The Grand National is the world’s most famous and notorious horse race. Run annually at the Aintree course in Great Britain, it is watched around the world by a TV audience of millions. The Grand National is amongst the world’s most instantly recognisable annual sporting events.
A rich history
The first running of the Grand National took place in 1839. The unusual length of the race at just under four-and-a-half miles in addition to the size of the jumps has led to it being unofficially referred to as “the ultimate test of horse and rider”.
Horses that win the national achieve an immediate and lasting place in racing folklore. Some, such as the 1970s three-time winner Red Rum, achieve fame well beyond the world of racing. When Red Rum won for the third time in 1977 it catapulted the horse to the status of a national treasure, even featuring on the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year Award.
The fate of the Queen Mother’s Devon Loch in the 1956 race has become enshrined in folklore. After a gruelling and brutal race in which the favourite and second favourite had already fallen Devon Loch was leading the field as it approached the line with a seemingly insurmountable five-lengths lead. As it raced past a jubilant royal box, the horse suddenly leapt into the air only to land flat on its stomach. Devon Loch was unable to continue.
The Grand National is run over 30 of the biggest jumps in horseracing. ‘Becher’s Brook’ and the famous ‘Chair’ have unseated countless riders over the years. However, protests over the number of injuries and fatal accidents in the 1990s have seen the fences reduced in size. The Chair is the tallest fence on the course at 5ft 3 in preceded by a 6ft-wide open ditch. Becher’s Brook faces runners and riders at 4 ft 10 in but a drop of 6ft 9 in on the landing side poses challenging problems on landing.
The Grand National is one of the biggest betting events in the world. In the UK alone over £150 million is wagered with bookmakers, whilst the international audience of millions inevitably swells that figure several times over. Not surprisingly there is a healthy market in Grand National tips well before the April running of the race itself.
The race invariably sees only a fraction of the field finish the race. In 1928 from a field of 40 starters only two horses actually finished the race.
The race that never was
The large field often causes false starts. In 1993 a mass false start – the second that day – was not fully called back by the stewards. Pandemonium reigned and amidst a day of classic British farce seven of the horses went on to complete the full distance. Horses and bemused jockeys were scattered around Aintree like used betting slips as 50/1 shot Esher Ness crossed the line for a meaningless victory.
A historic first
The first winner of the race was the 5/1 favourite Lottery. The name was apt. Ever since that 1839 opener, the race has become famous as an especially difficult one to predict.
The race has frequently been a target for protesters and by animal rights protesters and in 1997 an IRA bomb scare saw the race postponed until the following Monday. Lord Gyllene romped home to an unusually muted celebration that day.
A national TV treasure
A combination of memorable TV moments, royal interest, the spectacle of the race itself and the sheer unpredictability of the race has seen the National established as a key date in the sporting calendar. It is one of only five events which – by law – have to be aired on the BBC’s terrestrial service.