The Grand National
The best loved horse race on the British calendar, the official Grand National was first held at Aintree in 1839, although the first race at Aintree took place three years earlier. The Grand National was founded by William Lynn who, during the early Nineteenth Century, was the innkeeper of the Waterloo Hotel in Liverpool. After sponsoring the Waterloo Cup, a successful hare coursing event, Lynn conceived the idea of hiring some land on which to hold race meetings and, in 1829, he began leasing Aintree racecourse. Horse racing took place at Aintree from 1829 until 1835 with three meetings being held each year. In 1836 Lynn took his plans one step further when he initiated the very first Steeplechase (a race course with obstacles) at Aintree held on 29th February 1836, which was famously won by The Duke and his rider, Captain Becher.
The Aintree Steeplechase was a huge success and continued for the next two years although the race was moved to Maghull, another racecourse in Liverpool. In 1839 the Steeplechase was moved back to Aintree and dubbed the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase, now regarded as the very first Grand National. The 1839 Steeplechase was won by Lottery with the renowned rider Captain Becher falling into a brook at the sixth obstacle, now known as Becher’s Fence.
Sine 1839 the Grand National has been raced every year except during the Second World War when it was suspended for four years. During the First World War the race continued but was held at Gatwick (now the airport) instead of Aintree. The race was introduced to radio listeners in 1927 and in 1960 the Grand National was televised for the first time with its popularity continuing to increase ever since.
The Grand National is a Steeplechase competition requiring horse and jockey to successfully complete two circuits of a 2.25 mile completing the race with a 494 yard run. The course has sixteen obstacles each of which must be negotiated twice by the contestants with the exception of the Chair and the Water Jump which must be completed the first time around the course only.
The fences in the order set out on the course are as follows:
- 1 & 17 – Thorn Fence: 4’7” high and 2’9” wide
- 2 & 18 – Second Fence: 4’7” high and 3’6” wide.
- 3 & 19 – Westhead: 5’ high this is made more difficult by a 6’ ditch just before the fence.
- 4 & 20 – Plain Fence: 4’10” high and 3’ wide.
- 5 & 21 – Spruce Dressed Fence: 5’ high and 3’6” wide
- 6 & 22 – Becher’s Brook: Named after Captain Becher, who fell off his horse at this point in the race in the first Grand National. This is the most challenging fence on the course. The fence is 4’9 high at the take-off side of the obstacle but is 6’9 high on the landing side, taking the horse by surprise.
- 7 & 23 – Foinavon Fence: Named after Foinavon, the only horse to negotiate the fence in 1967 at the first attempt, this obstacle is the smallest fence on the course at 4’6” high and 3’ wide.
- 8 & 24 – Canal Turn: Covered in hawthorn branches this has a canal on the landing side of the fence requiring horses to turn 90 degrees to avoid the water.
- 9 & 25 – Valentine’s Brook: Similar to the Canal Turn, this has a brook on the landing side of the fence which is 5’6” wide’
- 10 & 26 – Thorn Fence: 5’ high and 3’ wide.
- 11 & 27 – Booth:5’ high and 3’ wide this is made more difficult by a 6’ wide ditch on the take-off side of the fence.
- 12 & 28 – 5’ high and 3’ wide this has a ditch on the landing side of the fence.
- 13 & 29 – 4’7” high and 3’ wide.
- 14 & 30 – 4’7” high and 3’ wide. This is the final jump of the course.
- 15 (negotiated only once) – 5’3 high on the take-off side of the fence and 4’8 high at the landing side of the fence this is made more difficult by the increased height of the turf on landing as well as a 6’wide ditch on the take-off side.
- 16 (negotiated only once) – 2’9’ high’ on the take-off side and 3’2 on the landing side, this is made even more difficult by an 8’10 channel of water just after the obstacle, creating an extremely challenging and spectacular finish to the course.
There are many horses to have gone down in history at the Grand National but below are a few of the most famous:
The only horse in history to have won the Grand National three times, Red Rum raced to victory in 1973, 1974 and 1977. Famed for negotiating each obstacle with extreme dexterity Red Rum was an astounding 12 years old when he won his final race. He retired in 1978 after getting a hairline fracture during a pre-National warm-up day and, after a celebrity career lasting until 1995, Red Rum’s life ended and he was buried by the winning post on the Aintree course.
Racing to victory in the Grand National of 1979, Aldanti and his jockey Bob Champion went down in history as a pair who won the race against all the odds. Diagnosed of cancer in 1979, Champion was given just months to live whilst Aldanti had almost been retired from racing with serious leg trouble. After their unlikely win, Champion made a full recovery and Aldanti lived until the age of 27, dying in March 1977. The inspirational story of the determined horse and jockey went on to inspire the 1983 film Champions, which starred John Hurt as Bob Champion.
Defeated by E.S.B in 1956, Devon Lock is best remembered for his inexplicable tumble just before the finish line. On target for a good victory, Devon Lock mysteriously leaped in to the air just 50 yards from the end of the course, falling and unseating his jockey, Dick Francis, and losing the pair the race, after which the Queen Mother famously said “that’s racing”.
It is thought that the horse may have made the sudden leap after getting leg cramps or that he may have thought a shadow cast by the final water jump was another obstacle. Since the incident, Dick Francis has gone on to write a series of thrillers inspired by the mysterious nature of the race.