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Grand National history

18 March 2019
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The Grand National has been run at Aintree since 1939. Over the years the racing has become a sporting institution in Britain. The first running of the race in Grand National history was won by a horse called Lottery but during the race Captain Becher fell at the brook. In the early days, the National obstacles included a stone wall and two hurdles at the end of the race which was run over ploughed land. This article examines the characters and events that have created the Grand National history.

The Aintree course was first developed by William Lynn who owned and managed the Waterloo Hotel. He leased the land from the 2nd Earl of Sefton who was named William Molyneux. Lynn designed the course and created a grandstand while Molyneux laid down the first stone in February 1929. At the start of the Grand National the race was called the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.

Grand National history

The Grand National history has created many famous races and occasions. Red Rum, Aldaniti, Jenny Pitman and Ginger McCain are known around the world and fences such as Becher’s Brook, The Chair and the Canal Turn are familiar.

Over the best part of 200 years there have been many milestones. Manifesto is part of Grand National history having contested the race eight times from 1895 to 1904. The horse won the race in 1897 and 1899 and was third in three other years.

Over the Grand National history from 1939 Brice Hobbs is the youngest winning jockey. In 1939 he won the race on Battleship who is the smallest winner. At 48 Dick Saunders is the oldest winning jockey, winning the race on Grittar in 1982.

The winner has been trained by four females over the full Grand National history and here are the details:

  • Jenny Pitman 1983 Corbiere 1995 Royal Athlete
  • Venetia Williams 2009 Mon Mome
  • Sue Smith 2013 Auroras Encore
  • Lucinda Russell 2017 One For Arthur

Many stories in Grand National history concern the unique fences. In 1928 (Tipperary Tim) and 2001 (Red Marauder) there were only two and four finishes respectively.

Grand National history

Early Grand National history

There has been debate in the past about the first official race in the Grand National history. There was a race from 1936 to 1838 but it took place at Maghull and not Aintree. Other reports suggest those races were in fact run at Aintree. The 1939 contest was the first race given the title of “National” and the earlier races do not appear in the records.

In 1838 the Great St Albans Chase was stopped which left a gap for a long distance steeplechase. Railways arrived in Liverpool at the same time so there was rail transport to Aintree. A committee was then formed to provide better organisation. In 1839 publicity led to a bigger attendance, more Press coverage and a higher quality field. By the 1840’s Lynn had less influence and Edward Topham made the race a weight-for-age handicap. He secured the lease in 1848 and 100 years later his family bought the coursed.

Grand National history – Leading Characters

Red Rum

Red Rum was bred to be a sprinter but is the only horse in the Grand National history to win the race three times. The horse won the Grand National in 1973, 1974 and 1977 and was second in 1975 and 1976. Red Rum ran in five Nationals despite suffering from pedalostetis earlier in his life. However, his trainer Donald ‘Ginger McCain’ trained his horses on Southport beach and the seawater helped the horse be transformed from a hobbling animal to a Grand National history legend.

Red Rum was the 9/1 favourite for the Grand National in 1973. However, after the first circuit the Australian chaser, Crisp, was clear of the field and not troubled by a weight of 12 stone. Red Rum was carrying 23 pounds less and overhauled Crisp to win by three quarters of a length despite being 15 lengths adrift after the final fence. Red Rum broke the course record and his time was not bettered for 16 years of Grand National history.


The 1967 race is one of the most bizarre incidents in Grand National history. The 7th and 23rd fences depending on the circuit is the smallest on the course. Popham Down was riderless and ran across the fence which resulted in a huge pile-up and halted most of the field. Foinavon, ridden by John Buckingham, was able to avoid the other runners and went on alone despite being a 100/1 outsider. The fence is now called Foinavon because the horse went on to win the race.

Buckingham was unaware he was riding the only horse to escape the pile up but kept racing alone. Even though 17 horses remounted or jumped the fence Foinavon had gained such an advantage that the horse cleared the final seven fences well clear of any other horse. The winning distance was 15 lengths and the next horses to complete the race were the favourite Honey End and 1968 winner, Red Alligator. The race is one of the most viewed in Grand National history.

The outsider had finished fourth in the King George and ran in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. So perhaps 100/1 was a generous price but the Tote dividend was 444/1. The Foinavon fence is just 4ft 6in tall and is positioned between Becher’s Brook and the Canal Turn. The owner of Foinavon was not at Aintree to see his horse win one of the most famous races in Grand National history. The horse fell at the water jump the following year. One of the former owners, the Duchess of Westminster, owned Arkle and Last Suspect who won the Grand National in 1985.

