Everyone loves a plucky underdog and horse racing is one of the greatest sports for seeing an outsider triumph over more venerated rivals. Of course, it can be painful if you have money on the favourite and you see him lose to a 50/1 shot, but if you had the foresight to back the outsider it can be both joyful and extremely profitable. Here we round up the five unlikeliest winners in history:
Her career started in inauspicious circumstances as she finished ninth and then eighth in two unchallenging maiden races. Undeterred, her owner threw her into the ultra-competitive Newbury Super Sprint and she went off at odds of 100/1. She was drawn in stall one and was not fancied to have any chance along the tricky far rail, but she came flying out of the blocks. The 16/1 shot Nigella launched a spirited bid for victory, but Lady Livius held off her charge and stormed to victory. If you backed her on the Tote you would have got 155/1, while fixed odds punters got 100/1. “I kept telling the owner, John Lee, not to bother running her here and to wait for a maiden at Windsor next week,” said her bemused trainer, Richard Hannon. “But he said that he’d paid the money to enter her and he wanted to see her run.” Lady Livius went on to win just two of her remaining 19 races, and the Newbury Super Sprint remained the pinnacle of her career.
Prince of Penzance
This bay gelding from New Zealand was a 100/1 outsider at the 2015 iteration of the Melbourne Cup, the leading thoroughbred contest in Australia and one of the world’s most prestigious races. The heavily-backed favourites in a ridiculously competitive field of 24 horses were Japanese bay horse Fame Game and Ed Dunlop’s duo of Red Cadeaux and Trip to Paris, while European champion Frankie Dettori was on Willie Mullens’ Irish runner Max Dynamite and he also received heavy support from punters. But Prince of Penzance pulled off one of the biggest shocks of all time and Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the race in its 155-year history. They saw off a late challenge from Max Dynamite and held on for an unlikely victory. Prince of Penzance was no donkey though and had previous form, having won the Moonee Valley Gold Cup and placed in the Queen Elizabeth Handicap. He was sired by hugely successful British horse Pentire, and those are the sort of things you might look out for if you are seeking a long shot to back in Sun Bets markets on today’s racing.
French thoroughbred Arcangues had only raced on grass in Europe before he was sent over the Atlantic to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the richest of the Breeders’ Cup races, held that year at Santa Anita. Californian horses had dominated the course that year, and favourite Bernardo was widely expected to continue that trend. He opened up a comfortable lead early on and continued to set the pace, leading by a wide margin going into the home straight. But right at the death he was caught and overhauled by Arcangues, who had gone off at 133/1. The $266 payout from a $2 stake remains a Breeders’ Cup record and the sport was stunned at the time. Jockey Jerry Bailey, who handled Arcangues perfectly despite never having met the horse before, said: “I couldn’t understand the instructions the trainer gave me in the paddock. I don’t even know how to pronounce the horse’s name. But sometimes a horse runs best when he is ridden by someone who has never been on him before.”
He defied odds of 100/1 to win the Grand National in 2009, becoming the longest-priced runner to win the famous Aintree race since Foinavon in 1967. He became the first French-bred horse in 100 years to win the National and hardly anybody expected it: the previous night he was trading at 180/1 on Betfair. However, he was another horse that was easy to overlook, but the clues were there. He had started as favourite in the Welsh National four months previously, having beaten Star De Mohaison in a valuable handicap at Cheltenham. But he flopped at Chepstow and then embarked on a four-race losing streak. Going into the Grand National he was written off, despite having finished 10th the previous year. But Mon Mome liked good going, which he enjoyed in his famous Cheltenham win, while his losing streak had come in the slop. The going was soft to good at Aintree that day and Mon Mome romped to victory, providing punters with another lesson: check the going before analysing the form.
This is the plucky underdog tale to rule them all, the sort of stuff Hollywood producers dream of. Norton’s Coin had all the ingredients: he was sired by a distinctly average racehorse without a noteworthy victory to his name and foaled by an unraced mare; described by his owner as an ugly, plain chestnut; and he showed promise as a juvenile only to prove a grave disappointment when he stepped up in class. He was thrust into the King George VI Stakes as a 33/1 outsider and finished dead last after making several jumping errors, leaving him a remarkable 39 lengths behind the winner, the famous Desert Orchid. He dropped back to two miles for the Victor Chandler Chase and that was just as bad: he finished ninth of 10 runners. Before all this, trainer Sirill Griffiths, a Welsh dairy farmer with just two horses to his name, had paid £1,000 to enter him into the 1990 Cheltenham Gold Cup, the most important race in the British calendar. Norton’s Coin suffered a throat infection and his poor health and dreadful form prompted Griffiths to seek an alternative to the Gold Cup. But he missed the entry deadline and realised Norton’s Coin was ineligible for an alternative race, so he allowed Norton’s Coin to give it a go in the Gold Cup, hoping he would finish in the top six so that he could recoup his £1,000 entry fee. He milked his cows and then travelled to Cheltenham, without a hope in hell of winning. Meanwhile Desert Orchid, the outstanding performer of his generation and the winner of the Gold Cup the previous year, was rocking up in stupendous form and was the heavily backed 10/11 favourite.
Norton’s Coin went off at 100/1 and Griffiths could only watch on glumly as jockey Graham McCourt let him race towards the back of the main group. The rest is history. Out of nowhere Norton’s Coin started to pick up the pace and surged past two-thirds of the 12-runner field. By the third from last fence he was fourth, behind Desert Orchid, Ten of Spades and Toby Tobias. At the penultimate fence Ten of Spades fell but Norton’s Coin produced a magnificent jump to surge clear of the fabled Desert Orchid. There was only Toby Tobias to chase down and the two horses were level as they jumped the final fence. A ferocious battle ensued on the home straight and the struggle did not let up, but eventually Norton’s Coin won by three-quarters of a length. Desert Orchid was third, four lengths back, and Norton’s Coin had produced the fastest winning time in 37 years. Griffiths added the Queen Mother to his fan base, punters in Wales made a killing and Norton’s Coin became the greatest underdog in racing history.
Martin Green is an experienced horse racing correspondent and tipster.