Every year more than 600 million people from around the world tune in to watch the Grand National unfold at Aintree. They are captivated by the epic nature of the trip, the brutal fences that must be cleared and the heroism on display from the runners. It is the world’s most famous race and most people have had a bet on it at some point, but you probably didn’t know these fun facts:
1. The Grand National is held at Aintree in Merseyside. It is named after a Viking settlement in which all the trees were cut down apart from one, which was known as Ain Tree. Every April, it hosts the Grand National meeting, which includes a number of prestigious Grade 1 races alongside the Grand National. Crowds of 70,000 pack into the racecourse to watch the action unfold, and it never fails to provide scintillating entertainment.
2. One of the most gruelling fences is called Becher’s Brook. It is named after Captain Martin Becher, who fell from his horse there in the inaugural Grand National in 1839. He took shelter in the brook to avoid injury, which was a sensible idea. “I never knew water tasted so foul without whisky,” he declared after dragging himself out of the brook. Other famous fences including The Chair – which measures 5ft 3ins – and Canal Turn. The runners must clear 30 fences during two circuits of the famous course, and it takes place over an epic 4 miles 514 yards.
3. The aptly named Lottery won the first Grand National in 1839, but he did so with the slowest winning time in history. It took him 14 minutes and 53 seconds to finish the race. The fastest time came in 1980, when Mr Frisk soared around the course in 8 minutes and 47 seconds.
4. Simply finishing the race is an achievement in itself. Back in 1928, 42 horses contested the race and only two completed it. Many go tumbling down as they try to navigate the fiercely tricky fences, riders are frequently unseated and others need to be pulled as their stamina fails them. Last year, 19 of the 40 runners finished the race. Up For Review and Vintage Clouds fell at the first and five horses were pulled up at the 29th. The most finishers came in 1984, when 23 completed the race, but it is rare to see more than half of them cross the line. A £1 million prize purse makes the Grand National the world’s most valuable jumps race, so the reward is great for those that finish among the places.
5. The Duke of Albuquerque became obsessed with winning the Grand National after watching a film of the race on his eighth birthday. He fell from his horse and cracked his vertebra on his first attempt in 1952. His next two attempts ended in disaster: he was unseated again in 1963, and then broke his leg in a bad fall in 1965. In 1976, he was trampled after falling once again, and he had to spend several days in a coma. At the age 57, the Iron Duke still tried to compete, but officials revoked his license for his own safety. He never did win the Grand National, but he broke 22 bones and suffered more than 100 fractures during his attempts.
6. Another unlucky jockey is Richard Johnson. He has not had such a history of falls and broken bones, but he has now made 21 unsuccessful attempts to win the Grand National. His quest began in 1997, when Celtic Abbey unseated him. His mount, Banjo, fell in 1998, and then Baronet fell while carrying him the following year. Star Traveller had to be pulled up in 2000, and then Edmond fell in 2001.
Johnson finished the race for the first time in 2002, and he actually came within a whisker of winning it, but What’s Up Boys ended up second to 20/1 shot Bindaree. He finished second again in 2014 on Balthazar King. In 2016, Johnson moved level with Sir AP McCoy as the jockey with the most Grand National appearances.
It was the 20th consecutive year in which he had tried to win the big race, but Kruzhilin pulled up. Johnson then had a couple of years off, before making a record-breaking 21st attempt in 2019. Rock The Kasbah was brought down, extending his long winless streak. However, the champion jockey is having another fine season, so this could be the year his drought finally ends. Check out the odds on his mount here and decide if you want to back him or stay well clear.
7. Five different horses priced at 100/1 have defied their outsider status to romp to victory in this famous race. The first was Tipperary Tim in 1928, and then Gregalach repeated the feat the following year. Caughoo was a 100/1 winner in 1947, and then Foinavon pulled it off in 1967. Punters thought it was not possible in the modern era, but French-bred underdog Mon Mome ended up vanquishing all of his rivals in 2009. He won just six of his 53 career starts, but that 12-length triumph over Comply Or Die in 2009 ensured that he retired an icon of the National Hunt scene. In 2013, 66/1 shot Auroras Encore won the big race, and there have been several 33/1 and 25/1 winners in recent times, so hope springs eternal for this year’s underdogs.
8. Bruce Hobbs was just 17 years old when he won the National aboard Battleship in 1938. He remains the youngest jockey to ever win it. Despite his tender age, Hobbs was 6ft 1½ ins tall, making him probably the tallest jockey to ever win the race too. He was not given much hope of clinching victory when he climbed aboard the 40/1 outsider, but Hobbs produced a magnificent performance as he drove Battleship on the post to beat Royal Danieli by a head in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen. The oldest jockey to win the Grand National was 48-year-old Dick Saunders in 1982. He rode the 7/1 favourite, Grittar, who coasted home 15 lengths clear of his nearest rival.
9. Winning the Grand National represents the pinnacle of many jockeys’ careers. Yet Mick Fitzgerald took it one step further when he declared that his triumph in the famous race was “better than sex”. He won the race on 7/1 favourite Rough Quest back in 1996. The horse had finished second in the Gold Cup 16 days previously, but found the energy to finish 16 lengths clear of runner-up Encore Un Peu in the National. “It’s better than sex,” declared Fitzgerald after the race, and that would become the title of his autobiography.
10. The number of runners is now capped at 40 for the Grand National. That is way more than your average National Hunt race, making the action look very cluttered and crowded. However, even bigger fields would compete for glory before this limit was introduced. The record was set in 1929, when 66 ran. Only nine of them finished, and that was the year in which 100/1 shot Gregalach won, while 200/1 shot Melleray’s Belle finished fourth.
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.