Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool is the home of the annual Grand National. Arguably the greatest horse race in the world, no other race matches the excitement at Aintree on Grand National day.
The story of the Aintree racecourse is also the story of the Grand National, and it’s inconceivable to imagine the great race being held anywhere else in England. But incredibly, this looked like a distinct possibility in the early post-war years.
The Last Grand National
In 1965 the course was nearly sold to a property developer, and every year the press warned this could be “The Last Grand National”.
In 1973 the course was sold to property developer Bill Davies who committed to keeping the race going, but his heart never quite seemed in it.
Attendance at the 1975 Grand National was the lowest in living memory. That could have something to do with the fact that admission prices had been tripled by Davies. The Grand National had reached its lowest point, which looked like the end of the great race.
Ladbrokes Saves The Day
In 1975 a campaign was started by Ladbrokes Bookmaker to revive the ailing Grand National race. They then took control of managing the Grand National and were determined to keep it going. After eight years of management by Ladbrokes, the future of the Grand National and Aintree seemed secure.
Property developer Davies was unimpressed by the swift changes in fortune and still seemed determined to sell the Aintree course.
The general public soon realised that more needed to be done to save it, and a huge campaign was launched to rescue the race once and for all.
Public & Jockey Club Purchase Aintree
With their love of Red Rum still fresh, generous donations from the public allowed the Jockey Club to purchase Aintree from Davies. And they still own and manage it to this day.
In 1984 distillers Seagram stepped in to provide the solid foundation on which Aintree’s revival has been built. The last Seagram-sponsored National was in 1991 when the race was won by a horse which chairman Straker twice had the opportunity to buy; the horse’s name was Seagram!
A subsidiary of the Seagram company, Martell Cognac, took over sponsorship in 1992.
It was during this time the National experienced a big boom, but then, in 1993, the race was declared void. While under the starter’s orders, one jockey was tangled in the starting tape, which had failed to rise correctly.
A false start was declared, but due to a lack of communication between course officials, 30 of the 39 jockeys did not realise this and began the race.
Despite the best efforts of the course officials, who tried to stop the runners, many jockeys continued to race, believing they were protesters. Seven horses completed the course, meaning the result was void.
The first past the post was Esha Ness (in the second-fastest time ever), ridden by John White and trained by Jenny Pitman.
The Monday National
Thankfully the race has been successfully run every year since then though another blip did occur in 1997. This was the year when after two bomb threats, the race was moved from the usual Saturday to Monday. Organisers offered 20,000 free tickets, and the race was won by Lord Gyllene, ridden by jockey Tony Dobbin.
The Boom Years
By 2004 around 150,000 attended the festival, with more than 60,000 people at Aintree to witness the last Martell-backed race. The following year Grand National sponsorship changed hands, and John Smith’s took over. That deal lasted for seven years before Crabbie’s started their run in 2013 in what was a three-year deal.
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At that time, attendance figures were at an all-time high. In 2011, there was a sellout crowd for the first time in decades.
Officials reported that more than 73,000 attended on Saturday, which was the first time that the track had been at capacity since being taken over by Jockey Club Racecourses in 1984. Since then, the race has sold out multiple times, with tickets being snapped up as soon as they go on sale.
And not only does the course get sold out but viewing figures on tv are also at an all-time high. In part, thanks to Tiger Roll, iTV’s National coverage pulled in a peak of 9.6 million viewers in 2019.
The broadcaster reported that was a 12% increase from the 8.5m in 2018, with the average audience for the National up from 5.1m to 5.4m.
Although the race was cancelled in 2020, the Grand National has grown in popularity since 2021, with more people attending the event and more viewers watching from home. This is a testament to how far the race has come since its first running in 1839 and highlights why it’s one of the most iconic horse races in Britain.
Aintree & Grand National Key Moments
A few of the key moments in the rich history of the Grand National and the Aintree Racecourse. This history is filled with drama, heartbreak, triumph, and an unyielding spirit of competition.
