The modern Grand National may be one of the biggest and most famous races in the world, but it hasn’t always been so successful. Down the years, the race has faced serious interruptions, leading to a turbulent history that has had as many failures and fallers than the average race. With over 180 years of rich and varied history, the story of the Grand National is a fascinating one.
How It All Began
Just like the race itself, the history of the Grand National is not straightforward. The official history states that the first-ever running of the Aintree race took place in 1839, however, there is some evidence that an annual race was held at the course from 1836.
Others dispute this, saying that the earlier races were held at nearby Maghull. Either way, a gap in the racing calendar, provided by the loss of the Great St Albans Chase, combined with new rail links between Liverpool and London, created the perfect conditions for a new landmark race. Everyone from the royal family to everyday racing fans soon flocked to the North Liverpool course.
The Missing Years
The Grand National was run annually from 1839, adopting its world-famous name from 1847. However, Aintree Racecourse was commandeered for more pressing matters from 1916-1918 and 1941 and 1945.
During the first period, it was moved to a site south of London, where Gatwick Airport is now located, while for the second period there was no Grand National at all between.
Jem Mason is widely accepted as the first winner of the race in 1839, riding Lottery. However, if you accept the three earlier races as part of the canon, then the first winner was actually The Duke. This was ridden by Captain Martin Becher, who gave his name to the famous Aintree fence in 1839 when he fell at what is now Becher’s Brook.
Irish horses have become part of the fabric of the Grand National, and they recorded their first win in 1847 with Matthew. Scottish trainers would have to wait another 142 years before their first win when Rubstic became the first winner trained north of the border. The first woman to train a Grand National winner was Jenny Pitman, who sent out Corbiere to victory in 1983.
Every running of the Grand National is memorable in its own right, producing amazing stories such as the triumph Bob Champion in 1981, or the multiple wins of Red Rum. However, there are some races that really stand out from the pack. Perhaps the most famous of these is the remarkable failure of the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Lock in 1956, when he fell sprawling to the turf within sight of the finish line. To this day, no one quite knows why.
Other infamous races include the false start in 1993 when thirty of the field did not realise that they’d been recalled and went on to ride the full course. Just four years later, the start was delayed 48 hours by a security issue.
The Future Of The Grand National
Despite its worldwide acclaim, the fate of the race lay in the balance in the 70s and early 80s until new sponsors were found and the course was sold to the Jockey Club in 1983. Since then the race has gone from strength to strength, with millions around the world looking forward to the 2020 race to be held on Saturday 4th April. Of course, if you can’t wait that long for a flutter, you can find plenty of free bets on the Cheltenham Festival, which starts on 10th March.
Now in good hands, with a £1m-plus purse attracting the very best of the best from around the world, the future looks bright for the biggest of all steeplechases. It has certainly come a long way from the early races, which included a brick wall and a section of ploughed field. But then constant uncertainty has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the race down the years, so you never quite know what is next for the National.