The Grand National is an iconic horse racing event that captivates fans worldwide. With its rich history and thrilling moments, this race has become synonymous with excitement, tradition, and sportsmanship.
In this article, we will delve into the fascinating history of the Grand National, exploring its origins, notable winners, unforgettable moments, and the enduring allure that has made it a true spectacle of the sporting calendar.
Origins and Significance
The inaugural race that would later become the Grand National was first run in 1836. However, this race, and another one held in 1837, have been disregarded by many historians who suggested that these early races were run over a different course.
The Birth of a Legend
The first officially recognized Grand National, therefore, took place in 1839. This race was won by a horse named Lottery and is widely considered the start of the Grand National as we know it today.
The date of the Grand National has changed over the years. Originally, it was held in February or early March. In 1839, the race was moved to the last week of March, and since 1995, the race has been run in early April. These changes were primarily made due to considerations about weather conditions and to avoid clashing with other major events on the racing calendar.
The race covers a distance of approximately four and a half miles, featuring 30 formidable fences that test the skill, speed, and endurance of both jockeys and horses.
The Challenging Course
Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, England, is renowned for its complexity and intensity. One of the primary challenges posed by this race is its sheer length. Spanning approximately 4 miles and 2.5 furlongs (or 7.14 km), the Grand National’s distance tests the endurance of both the horses and the jockeys. It demands that the horses be in peak physical condition to sustain their pace for the entire race duration.
Beyond the length of the race, another factor that makes the Grand National so challenging is the 30 fences that the horses must jump. These aren’t typical steeplechase fences; they’re generally higher and trickier, presenting unique challenges with each leap. Notorious obstacles such as “The Chair” and “Becher’s Brook” serve to increase the complexity of the course. Some fences even feature ditches, drops, or other hazards on one side, adding an extra layer of difficulty.
Large Field of Runners
However, the challenge isn’t only about the physical course itself. The Grand National is known for its large number of participants, often featuring up to 40 runners. This leads to a highly competitive and potentially dangerous environment where accidents and falls can occur due to congestion on the track.
The complexity of the course, comprising both flat and jump sections, further enhances the challenge of the Grand National. Not only must the horses and jockeys navigate various terrains and conditions, but they also have to endure a long run-in after the final fence, an ultimate test of stamina and resolve.
Unpredictability is yet another feature of the Grand National that amplifies its difficulty. The track surface, weather conditions, and the long duration of the race render it highly unpredictable, which can complicate the jockeys’ race strategies.
Notable Winners and Memorable Moments
Over the years, the Grand National has witnessed remarkable triumphs and created enduring legends. From the legendary Red Rum, who secured three victories in the 1970s, to the heroic tale of Foinavon, an outsider who won against all odds in 1967, each winner adds to the race’s lore. The names of these equine heroes and their jockeys are etched into the annals of horse racing history.
The Grand National is renowned for its nail-biting finishes, where victory is often determined by a matter of inches. The famous duel between Crisp and Red Rum in 1973 is one of the most memorable moments in the race’s history. Crisp, an Australian racehorse, appeared destined for victory until Red Rum, displaying incredible determination, surged ahead in the final strides to claim an unforgettable win.
One of the captivating aspects of the Grand National is its propensity for surprises. The race has witnessed its fair share of underdogs defying the odds and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. In 2009, Mon Mome, a 100-1 outsider, stunned the racing world by storming to victory, showcasing the unpredictable nature that makes the Grand National a true spectacle.
Foinavon’s Unexpected Victory (1967)
Foinavon was an Irish racehorse who won the 1967 Grand National steeplechase at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, England. He was a 100/1 outsider in the race, and his victory is one of the most memorable in the history of the Grand National due to the unusual circumstances surrounding it.
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The 1967 Grand National is remembered for a major pile-up at the 23rd fence (which has since been named the Foinavon Fence in honour of the horse). A loose horse, Popham Down, caused chaos by running across the fence and stopping, leading to a domino effect of falls and refusals.
In the ensuing melee, Foinavon, who was trailing the leaders and thus was far enough behind to avoid the initial disturbance, managed to pick his way through the confusion. His jockey, John Buckingham, guided him around the chaos and over the fence.
Although many of the other jockeys managed to remount and continue the race, Foinavon had gained a significant lead. Despite being a long shot, he maintained this lead and won the race.
