto had a clear run and went on to win by five lengths from Ford of Fyne. Manifesto thus entered the record books by becoming the first horse ever to win the Grand National twice.

Manifesto (left) during his eight appearance in the Grand National. (Source: Getty Images)

Over the following years Manifesto ran several more times in the great race. In 1900 he finished third, carrying 12st 13lbs. He did not run in 1901 but in 1902, ridden by Ernest Piggott, he finished third again. The following year, making his seventh appearance in the race, Manifesto again finished third. In 1904, still carrying 12st 1lb he made his final appearance at Aintree, aged 16. Again ridden by Ernest Piggott he finished 8th.

Manifesto was then retired from racing but at Aintree the horse is still remembered. The Aintree complex houses “The Manifesto Enclosure” and “The Manifesto Bar” while The Manifesto Novices’ Chase is run in his honour.

In Gillstown, Athboy, Harry Dyas’ training ground has long vanished. He did in fact have a replica of parts of the Aintree course laid out in Gillstown with copies of the famous Beecher’s Brook and Canal Turn and other fences included. Many older people could remember exactly where these fences were located but unfortunately no one seems to remember any more. The only memorial to the great Manifesto who once galloped over these green fields is that one local Gillstown man names his house “Manifesto Rise”.

Another Athboy man who was very closely connected with the Grand National for many years was Bernard Wauchope Parr, or Barney Parr as he was better known, from Ballyboy, Athboy. A close neighbour and one time friend of Harry Dyas, there is no doubt that there was intense rivalry between the two men. Barney Parr sent many horses to Aintree over several years in an effort to emulate the achievement of Harry Dyas. While a win alluded him he did come close on a couple of occasions. His first runner in 1902, Aunt May, finished unplaced. Again in 1903 the mare was unplaced, as was another Parr horse called Orange Pat. In 1906 Aunt May finished in third place in the great race. In 1908 Nanoya finished unplaced while B. W. Parr’s best achievement was in 1909 when his horse, Judas, finished in second place. You can read more about Parr and Dyas’ rivalry here.

Alley Sloper wins Grand Nationall, (Source: Irish Mirror)

In 1915 an Athboy person again entered the Grand National record books when Lady Margaret  Nelson became the first woman owner ever of a Grand National winner. Bred in England, her horse, Ally Sloper, was ridden by legendary amateur Mr. Jack Anthony and won by two lengths from Jacobus. In the era of the suffragette movement Lady Nelson became the first woman owner to lead in a National winner. Lady Nelson and her husband Sir William Nelson lived at Clonbarron Stud, between Athboy and Kildalkey. Sir William made his fortune from the Nelson Shipping Line which bore his name. At Clonbarron they ran a world class stud farm. Their best stallion there was Tangiers which in his racing career won the Ascot Gold Cup, The Newbury Summer Cup and The Jubilee Handicap. When Sir William died in 1922 Lady Nelson continued to run the stud farm for several more years. She died in 1932

Universally acknowledged as the greatest sire of jumpers of his time, Ascetic (1871 – 1897), spent his entire stud career at Mr. John Morgan Purdon’s stud at Cloneymore, Athboy. Although well bred, (by Hermit – winner of the 1867 Epsom Darby), Ascetic was useless on the racetrack, with a race record which read from “unplaced” to “last”. He was acquired by Purdon as a hunter. Surviving folklore states that in his early days, Ascetic was ridden by the local postman on his delivery rounds. A sack of potatoes was also rumoured to be an adequate fee for his stud services. In a short few years the offspring of Ascetic began to win races – lots of them. Three of his sons won the Aintree Grand National, Cloister in 1884, Drumcree in 1894 and Ascetic’s Silver in 1906. He was the leading sire of jumpers each year between 1888 and 1904. His offspring continued to win races long after Ascetic’s death in Cloneymore at the age of 26 years in 1897. A grandson of Ascetic, Sergeant Murphy, bred by Gerard Lynes Walker of Rathvale, Athboy, also won the Grand National in 1923. Even the pedigree of the greatest steeplechaser of all time, Arkle, can be traced back to Ascetic.

Reginald Lynes Walker of Rathvale, Athboy, is another with strong links to both Irish and English Grand Nationals. Reggie Walker as he was universally known, took over the running of the Rathvale stables on the death of his father, Gerald Lynes Walker, in 1914. In his young days Reggie was a champion amateur rider and in 1908 he rode Lord Rivers to win the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. In 1909 he again won the Irish National riding Little Hack. His third success in the Irish National was in 1912 when he rode his own horse, Small Polly, to victory. Again in 1915 he rode Punch to make it his fourth victory in the Fairyhouse race. He rode three times in the Aintree Grand National.  His greatest moment though in that race came in 1938 when a horse he trained, named Royal Daneili,  was beaten by just a nose.  Incidentally, Reggie Walker holds a unique record in Irish racing history when at one meeting at Sligo he trained the winners of five out of the six races run that day (the sixth race being confined) and since each of the five winners were ridden by champion jockey of the day, Clyde Aylin, this is a record that has, to my knowledge, never been equaled.

