Many legends surround the Grand National but none stranger than that of ‘shipwrecked’ Grand National winner of 1904.
Moiffa originally belonged to Alf Ellingham who in his day was the best hurdle and steeplechase jockey in New Zealand. He purchased Moifaa as a two-year-old for 50 pounds and went on to win numerous hurdle and steeplechase races with him, including the Great Northern, Wanganui & Hawke’s Bay steeplechases.
Spencer Gollan, a wealthy all-around sportsman, was visiting Ellingham’s ranch in Takapau in 1903. Gollan was examining Moiffa, checking his hooves and teeth, when suddenly it grew quiet and the ground beneath his feet began to tremble. A major earthquake followed and Moifaa, taking fright, took off and began jumping from paddock to paddock with astonishing agility. This display so impressed Gollan that he immediately bought him as a hunter for his daughter.
Ugly Looking Bloody Thing
Moifaa wasn’t a pretty horse. At 17 hands, he was big and strong with a plain head and had been described as having the head and shoulders of a camel. “I would never ride that ugly looking bloody thing!” was the reaction of Gollan’s daughter when she first saw him. But despite the ugliness of the horse his placid temperament soon won her over.
Moifaa was taken to the Gollan’s sheep farm at Fernhill where he was allowed to run free and wild. They soon found that even without an earthquake Moiffa loved to jump; whenever they wanted to catch him he would jump from one pasture to another with exasperating ease.
This gave Gollan an idea, one that he had cherished since his school days in England and one that his friend, the Prince of Wales, had achieved a few years earlier in 1900 with Ambush II – to own a Grand National winner. Gollan had been sending horses to England since the early 1890s, his family had originally come from Scotland. An excited Gollan told his daughter. “Right, if he is so keen to jump – that’s exactly what he will have to do!”
The Legend Is Born
Gollan entered Moifaa for the 1904 Liverpool Grand National at Aintree. His decision to take a team of horses, including Moifaa, to England at that time was a bold one. Travelling of any sort in the early 1900s was primitive and gruelling for horses, especially in the small sailing and steamships of the day. Many horses were maimed or killed through mishandling or poor shipping; and it was around this backdrop that the myth, a case of mistaken identity was born.
The ‘Moifaa Legend’ begins with two ships leaving New Zealand, both carrying horses bound for Aintree. On the way to England, one ship was engulfed by a huge storm near Cape Town. It sank, and the crew and horse were presumed dead.
The day after the storm, a fishing boat sailed past one of the many islands in Table Bay, the crew were astonished to see a horse standing alone on the tiny deserted island. They took him back to Cape Town and following a recovery period the horse continued his journey to Aintree.
The shipwrecked horse (Kiora) did eventually make it to Aintree and he ran in the 1904 Grand National alongside Moifaa, who had arrived in England safely. Fact began fiction when a local reporter heard the story of the shipwrecked horse (Kiora) and mixed up the two horses from New Zealand, Moifaa and Kiora. The two horses became one and the myth of a shipwrecked National Winner was born.
Nevertheless, Moifaa’s real story was just as interesting as the legend. He’d taken a while to adjust to English conditions when he first arrived and was unplaced in his first three races. Moifaa’s jockey for the National was to be Ben Ellis, but for a mysterious reason, he never rode in the race, rumours of the time claimed that he was too drunk, and a journeyman jockey, Arthur Birch, rode in his stead.
Moiffa Wins The National
On the day of the race, the fences were even bigger than usual. Moiffa was racing against Ambush II, appearing in the Colours of King Edward VII, and the popular 16-year-old, Manifesto was making his final appearance. Amongst the fancied horses were Patlander, Detail and the following year’s winner, Kirkland. Moifaa wasn’t expected to do much, starting at 25/1.
It was an exciting race from the start with the favourite Ambush and Dearslayer falling at the third. Moifaa was going strong and when the leader, Inquisitor, went at the 5th it left Moifaa in a prime position. The second time at Becher’s, Detail got within two lengths of him but was tripped by the rider-less Ambush. Moifaa took his chance, jumping the last two fences perfectly to win by eight lengths from Kirkland with The Gunner coming in third.
Edward VII had watched the race with keen interest and was so impressed with Moifaa that afterwards, he asked his racing manager to buy the horse as a replacement for the ageing Ambush.
In The Grand National of 1905 Moifaa was set to run in the King’s colours. George Williamson was booked to ride the horse but the day before the race he was kicked in the ankle as he dismounted and, like Moiffa’s first national jockey, was put out of the running. Eventually, Bill Dollery rode Moifaa who started as the clear favourite with a huge amount of money riding on him. Moiffa was going well but fell at Becher’s the second time around and never rode in the National again.
After the race, King Edward decided to retire Moiffa from racing as the horse had developed a breathing problem. He gave him to an old friend, Colonel Brocklehurst, who hunted him in the Leicestershire countryside. When the King died in 1910, Moifaa followed the gun carriage that carried the coffin through the streets of London, with King Edward VII boots reversed in the stirrups and the saddle empty.
What happened to Moifaa after this is not certain, although he probably returned to Leicestershire and spent the rest of his days in full retirement. The national winning jockey, Arthur Birch, was not so lucky. Two years after his most famous win he fell and broke his neck at Gatwick. He was confined to a wheelchair and died in 1911 at the tragically early age of 36. Spencer Gollan, the man who had brought Moifaa to England, was knocked down and killed by a London bus in 1934, aged 73.
A tragic end to the incredible story of the ‘shipwrecked’ Grand National winner.