Here are some highlights:
- Foundation (1839): The first official running of the Grand National took place in 1839, with a horse named Lottery becoming the inaugural winner. The race was organised by William Lynn, a hotelier in Liverpool.
- Captain Becher’s Influence (1839): Captain Martin Becher was a notable participant in the inaugural running of the Grand National in 1839. Becher had a significant fall at a brook during the race when his horse, Conrad, refused the jump. Instead of completing the race, Becher took shelter in the brook to avoid the other horses. Consequently, that obstacle was thereafter known as “Becher’s Brook”. It has since become one of the most famous fences in the world of steeplechasing, known for its difficulty and the role it often plays in the outcome of the race.
- World War I Interruption (1916-1918): The First World War had a significant impact on the Grand National. Due to the requisition of Aintree Racecourse for war efforts, the Grand National couldn’t take place there from 1916 to 1918. However, an alternate race known as the “War National” was run at Gatwick Racecourse during those years.
- First 100/1 Winner (1929): The Grand National of 1929 marked a significant moment in the event’s history. A horse named Tipperary Tim became the first horse to win the Grand National at odds of 100/1. This was particularly noteworthy because only two horses, including Tipperary Tim, finished the race out of a field of 66, which was the largest ever in a Grand National. Legend has it that before the race, a friend of the jockey, William Dutton, had told him: “Billy boy, you’ll only win if all the others fall down!” In a remarkable coincidence, this almost came true due to the extremely heavy going and misty weather conditions.
- Golden Miller’s Unparalleled Success (1934): Golden Miller is among the most illustrious names in horse racing history. Trained by Basil Briscoe and ridden by Gerry Wilson, Golden Miller is the only horse to have ever won the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same year, achieving this exceptional feat in 1934. His win at the Grand National was particularly impressive as he was carrying the top weight of 12 stone 2 pounds. He also won the Cheltenham Gold Cup five times in a row from 1932 to 1936, setting records that still stand today.
- Foinavon’s Surprise Win (1967): One of the most memorable moments in Grand National history came in 1967. A loose horse caused a major pile-up at the 23rd fence, with the 100/1 outsider Foinavon the only horse to negotiate the obstacle the first time around. Despite the chaos, Foinavon went on to win the race in one of the biggest shocks in Grand National history.
- Red Rum’s Triple Victory (1973-1977): Red Rum, trained by Ginger McCain, is one of the most legendary names associated with the Grand National. The horse won the race three times (1973, 1974, and 1977) and finished second in the other two years (1975 and 1976). This remains an unprecedented record.
- Bob Champion’s Inspirational Win (1981): Bob Champion, who had recently recovered from cancer, rode Aldaniti, a horse that had overcome its own serious health issues, to victory. Their win was later immortalised in the film “Champions”.
- Jockey Club’s Purchase of Aintree (1984): In a crucial moment in the history of Aintree Racecourse, the Jockey Club, the largest commercial group in British horseracing, purchased the course in 1984. This acquisition came at a time when there were serious concerns about the racecourse’s future due to commercial pressures and a decline in interest. However, the Jockey Club’s purchase led to a revival in the fortunes of the Aintree Racecourse and the Grand National, with the club investing heavily in improvements to the course and facilities. This helped ensure the continuation of the Grand National as one of the highlights of the British sporting calendar.
- Esha Ness and the Void Race (1993): In 1993, a false start led to one of the biggest controversies in Grand National history. The race was declared void for the first and only time after 30 of the 39 riders failed to realise a false start had been called and completed the race, with Esha Ness crossing the line first.
- First Female Jockey Victory (2021): Rachael Blackmore made history by becoming the first female jockey to win the Grand National in 2021, riding Minella Times. This was a key moment not only for the race but also for the wider sport.
The Grand National is a unique race that has stood the test of time, with its many stories and moments becoming ingrained into British sporting culture. From the original running to Rachael Blackmore’s historic victory, it is an event that continues to captivate fans and long may it continue.