There is much debate among historians regarding the first official Grand National race held. Most fans who have trawled the newspaper libraries and archives of the UK now prefer the idea that the first was in 1836 and was won by The Duke. This same horse triumphed again in 1837 while Sir William was the winner in 1838.
These races have often been disregarded because of the belief that the 1837 and 1838 runnings took place at Maghull and not at Aintree. However, several race historians have unearthed undisputable evidence that these three races were all run over the same course at Aintree and were regarded as having been Grand Nationals up until the mid 1860s. To date though, their calls for the Nationals of 1836-38 to be restored to the record books have been ignored.
The Early Years
For three years during World War I, while the Aintree racecourse was closed, an alternative race was run at Gatwick Racecourse on the site of the present Gatwick Airport. The first of these races, in 1916, was called the Racecourse Association Steeplechase. In the following two years the race was known as the War National Steeplechase. The races at Gatwick are not always recognised as “Grand Nationals” however, and their results are often omitted from winners’ lists.
In 1923, Sergeant Murphy became the first American-bred horse to win the Grand National.
In 1938 the American bred Battleship, son of the famous Man O’War, became the first (and so far only) horse to have won both the Grand National and the American Grand National (won four years earlier). Battleship’s jockey was Bruce Hobbs and at 17 years old was and still is the youngest ever winning jockey.
In 1944, a fictional account of a young girl training the winner of the Grand National by Enid Bagnold was also made into a film. It became the very famous National Velvet, starring the young Elizabeth Taylor as the heroine, Velvet Brown. The events surrounding the 1981 National and the winning jockey, Bob Champion, were also dramatised in the film Champions.
Grand National From The 1960s
The 1967 running was won by rank outsider Foinavon, ridden by Johnny Buckingham, after a melee at the 23rd fence when two loose horses pulled up in front of the field and caused the rest to fall, stop, or refuse. Foinavon was running so far behind that Buckingham managed to avoid the carnage and scrape round ahead of 17 remounted horses, coming home at odds of 100/1.
By far the most successful horse in Grand National history was Red Rum. The only horse to win three times in 1973, 1974, and in 1977. He also came in second in the two intervening years, 1975 and 1976.
In 1993, the result of the race was declared void. A series of incidents meant the starting tape failed to rise correctly. This caused several horses and jockeys to get caught up in it. A false start was declared, but lack of communication between course officials meant that 30 out of the 39 jockeys did not realise this and started to race.
Course officials tried to stop the horses by waving red flags next to The Chair at the end of the first circuit. However, many jockeys thought that these people were protesters and so continued to race. Seven horses ran the course in its entirety, forcing a void result. The ‘winner’ of those horses which ran was Esha Ness, ridden by John White and trained by Jenny Pitman.
In 1997, the Saturday meeting was abandoned after two coded bomb threats were received, reportedly from the Provisional IRA. 60,000 spectators, jockeys, race personnel and local residents were evacuated and the course was secured by police. The race was eventually run on the Monday, with the meeting organisers offering free admission. Some 20,000 people were left stranded over the weekend, with cars and coaches locked in the course. With limited accommodation space in the city and surrounding areas, those local residents not affected by the incident opened their doors and took in many of those stranded.
The National In The 2000s
Quite a lot has happened with the Grand National in the last 20 years. The official maximum weight of a runner was reduced to 11st 10lbs in 2002. So far there have been no winners carrying top weight but Many Clouds did win it on 11-09, the heaviest since Red Rum.
We have also had the most successful ride by a female jockey. Katie Walsh raced into the history books in 2012 when her mount, Seabass finished in third place.
That was also the year Neptune Collonges won the race, only the third grey horse in history to bag the win. Trained by Paul Nicholls, he also won the race by the shortest margin recorded, beating Sunnyhillboy by a nose in a photo finish.
No account of Grand National history is complete without mentioning Tiger Roll. Trained by Gordon Elliott and owned by Gigginstown, the back-to-back winner has so far matched Red Rum’s record. But he can beat it if he wins three in a row in the 2020 Grand National.
He will have plenty of competition but has a chance to definitively write himself into the history books. With just one more Grand National between him and legendary status, can anybody stop him?