Michael O’Hehir

Michael O’Hehir described the carnage at the 23rd fence in the 1967 Grand National and his commentary is one of the most famous in the BBC archives. The incident is often shown during coverage of the Grand National. O’Hehir was quick to identify Foinavon as the horse who emerged from the pile up. It was due to the fact that he was so unfamiliar with Foinavon’s colours that he was able to identify the horse as the leader after that fence. In the weighing before the race Buckingham told O’Hehir that his horse’s colours of two-tone green were changed to black with yellow and red braces. All because the owner thought green would be an unlucky colour.

The “Iron” Duke of Albuquerque

Over the full Grand National history Beltrán Alfonso Osorio y Díez de Rivera, or the Duke of Albuquerque (1918-1994), is famous for being one of the worst jockeys to ride in the race. He was given a film of the race for his eighth birthday. The boy vowed to win it one day and came close to death in his pursuit of that achievement. He rode in seven Nationals and would more often than not end the day in hospital.

The Iron Duke first rode in the National in 1952, falling from his mount at the sixth fence and broke his neck and suffered a cracked vertebra. He was back in 1963 and fell at the fourth fence this time. Two years later another fall resulted in a broken leg. Bookmakers offered 66/1 for him to complete the course in 1963. The Duke’s stirrup broke during his next National ride in 1973. A year later he rode with a broken collar bone but finished the race on Nereo in eight and last place.

Two quotes after that race summed up the Duke’s efforts in the National. Of his ride on Nereo he said “I sat like a sack of potatoes and gave the horse no help.” In response to his horse barging into Ron Barry’s mount that jockey asked “What the f*** are you doing?” to which the Iron Duke said: “My dear chap I haven’t a clue…I’ve never got this far before!” He is one of the interesting characters in Grand National history.

He rode in the National again in 1976. However, he suffered serious injuries when he was trampled on by a number of horses. The injuries included seven broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, a broken wrist and thigh and severe concussion which left him in a coma for two days. At the age of 57 his jockey’s licence was revoked. He also announced he had ridden in the race for the final time. The Iron Duke did not win the National but suffered more injuries than any other jockey in Grand National history.

Notable Dates In Grand National

Notable Dates In Grand National history

Grand National History 1800s – 1930s

  • 1837: THE DUKE finishes first in the Great Liverpool Steeplechase which is run at Maghull, three miles from Aintree.
  • 1839: The first Aintree National is won by LOTTERY during which Captain Becher finds himself in the brook.
  • 1847: Ireland’s first winner is MATTHEW in a race officially called the Grand National for the first time.
  • 1887: GAMECOCK wins the Champion Chase and wins the National the next day at odds of 20/1.
  • 1897: MANIFESTO achieves the first of his two wins as the 6/1 favourite. The horse competes eight times up to the age of 16 and finishes third in three other races.
  • 1907: EREMON wins the National despite the jockey not riding with stirrups from the second fence.
  • 1927: The race is broadcast by the BBC for the first time and the winner is SPRIG ridden by Ted Leader.
  • 1928: TIPPERARY TIM wins a National in which only two horses finish after a pile up
    reduced the field. It is the lowest number of finishers in Grand National history.
  • 1934: GOLDEN MILLER wins the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season and no other horse has achieved that double.

Grand National history 1940s-1980s

  • 1947: It’s misty at Aintree and CAUGHOO beasts 56 rivals but some observers believe the horse only completed one circuit.
  • 1956: DEVON LOCH ridden by Dick Francis is well clear in the run-in and certain to win the race for the Queen Mother. Then he sprawls near the line and hands the race to ESB.
  • 1967: FOINAVON and John Buckingham’s famous win at 100/1 after the melee at the 23rd fence.
  • 1974: NEREO ridden by the Duke of Alburquerque completes the course giving the jockey his one ride over the full distance after several other attempts ended in injury.
  • 1977: RED RUM becomes the only horse to win three Nationals after also finishing second twice in five runs from the age of eight to 12.
  • 1979: RUBSTIC becomes the first winner trained in Scotland and is welcomed back to his stable by a piper.
  • 1981: ALDANITI is ridden by Bob Champion to win the National. The horse recovered from three serious injuries and the jockey beat cancer.
  • 1982: Dick Saunders wins on GRITTAR to become the oldest winning rider at 48. Geraldine Rees completes the course on Cheers, the first lady jockey to get round.
  • 1983: Aintree is bought by the Jockey Club and Jenny Pitman becomes the first winning female trainer thanks to CORBIERE.
  • 1987: Jim Joel becomes the oldest winning owner at 92 when MAORI VENTURE wins a thrilling National.