Jack Parr of Mitchelstown Stud, Athboy had a long and successful career in horse breeding and racing in these islands. He bred many winners over the years at Mitchelstown Stud but perhaps Jack Parr’s most significant achievement in bloodstock breeding is his link to one of the most famous horses to ever run in these islands. Red Rum was probably the best Aintree Grand National winner ever and to date the only horse to have won the race three times, having won in 1973, 1974 and 1977 and coming second in the intervening years 1975 and 1976. His dam, Mared, by Magic Red out of Quinta, was bred by Jack Parr at Mitchelstown Stud. Unfortunately Jack did not live to see the fruits of his own work. Also notable among many winners of races internationally which were won by horses bred at Mitchelstown was Burma Road, by Link Boy out of Saucy Silver, which won the American Grand National at Belmont, New York, in 1944.

Jack Parr and Mitchelstown Stud also had a link to the 1968 Aintree Grand National winner, Red Alligator, which was by Magic Red, a top class stallion owned by Parr himself and which spent its entire stud career at Mitchelstown Stud. Red Alligator had run the previous year, 1967, and finished third behind Foinavon, having being badly impeded at the infamous 23rd fence. The following year, again partnered by Brian Fletcher, Red Alligator went on to win by 20 lengths from second placed horse Moidore’s Token ridden by Trim native Barry Brogan.

Another Athboy man, long time resident the late Jimmy Magee from the Cloran Road, was a top class jockey in his younger days. He rode in England for many years and later in Ireland for John Cox, Pat Rooney and Cecil Bryce-Smith among others. It was for Bryce-Smith that Jimmy Magee rode Irish Coffee in The Aintree Grand National, getting around the course in one piece but finishing unplaced.

In more modern times, 1983 saw one of the most thrilling finishes to the National when Athboy man Colin Magnier riding Greasepaint finished second, just failing by three quarters of a length to catch Corbiere ridden by Ben deHaan. Greasepaint was trained by Michael Cunningham at Trimblestown, between Athboy and Trim.

Norman Williamson is another with connections between Athboy and Aintree. A top class professional jockey in the 90’s and 2000’s, Norman had more success at the Cheltenham Festival Meetings than at Aintree. He did ride ten times in the Grand National, failing to finish just once and in 2000 he was second, riding Mely Moss, to the Ted Walsh/Ruby Walsh horse, Papillion. Norman Williamson lives at Oak Tree Farm, Cloran, just outside Athboy.

In conclusion, it can safely be claimed, that with links to the two greatest Grand National winners ever, and with a whole host of connections listed above, that Athboy holds a unique place in Aintree Grand National history.

5 Replies to “From Athboy to Aintree”

  1. 1938 Grand national,Royal Danieli the second horse was owned by Hugh Charles McNally,and ridden by jockey D. Moore,not as stated above. Please check your sources !


  2. reggie Walker was my great uncle though I never met him.I rode out at Freemason Lodge,Newmarket,for Capt Boyd Rochfort and Henry Cecil in the summer of 1965,then did two seasons as a stud hand at the Lavington Stud,West Sussex,Relko and Sing Sing standing then.I have visited Cluneymore Hse twice and spent last 50 years mostly in rural Munster.Lately I have been drawing farriersat charlie Swans place,cloughjordan,also at Denis G Hogans,Seamus Mullins nr Stonehenge and at The Severals,Newmarket.Corresponding with Mrs Dettori recently and may move to newmarket wishes from Chris


  3. My great grandfather was John Purdon who owned Ascetic . His daughter, Sara Purdon, married Gerald Leyns Walker (GLW)who was Reginald Henry ( Reggie)Walker’s older brother ; sometimes gets confusing as the eldest Walker son is often called Gerald Leyns .Sara and GLW had 3 children ( Gerald Leyns, Joan Sara, and John Morgan Purdon, who was my father) and Joan inherited a number of the medals won by Ascetic; in turn they went to her son, Sean, who died in February 2023.
    Reggie , who was my great uncle, took over their father’s licence and in turn Reggie’s son, Mervyn, took it over from him and in about 1957 Mervyn retired and I understand that Rathvale was sold to Clem Magnier.
    The Times today has an article about the 1938 Grand National which was won by Battleship though it says Royal Danieli was beaten by a head. At Sean’s funeral this week another great niece of Reggie’s, Juliet (being a daughter of his and GLW’s sister May Isabel)said it was by a nose! Clearly a nose sounds better than a head .


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