The Grand National, while nowadays considered unique and iconic, was based on the Great St. Albans Steeplechase, which was inaugurated in 1830, nine years before the first ‘official’ National. The brainchild of St. Albans hotelier Thomas Coleman, the first race was run over a four-mile countryside course between the villages of Harlington and Silsoe, in nearby Bedfordshire and, by 1834, the Great St. Albans Steeplechase had become a major sporting event.
Liverpool hotelier William Lynn, who had been staging tremendously successful fixtures at Aintree since 1829, was intrigued by the success of the Great St. Albans Steeplechase and founded his own version, the ‘Grand Liverpool Steeplechase’ – later, of course, the Grand National – in 1836. The subsequent history of the Grand National is well chronicled, but the race quickly entered the public psyche and, over the years, the idea was replicated in various locations at home and abroad.
The Scottish National, nowadays run over 4 miles at Ayr in April, was inaugurated in 1858, the Irish National, run over 3 miles 5 furlongs at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday, followed 12 years later, in 1870, and the Welsh National, run over the same distance, but at Chepstow in late December, followed 25 years after that, in 1895. ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’, or so they say but, while these later races are all premier steeplechases in their own right, they are all run on park courses, over regulation, birch fences and, consequently, lack the spectacle of the Grand National proper.
However, the same cannot be said of probably the most famous ‘National’ run outside the British Isles, the Velka Pardubicka, which was inaugurated in 1874. Run over four-and-a-quarter miles on a cross-country course on the outskirts of Pardubice, in the Czech Republic, the Velka Pardubicka evokes the spirit of the early Grand National. The course consists of a mixture of turf and ploughed fields, with 31 unique obstacles, including hedges, banks, water jumps – formed by a stream that zig-zags across the terrain – and the iconic ‘Velky Taxisuv Prikop’, or Great Taxis Ditch.
Other ‘exotic’ versions of the National include the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, inaugurated in the same year at the Velka Pardubicka, but run over three-and-three-quarter miles at the Hippodrome d’Auteil on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. Once again, participants must negotiate some formidable obstacles, including the ‘Rivière des Tribunes’, a water jump, over 25’ wide, in front of the grandstand, and the notorious rail, ditch and fence combination known as the ‘Juge de Paix’, or Justice of the Peace.