04/05/2002 12:00AM

Racing to miss Queen Mother

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The death of Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, at the age of 101 last week marked a milestone not only in the history of European monarchies but also in the history of British racing.

For this woman, whose life spanned humanity's bloodiest century, was lauded on her passing as the most important National Hunt, i.e., jump racing, owner of the post-war era. She was the living embodiment of the virtually defunct notion of racing as the Sport of Kings.

Indeed, Dick Francis, the rider of many of her horses during the 1950's, titled his autobiography The Sport of Queens. It was a clear reference to the affection that he, like nearly all British racing people, held the nation's matriarch.

The Queen Mother did not get involved in racehorse ownership until the age of 49 when she was the Queen of England. Her first runner, Monaveen, who was co-owned by her daughter, Princess Elizabeth, the future and current queen, under whose name he raced, won a steeplechase at Fontwell Park in 1949. A year later, she won in her own blue and buff colors when Manicou took a steeplechase at Kempton Park.

Manicou was one of the best horses the Queen Mother ever owned. A month after his initial victory for her, he landed the what is probably the third or fourth most important chase race in England. Run at Kempton Park, the King George VI Chase is named, fittingly enough, after her husband.

Through British race names, one can win an appreciation for the influence of royalty on the history of racing in England. The Queen Mother's title is borne by two of the loftiest fixtures on the British racing schedule. One, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, is the most important race for older horses in Britain. The other, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, is the second-day feature at Cheltenham's National Hunt Festival.

Most of the Queen Mother's 447 winners in her 53-year career as an owner came over jumps. Although she would be seen at Royal Ascot as often as her daughter, jump racing was her true sporting love. Termed the "Winter Game" in England, its roots are much closer to terra firma than flat racing. It takes a hearty soul to traipse about the cold and soggy British countryside to watch jumpers, but the Queen Mother was no retiring daffodil. One could not fail to be impressed by the sight of her, well into her 90's, making her way through the crowd on a drizzly, flu-inducing day at Cheltenham to award the trophy for the race which bears her name, while strong men one-third her age were huddling together in the warmth of the grandstand in search of yet another glass of Guinness.

She was the leading jumps owner in Britain five times, most recently in 1974-75, but it was in defeat that would mark her racing career more indelibly than any of her victories.

Aintree Racecourse was packed with its usual 80,000-plus crowd on March 24, 1956 as 29 horses lined up for the world's most famous steeplechase, the Grand National. Among them was the Queen Mother's 100-7 co-fourth choice, the 10-year-old gelding Devon Loch, upon whom sat Dick Francis.

Years later, Francis would make a new name for himself as the best-selling author of racetrack mystery novels. But what happened that day at Aintree produced a mystery that even Francis himself has been not been able to solve.

Peter Cazalet had prepared Devon Loch perfectly for the grueling 4-1/2-mile odyssey, and Francis knew he was aboard the winner a long way out.

"I have never ridden another horse like him," the jockey wrote in his autobiography. "He cleared the formidable Aintree fences as easily as if they had been hurdles."

Devon Loch leapt into the lead at the third fence from home with Francis still under cruise control while the riders of his nearest pursuers, E.S.B., Ontray, and Gentle Moya, were already hard at work.

Jumping the last hurdle, the lead was 1 1/2 lengths, but Devon Loch lengthened it over E.S.B. with every stride on the long run-in to the finish. Victory was in the bag. And then it happened.

Suddenly, and without warning, fifty yards from the line, Devon Loch appeared to jump a fence that wasn't there. He lunged into the air and landed on his stomach, with his forelegs splayed in front, his hind leges splayed in back. In an instant, glory had turned to gall. Francis struggled to stay aboard as E.S.B. swept past to victory, but Devon Loch never made it to the line. The official comment-in-running: "Slipped up."

A number of theories have been proffered for Devon Loch's collapse. Francis dismisses the ideas of a heart attack or a muscular spasm in the hindquarters. Perhaps the most plausible explanation was that the deafening roar of the crowd, which was witnessing a famous Royal victory with the Queen Mother and the Queen in the stands, spooked Devon Loch. But we will never know for sure.

"What happened to Devon Loch is Devon Loch's secret," Francis concluded.

The Queen Mother took it in stride. "Well, that's racing I suppose," she consoled an inconsolable Francis.

This is a story that will have been repeated again and again Saturday at Aintree at this year's Grand National, but it pales compared to the defining moment of the Queen Mother's life. That came when she rallied the spirit of a nation besieged by Nazi bombers during the Battle of Britain as much of London's East End and part of Buckingham Palace lay in ruins.

One might question the role of the Royal Family in contemporary society, but the measure of this particular Royal was gauged emphatically in 1940 by Adolf Hitler, who identified her as "the most dangerous woman in Europe."

But that is another story, and one with a happier ending.