No race captures the imagination of the general public year after year quite like the Grand National.
Run over a gruelling 4 miles and 514 yards, with 30 intimidating fences to jump, it provides a spectacle like no other, with around 40 runners each year bidding for glory. The date of the first ever Grand National is widely debated, but generally accepted as being 1839, when it was won by the aptly named ‘Lottery’.
Part of the appeal of the National is the seemingly never-ending supply of fairy stories regarding winners of the race. One of the most famous winners was Bob Champion in 1981, when he rode Aldaniti to victory. Two years previous to the win, Champion was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and given just months to live by his doctors. He defied them to be passed fit to ride Aldaniti (a horse that had suffered chronic leg problems through his career), and the pair went on to a victory that would later be immortalised in the film ‘Champions’ starring John Hunt.
There have been many 100/1 winners of the National down through the years, including Tipperary Tim in 1928, who won the National when every single one of his 41 rivals fell during the race. In 1967 Foinavon took advantage of a pile up at the 23rd fence to win at 100/1 (he was over 100 yards behind when the pile up occurred, but the distance allowed him to anticipate the trouble ahead and steer clear of it).
Red Rum is the most famous horse in the history of the National. Trained by Ginger McCain, he won the race an incredible three times (in 1973, 1974 and 1977), and finished second in the two years between (1975 and 1976). In more recent times, Ginger McCain’s son Donald won the race with Ballabriggs in 2011.
Another major component of the races appeal are the obstacles the horses cross during the race. The thirty fences are unique to the Aintree course, made of spruce instead of the birch found at all other racecourses. Many of the fences have names, and no two fences are identical on the course. Becher’s Brook is jumped twice during the Grand National, and stands at five feet on the take-off side of the fence. The landing side is notorious, as there is a drop of between six and ten inches more there. Modifications to the fence through the years have seen the fence made easier for the horses to jump, with the brook being filled in, and the drop being reduced by five inches on the landing side.
The Chair is the tallest fence on the course, at five feet six inches. The landing side is actually higher than the take-off side, and the fence is so called because a judge used to sit at this fence during the early days of the race. Ironically, Foinavon’s fence (where the big pile up occurred in 1967) is one of the smallest on the course, standing at just four feet six inches.
The course record for the National is held by Mr Frisk, who took just 8 minutes and 47 seconds to complete in 1990. Given the unbelievable spectacle that the field of 40 horses create charging down to the first fence, many are surprised to find out that an incredible 66 horses took part in the 1929 running.