During the 2018 renewal of the Grand National race, onlookers were stunned by the sight of the Royal Family arriving for a day out at Aintree.
First came the Duchess of Sussex and the Queen, with the latter dressed in her iconic yellow dress with matching shoes and a stylish overcoat.
A number of other prominent Royals arrived moments later, including the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and her sister Pippa.
All was not what is seemed, however, with these familiar faces belonging to professional lookalikes who had headed to Aintree in search of fun, adventure and some significant media attention.
While this may have turned heads and stunned fellow spectators, however, the notion of the Royals attending the Grand National is hardly fanciful.
After all, there is a long and illustrious history that connects the Royal Family and the Grand National.
The Royals and THAT Grand National in 1956
In truth, the relationship between the Royal Family and horse racing runs extremely deep and can be traced back generations.
Not only this, but it remains as relevant today as it did at the start of the century, particularly when you consider the incumbent Queen’s penchant for racehorses and her innate love of the sport. If there’s one iconic moment that captures this incredible connection, it occurred during the 1956 Grand National.
Unsurprisingly, the Queen (who had only enjoyed her coronation three years before in 1953) attended the event with her mother, along with other prominent members of her family such as Princess Margaret.
In total, a bumper crowd of 250,000 arrived to watch this renowned and globally popular race, including the Soviet Ambassador Mr. Malik who had been invited as the Queen’s international guest of honour. There was a tremendous sense of anticipation among the crowd, especially with the overwhelming pre-race favourite (Devon Loch) owned jointly by the Queen and the Queen Mother.
Another Royal runner, the 10-year old M’as-Tu-Vu, was also hotly tipped to perform well at Aintree, with many suggesting that this horse represented great value as an each-way bet. As the race progressed, both of these horses powered to the front of the pack, before M’as-Tu-Vu and jockey Arthur Freeman were toppled at the 18th fence.
This allowed Devon Loch and his rider Dick Francis to ease clear of the remaining field, with the horse’s incredible pedigree helping him to build a seemingly insurmountable lead.
Despite the unpredictable nature of the National, Devon Loch seemed certain to complete an impressive victory after he cleared the final fence a healthy five lengths clear of his nearest challenger E.S.B.
As he approached the final straight and moved to within 40 yards of home, a huge roar engulfed the crowd while every single attendee took to their feet and gave the horse a standing ovation. Suddenly, and without warning, Devon Loch half-jumped into the Aintree air, before collapsing in an exaggerated belly flop on the turf.
Despite the immense efforts of Francis to continue, Devon Loch was no longer able to compete, as E.S.B. glided past to cross the line in first and claim the most unlikely National win.
While the Queen Mother famously took it in her stride and opined that “that’s just racing”, jockey Francis was adamant that the roar of the crowd had startled the horse.
Still, this incredible moment remains one of the National’s biggest unsolved mysteries, while it also offers an insight into the long-standing love affair between the race and the Royals.
Royals And Horse Racing Through The Ages
While the unfortunate Devon Loch may be the most infamous Royal runner, he is by no means the only one to have graced the National over the course of the last century or more.
In fact, the notion of Royal’s owning horses can be traced back to William the Conqueror, although it wasn’t until the reign of Edward III that this became a common practice.
Edward himself is known to have purchased racehorses at £13 and six shillings, for example, while the Royal stud grew at an even faster rate under the stewardship of the extremely competitive Henry VIII.
Records became more substantial too, while Henry also became the first monarch to pass a number of laws pertaining to the breeding of horses. He also imported a huge number of stallions and mares for breeding from overseas, while opening a training establishment at Greenwich.
It was at this time that horse racing became known as ‘the sport of kings’, as Henry also paved the way for formal race meetings to be instigated across the length and breadth of the UK.
Although not all monarchs shared the same passion for horse racing (Queen Elizabeth 1st was recorded as being largely unenthusiastic about this sport during her reign), it was during the 16th and 17th centuries that it became synonymous with Royal dynasties.
This was reflected during the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, who deposed the Monarchy and formed a Commonwealth republic in 1649. During this time horse racing was banned, with most runners being requisitioned by the state and deployed for public service.
Either side of this period, and under the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, this scenario was reversed, with both monarchs professing a love of horse racing and reinstating meetings nationwide.
Since then, the Royals have become deeply integrated into the history of horse racing and the National, with various winners having emerged from the Royal stable. Take Ambush II, for example, won romped to success in the 1900 National and was owned by the Prince of Wales and the future King Edward VII.
The Bottom Line
This trend has continued to this day, with the Queen’s granddaughter and former Olympian Zara Phillips having transformed the unpromising Monbeg Dude into a Grand National contender after buying him for just £12,000.
Despite his struggles over the hurdles, the horse finished a respective seventh in the 2014 National at a price of 16/1, and subsequently continued the love affair between the race and the Royals.
This affair is unlikely to end anytime soon, and it may not be long before we have another Royal winner at the UK’s most prestigious and famous race.
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