Grand National Race Guide: Track, History, and More

16 May 2021
par Jason Sanin

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The Grand National is the most famous steeplechase in the world. It attracts a huge global TV audience and is the biggest betting race in the UK. It is known as the People’s Race because millions of people who place a bet rarely bet on any other horse race or sporting event. If you want to find out more about the best* operators and offers, and check current odds for Cloth Cap and other favourites, you can click on the buttons below. 

*According to our writers’ opinion.

This Grand National guide looks at some of the information about the race, including the distance and the number of fences. There is also an FAQ section that answers some common questions about the race. We look at the best-backed horses and provide a form analysis of the leading contenders.

What Kind of Race is the Grand National?

There are plenty of different types of horse races, as this Grand National guide can attest to. There are flats races, where horses race around a flat track composed of dirt, grass or turf. Then there are steeplechase races, where horses have to complete a series of obstacles while simultaneously trying to outrun their opponents to get a win. The Grand National falls into the latter category, thanks to a series of obstacles that make things difficult for even the most elite competitors.

Grand National Fences and Course

The Grand National takes place at Aintree Racecourse, near Liverpool. It is run on the first or second Saturday in April. The race distance is 4 miles, two furlongs and 74 yards, which makes it the longest race in Britain. It used to be about one and a half furlongs longer.

However, the start was moved away from the grandstands to create a less feverish atmosphere for the horses and jockeys and prevent false starts. The start is closer to the first fence which is now reached a slower pace to prevent fallers.

The run-in, which is the distance from the last fence to the finishing line, is 494 yards. No other race in Britain has a run-in of this length. The course veers to the right about one furlong from the line. This part of the course is known as the Elbow because of the shape of the track.

There are 30 fences in the Grand National, 16 on the first circuit and 14 on the second circuit. All but two fences are jumped twice, the 15th and the 16th which are closes to the stands. The fences are made of spruce and look different from fences in regular steeplechases. There have been recent modifications to make the fences more forgiving and reduce the number of fallers.
Here is some information about the famous-named fences and the place in the order in which they are jumped and the height of the obstacles:

Becher’s Brook

  • Fence 6 and 22 – 5 feet.

Becher’s Brook is the most famous steeplechase fence in the world and is associated with the most famous race. A horse called Conrad fell at the fence in the first Grand National in 1839.
The jockey was called Captain Martin Becher who lay in the brook as the other horses cleared the jump. The danger of the obstacle was compounded by the landing side being three feet lower than the ground before the obstacle but that element has been eliminated for safety reasons.

Foinavon

  • Fence 7 and 23 – 4 feet six inches.

Foinavon is the smallest fence on the course and is taken after Becher’s Brook which presents the most demanding jumping challenge. There was a mass pile-up in 1967 which took virtually all the runners out of the race.

A horse called Foinavon was so far back that the jockey avoided the incident and negotiated the fence safely. Foinavon went on to win the Grand National that year at a Starting Price of 100/1. The horse was ridden by John Buckingham who went on to work as a jockey’s valet.

Canal Turn

  • Fence 8 and 24 – 5 feet.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal runs close to the course and the nearest point is at the 8th and 24th fence. The fence is followed by a left angle turn which means it must be jumped towards the inside to negotiate the change in direction.

If the fence is taken in a straight line, horses will struggle to change direction so they could end up running near to the canal or even into the canal. The runners must make the turn at the fence located near the canal.

Valentine’s Brook

  • Fence 9 and 25 – 5 feet.

Valentine’s Brook is the first of the four fences on the side of the track where horses are running back towards the finish of the race. On the second circuit at this obstacle, the leaders have a genuine chance to win the race.

The original name was the Second Brook. It was renamed Valentine’s Brook after the 1840 race due to a horse called Valentine clearing the fence hind legs first. The fence has similar features to Becher’s Brook but is easier to negotiate.

The Chair

  • Fence 15 – 5 feet and two inches.

The Chair is the first of the two obstacles that are only jumped once, on the first circuit. It is located close to the grandstand and finish and is the fence before the Water Jump which is also jumped just once.

The judge used to sit in a small chair by the side of the fence to have a good view of the finish and the finishing positions of the runners. The ditch before the fence makes the Chair one of the toughest jumping challenges of the Grand National and it can be pivotal.

Water Jump

  • Fence 16 – 2 feet and six inches.

The Water Jump is the smallest fence on the course but the challenge is not clearing the fence. The horses must clear a rectangle area of water immediately after the fence. The obstacle is located right in front of the stands.

The Elbow takes the runners away from the Water Jump and up the run-in to the finishing line. It is the easiest jump on the course and fallers are rare. However, if a horse does not clear the water there could be a loss of rhythm and position in the field.

grand national horse racing guide

What is the Grand National track surface?