This unexpected victory has gone down in history, and Foinavon’s name is now synonymous with overcoming the odds.
Devon Loch’s Collapse
Devon Loch was owned by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, and his jockey was Dick Francis, who would later become a successful crime writer.
The horse had run a nearly flawless race and was leading, seemingly about to clinch victory, when he suddenly and inexplicably collapsed just 50 yards from the finish line. It appeared as though he had jumped an imaginary obstacle, leading to his fall. Despite efforts from jockey Dick Francis, the horse couldn’t complete the race, and the victory went to E.S.B., a horse that had been trailing Devon Loch by a significant margin.
This event was a major shock and led to widespread sympathy for Devon Loch, Dick Francis, and the Queen Mother. The phrase “doing a Devon Loch” has even entered the English language, used to refer to a last-minute failure or collapse when victory seemed assured.
Bob Champion and Aldaniti’s Triumph (1981)
Bob Champion is a former British jump jockey who is best known for his triumph at the 1981 Grand National, where he rode Aldaniti, a horse that had overcome significant health problems of his own.
Their victory is one of the most celebrated and emotional moments in horse racing history.
In 1979, Bob Champion was diagnosed with testicular cancer. His prognosis was poor, and he was given only months to live. However, Champion decided to fight the disease and underwent an aggressive course of chemotherapy. During his treatment, he set himself the goal of returning to racing and winning the Grand National.
Aldaniti, his future partner in that historic race, had his own struggles. He had suffered several serious injuries that could have ended his racing career. But just like Champion, Aldaniti made a remarkable recovery.
Their joint victory in the 1981 Grand National was the stuff of movie scripts, and indeed, their story was turned into a film titled “Champions” in 1984, with John Hurt portraying Bob Champion. The story of Bob Champion and Aldaniti continues to inspire many people, demonstrating the power of resilience and determination in the face of adversity.
Captain Martin Becher was a prominent figure in early British steeplechase racing, particularly known for his association with the Grand National at Aintree. Born in 1797 and passing away in 1864, Becher was a jockey, a trainer, and an all-around horse racing enthusiast.
One of the most famous fences in the Grand National, “Becher’s Brook,” is named after him.
This occurred due to an incident in the inaugural official race in 1839. Captain Becher was riding a horse named Conrad when the horse fell at the fence. Becher, in an attempt to avoid injury, decided to sit in the brook (a small stream) where he’d fallen while the rest of the horses leapt over him.
This fence, with its brook on the landing side, became notoriously challenging and was subsequently named Becher’s Brook in his honour.
Despite this famous incident, it should be noted that Captain Becher was a skilled and experienced jockey who made significant contributions to the sport during his lifetime.
The Void Race (1993)
The 1993 Grand National, known as “The Race That Never Was”, is one of the most infamous in the history of the Grand National due to an unfortunate series of events that led to confusion, chaos, and, eventually, the race being declared void.
A false start in the 1993 Grand National was triggered by several jockeys getting ensnared in the starting tape. Keith Brown, the starter who was overseeing his final National before stepping into retirement, hoisted his red recall flag in response. Another official, Ken Evans, stationed a hundred yards down the track, subsequently signalled the front runners to reverse their course.
At the second attempt to start the race, the tape entangled again, this time around the neck of jockey Richard Dunwoody. Brown announced another false start. However, his recall flag failed to unfurl as he waved it this time. As a result, 30 out of the 39 jockeys proceeded around the track, completely unaware of the false start recall.
Despite officials’ best efforts to stop the race, 17 horses completed the course, with Esha Ness crossing the finish line first. However, the Jockey Club declared the race void because of the false start. This was the first time in the race’s history that such an event had occurred.
The aftermath was a period of chaos and confusion. Bookmakers had to refund millions of pounds in bets, and the incident led to significant changes in the starting procedures of the race to prevent a recurrence in future years.
The Monday National
The “Monday National” refers to the 1997 Grand National, a unique event in the history of the race. The race, originally scheduled for Saturday, 5th April 1997, was postponed until Monday, 7th April, due to a bomb threat.
On race day, a coded warning was received by the authorities from the IRA, which led to the entire Aintree Racecourse being evacuated. This included the estimated 60,000 spectators in attendance, the horses, jockeys, trainers, and staff. The local community showed immense support, with many residents opening their homes to those displaced by the evacuation.
Given the seriousness of the threat, the police and the race organizers made the decision to postpone the race. It was the first time in the history of the Grand National that the race was delayed to a Monday.