Grand National history – 1990s

  • 1993: The second false start still results in 30 of the 39 jockeys starting the race which is declared void. ESHA NESS trained by Jenny Pitman and ridden by John White passes the post first but the result does not count.
  • 1994: MIINNIEHOMA trained by Martin Pipe gives the owner, comedian Freddie Starr, a win in the National. Rosemary Henderson completes the course on her own horse FIDDLERS PIKE as a grandmother at the age of 51.
  • 1995: Jenny Pitman trains her second winner with a horse called ROYAL ATHLETE.
  • 1997: The race is postponed following two recognised IRA codes for potential bomb threats. The police made the course safe and 60,000 race goers left the track in an orderly manner. There were many vehicles left behind by their owners over the weekend. There were not enough hotel rooms in Liverpool so local residents welcomed many visitors into their homes. One tabloid headline said “We’ll fight them on the Becher’s” in a play on words with reference to Winston Churchill’s wartime speech. The following Monday 20,000 people were given free admission to see LORD GYLLENE win the rearranged Grand National at 14/1.
  • 1999: BOBBYJO is Ireland’s first winner for 24 years, trained by Tommy Carberry and ridden by his son Paul.

Grand National history – 2000s

  • 2000: Another father and son combination won the race with PAPILLON who was the subject of a massive gamble. It saw the horse backed from 33/1 to 10/1 before winning for the trainer Red Walsh with his son Ruby on board.
  • 2001: Four horses finished the race with RED MARAUDER coming out on top in atrocious conditions. There were no major injuries to any horse.
  • 2003: MONTY’S PASS wins the race which means the owner, Mike Flutter, nets over £1 million in ante post bets. It helped the horse shorten from 40/1 to a starting price of 16/1.
  • 2004: Ginger McCain adds to his three wins with Red Rum as AMBERLEIGH HOUSE wins the National after finishing third a year earlier.
  • 2005: HEDGEHUNTER ridden by Ruby Walsh becomes the first winner since Corbiere in 1983 to carry more than 11 stone. The main sponsor’s are now John Smith’s after taking over from Martell.
  • 2006: The new sponsors introduce the John Smith’s People’s race. It gives members of the public a chance to ride in a Flat race on Grand National day at Aintree. The event took place until 2010 but was then halted.
  • 2008: COMPLY OR DIE wins the race for trainer David Pipe who emulates his father in training a Grand National winner.
  • 2009: MON MOME is returned at 100/1 and becomes the biggest priced winner in Grand National history since Foinavon in 1967. Venetia Williams is the second female in Grand National history to train the winning horse.

Recent Grand National history

  • 2010: Tony McCoy finally wins his first race in Grand National history on DON’T PUSH IT, trained by Jonjo O’Neill and owned by JP McManus, after 15 rides. The win helps McCoy win the BBC Sport Personality of the Year Award.
  • 2011: BALLABRIGGS prevails trained by Donald McCain who wins the race for the first tim. He joins his father Ginger on the Grand National history roll of honour as the trainer of Red Rum and Amberleigh House.
  • 2012: NEPTUNE COLLONGES edges out Sunnyhillboy in a close finish to give Paul Nicholls his first win in the race. Seabass finishes third so Katie Walsh achieves the best result for a female jockey on a horse trained by her father, Ted.
  • 2013: AURORAS ENCORE wins the race at 66/1 for trainer Sue Smith who is married to the former show jumper, Harvey. There were only two fallers on the first circuit. Evan Williams trains a placed horse for the fifth time in five years.
  • 2014: The Grand National is worth £1 million for the first time and the winner is PINEAU DE RE trained by Dr Richard Newland who is not a full time trainer. Williams has another placed horse in the form of Alvarado.
  • 2015: MANY CLOUDS wins the race against Grand National history trends as an eight-year-old carrying 11st 9lbs. The horse is owned by Trevor Hemmings and it is his third win in the National.
  • 2016: RULE THE WORLD wins the National ridden by inexperienced jockey David Mullins and become a rare novice winner in Grand National history.
  • 2017: ONE FOR ARTHUR joins Rubstic as the only winners trained in Scotland in Grand National history. Lucinda Russell is only the fourth female trainer to win the race.
  • 2018: TIGER ROLL who won the cross country race at the Cheltenham Festival gives jockey Davy Russell his first win in the race.

In April 2019 another horse will become part of Grand National history. The race is one of the most famous in the world. Each renewal adds a chapter to the long and varied Grand National history. The race is unique for a number of reasons and for many years to come winners will add to the Grand National history.

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