When it comes to the surface of the course at Aintree, the Grand National is run on turf.

The surface can be more forgiving than dirt as it has a little more give to it. However, there are drawbacks with turf tracks as well. Namely, these tracks are difficult for horses in wet conditions or conditions that allow the surface to be less firm than normal. A soft surface can make it more difficult for the horses to retain their stamina, as they have to push harder to take each step than they would on a firm surface. This gets especially difficult when it comes time for various jumps, as having to push harder to clear the jumps on soft surfaces often results in failures to complete obstacles.

The jumps at the Grand National can be the difference between winning and losing. The ability to clear them is imperative, in spite of how difficult they can be to get by. On the course at Aintree, the highest jump is just over one and a half meters tall. Perhaps the biggest challenge on the course, the ability to clear that hurdle can often propel a horse to a very strong finish in the Grand National.

The Grand National is also a handicap race, which is a crucial component to a horse’s success in the race. In order to try and keep things even among the competitors, a weight handicap is applied to each one. This can make things much more difficult when horses attempt to navigate the course and the jumps that come with it. But any horse who is able to do so despite the weight that is added to them is definitely a worthy champion, according to this Grand National guide.

How to Win the Grand National?

While this Grand National guide has gone over the course and a brief history of the event, it would be remiss if it didn’t offer up anything on how to win the race. The winners of Grand Nationals past tend to have similar characteristics that enable them to run and jump past the competition to put their names in the history books. Here are a few traits that tend to suit Grand National winners.

Poise

Poise is important in any sporting event. The ability to ignore the pressures around you and deliver a top-notch performance is key. In the Grand National, this means the ability for horse and jockey to avoid being overly aggressive or cautious because of the stage they are on. Given all of the training that these competitors do, just being able to avoid outside influence and run the best possible race is imperative.

Consistency

All of the poise in the world doesn’t matter if a horse cannot approach each jump in a consistent fashion every time. Doing so allows the jockey to remain atop the horse and for the horse to remain on its feet. So much of Grand National success hinges on simply remaining upright that being able to consistently leap from one obstacle to the next is one of the best possible traits a horse can have.

As you can see, the Grand National is a great tradition in sport for a reason. With a rich history, famous course, and plenty of positive traits needed to succeed, there is no doubt that anyone who can win this race is a true champion.

Enjoy this article? If you’re having a flutter on the big race, find out about the best Grand National betting offers.

grand national race guide

Grand National History

The Grand National has been around in some form since the 1800s, with the race booming in popularity since then. During the century plus of racing that has gone down at the Grand National, there have been no shortage of historic moments that have taken place at the event. There have also been a lot of simply entertaining races between some elite horses as well.

Of course, when it comes to memorable Grand National moments, the five winners of the race from 100/1 odds come to mind. Those five winners were Tipperary Tim in 1928, Gregalach in 1929, Caughoo in 1947, Foinavon in 1967, and Mon Mome in 2009. Given their longshot statuses, these are easily the biggest upsets in the history of the event. And lest you think that these five horses are complete flukes, keep in mind that 20 horses have won the Grand National with odds of 40/1 or higher.

Thanks to the volatility of the race due to all of the obstacles in it, longshots have as good a chance of anyone enduring the course and getting the win.

Grand National FAQ

Here are the answers to some common questions about the Grand National:

When is the Virtual Grand National 2021?

The Virtual Grand National will be broadcasted on the night before the Grand National race on April 9. Tiger Roll won the Virtual Grand National in 2018 and the actual race that year.

When was the First Grand National?

There was a long-distance steeplechase run at Maghull, which is close to Aintree, in 1836, 1837 and 1838. The first Aintree version took place at the track on February 26, 1839, and was known as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase. Historians now see this as the first official Grand National.

How to Pick a Grand National Winner?

However, recent modifications to the course and fences have changed the nature of the challenge. The following factors should be considered in trying to identify potential winners of the Grand National: Age, weight, jumping records, course experience, Grand National experience, chase experience, going, form, trainer and jockey.

Following recent trends can eliminate many runners which can leave a shortlist of about 10 horses who have the experience and proven jumping ability and stamina to win the Grand National 2021.

Who is the Most-Backed Aintree 2021 Favourite?

The betting for the Grand National 2021 took on a different shape when Tiger Roll was withdrawn. The winner in 2018 and 2019 could have been the first horse to win three Grand Nationals in succession as there was no race in 2020.

Cloth Cap has been the most impressive contender in key trials and prep races and is now a very short price for a Grand National to win the Aintree marathon.

EVENT DATES:  8nd-10th April 2021

DAY 1: Thursday 08 April Grand National

DAY 2: Friday 09 April Ladies Day

DAY 3: Saturday 10th April Grand National Day

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