When the race finally took place on the 7th of April, it was won by a horse named Lord Gyllene. Despite the extraordinary circumstances surrounding it, the 1997 Grand National was a success. A testament to the resilience and adaptability of the horse racing community.
Women and the Grand National
Several women have played crucial roles in the history of the Grand National, both on and off the racecourse. Here are a few notable examples:
- Jenny Pitman: Pitman was the first woman to train a Grand National winner. She achieved this feat in 1983 with her horse Corbiere and won again in 1995 with Royal Athlete. Her success paved the way for other women in the sport.
- Venetia Williams: Venetia Williams became the second woman to train a Grand National winner when Mon Mome won the race in 2009 at odds of 100/1.
- Katie Walsh: In 2012, Katie Walsh achieved the highest finish for a female jockey in the Grand National, coming third on Seabass. She’s one of the most successful female jockeys in the history of the race.
- Carrie Ford: In 2005, just 10 weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Ford finished fifth in the Grand National on Forest Gunner. This is one of the best performances by a female jockey in the race’s history.
- Charlotte Brew: In 1977, Brew became the first woman to ride in the Grand National. Although she didn’t complete the course on her horse, Barony Fort, her participation was a significant step towards gender equality in the sport.
- Rachael Blackmore: In 2021, Blackmore made history by becoming the first female jockey to win the Grand National. She won the race on Minella Times, breaking one of the biggest gender barriers in sports.
These women have significantly contributed to the National and horse racing more broadly. Breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations of female jockeys and trainers.
During both the First and Second World Wars, the race was suspended, and Aintree was requisitioned by the War Office.
First World War (1914-1918), the race was not run from 1916 to 1918. Aintree was used as a location for testing tanks and a depot for military vehicles during this period.
Second World War (1939-1945), the Grand National was again suspended. The Aintree Racecourse was used for defence purposes, including as a location for American military personnel. The race did not take place from 1941 to 1945.
However, a substitute race known as the “War National” was held at Gatwick Racecourse, now Gatwick Airport. These events were not officially recognized as Grand Nationals.
The Grand National resumed at Aintree in 1946. However, it was a short course version due to the course conditions following the war. The full course was restored in 1947, and the race has continued annually ever since. The only notable exceptions were the cancelled race in 1993 and the postponed race in 1997. In 2020, the race was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a virtual race was run instead.
The Enduring Allure
The National’s appeal extends far beyond the boundaries of the United Kingdom. With millions of viewers worldwide, the race has become a cultural phenomenon that captivates racing enthusiasts. Its time-honoured traditions, heart-stopping moments, and unique challenges have made it an event that transcends national borders.
Uniting Horse Racing Enthusiasts
The race is a rallying point for enthusiasts, bringing together people from all walks of life. Whether you’re an avid punter or simply someone who appreciates the thrill of competition, the National offers something for everyone. Its ability to create a sense of unity and shared excitement is a testament to the race’s enduring appeal.
From the triumphant winners to the heart-stopping finishes, each edition of the Grand National adds to the race’s rich tapestry. As fans eagerly anticipate the next chapter in this storied event.
The Grand National on Film
Several films have showcased the Grand National, either as a central theme or as a key part of the storyline. Here are some notable examples:
- National Velvet (1944): Perhaps one of the most famous films featuring the Grand National, National Velvet stars a young Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown, a girl who trains a horse named ‘The Pie’ to run in the Grand National. Mickey Rooney co-stars as a young man who helps her in her quest.
- Champions (1984): This British film tells the true story of jockey Bob Champion and his horse Aldaniti. Both faced significant health challenges before their emotional victory in the 1981 Grand National. Actor John Hurt portrays Bob Champion in the film.
- International Velvet (1978): A sequel to National Velvet, it stars Tatum O’Neal as a young American girl who moves to England. While it doesn’t directly involve the Grand National, it carries on the horse racing theme of its predecessor.
- Sergeant Murphy (1938): This movie is an American comedy-drama film starring Ronald Reagan. A horse is offered for sale to the cavalry but is rejected as unfit for service. A cavalry private buys the horse and trains it as a champion racer. When he thinks it’s ready, he manages to sneak it into England to race in the British Grand National. Based on a true story.
These films capture different aspects of the Grand National, showcasing the drama, triumphs, and challenges associated with the sport.