As one of the most famous, if not the most famous, horse races in the world, the Grand National requires little introduction. Since its first ‘official’ running at Aintree Racecourse, in Merseyside, North West England in 1839, the celebrated steeplechase has been a British sporting institution. The Grand National course and fences have been ‘tweaked’, in the interest of safety, over the years, but the race remains a gruelling test of horse and rider. Participants must complete two complete circuits of the Grand National course, or a total distance of four miles and two-and-a-half furlongs, and negotiate thirty idiosyncratic obstacles, so the winner requires stamina, jumping ability, courage and, often, a slice of luck.
Indeed, some of the more famous, or infamous, winners of the Grand National have enjoyed more than their fair share of good fortune on their way to victory. The 1928 winner, Tipperary Tim, who was the first of five horses to win the Grand National at odds of 100/1, was one of just two finishers and the only one of the forty-two starters to complete the course unscathed. The 1967 winner, Foinavon, another 100/1 chance, took advantage of a mêlée at the twenty-third fence, caused by a loose horse, which effectively brought the rest of the field to a standstill and gifted him an unassailable lead. Indeed, since 1984, the fence at which the incident occurred – which, ironically, is the smallest fence on the Grand National course has been known as ‘Foinavon‘.
The other ‘named’ fences on the Grand National course, in the order that they are jumped, are Becher’s Brook, Canal Turn, Valentine’s Brook and The Chair. All of them are formidable obstacles, which have become famous in their own right. The Chair, which is jumped just once, as the penultimate fence on the first circuit, is the tallest, and broadest, on the Grand National course; the fence stands 5’3″ high, but is preceded by a 6′ wide ditch.
The Grand National was the brainchild of William Lynn, proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel in Liverpool and lessee of the land on which Aintree Racecourse now stands. Lynn based his idea on an existing race, known as the Great St. Albans Steeplechase, which had first been staged in 1830 and quickly developed into one of the sporting highlights of the year. The inaugural running of the race that would become the Grand National, originally known as the Liverpool Grand Steeplechase, took place in 1836, although the first ‘official’ running of the Grand National is generally regarded as the 1839 renewal of that race.
Unquestionably, the most famous horse in the history of the Grand National was Red Rum, trained by the late Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain. ‘Rummie’, as the horse was affectionately known, recorded back-to-back victories in 1973 and 1974 and, having finished second in 1975 and 1976, returned to Aintree, as a twelve-year-old, in 1977 and won an unprecedented third Grand National, by twenty-five lengths.