What’s the oldest horse race run in Britain?

The Kiplingcotes Derby is reputedly the oldest and arguably the ‘wackiest’ horse race run in Britain. As the name suggests, the race has been run, on the third Thursday in March, on a four-mile course from Etton to Londesborough Wold Farm, near Kiplingcotes, a hamlet in the East Riding of Yorkshire, every year – with a few notable exceptions – since 1519. The course is virtually straight, but precipitous in part and easily waterlogged; country lanes, roadside verges and farmland all form part of the four-mile journey.

The traditional rules of the Kiplingcotes Derby state that if the race is not run once it can never be run again. So, in the event of cancellation – as happened in 1947, because of snow, 2001, because of foot-and-mouth disease, 2018, because of damage to the course and 2020, because of coronavirus –

a lone jockey ‘walks’ the course to ensure the survival of the race.

Horses and riders of any age or ability can enter, subject to payment of an entry fee and a minimum weight requirement of 10st 0lb, without tack; they simply need to assemble at the winning post by 11.00am on the morning of the race, for the formal reading of the rules. Paradoxically, also riders weigh in at the winning post before making their way to the start and racing back in the opposite direction. According to the rules, the winner receives fixed prize money of £50, but the runner-up receives 80% of the remainder of the entry fees on the day; at £5 per person, at the last count, it is not difficult to see how the winner often comes off second-best in terms of prize money.

Who is Nicky Henderson?

Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Henderson is the son of the late Major John ‘Johnny’ Henderson, a founder of the Racecourse Holdings Trust and, as such, credited with helping safeguard the future of Cheltenham Racecourse in the Sixties. The name of Nicky Henderson, too, is synonymous with Cheltenham, predominantly the Cheltenham Festival, where he has saddled 68 winners, making him the second most successful trainer in history, behind only perennial Irish Champion Trainer Willie Mullins.

Indeed, Henderson is the leading trainer in the history of both the Champion Hurdle, which he has won eight times and, jointly, alongside Tom Dreaper and Paul Nicholls, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, which he has won six times. He has also won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Stayers’ Hurdle twice apiece.

Henderson has also won the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship six times including, most recently, in 2019/20. The National Hunt season was brought to a premature end on March 25, as the result of the coronavirus pandemic but, at its close, Henderson had saddled 118 winners, including 15 at Graded level and, more importantly, amassed £2.53 million in total prize money; his seasonal total was £192,550 higher than his nearest rival, reigning Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls.

Henderson, who turns 70 in December, 2020, began his training career as assistant to eight-time Champion Trainer Fred Winter in 1974, before taking out a training licence in his own right four years later. He is currently based at Seven Barrows in Upper Lambourn, Berkshire, the yard to which he moved in 1992.

When was the Grand National last cancelled?

In mid-March, the Randox Grand National Festival, which was due to take place between April 2 and April 4, 2020, was cancelled, in its entirety, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Jockey Club Racecourses, which owns Aintree Racecourse, said that it was ‘no longer appropriate to stage the event’, adding that running the celebrated steeplechase behind closed doors was ‘no longer a viable consideration’.

Consequently, the Grand National roll of honour will be without a winner for the first time since the infamous ‘National that never was’ in 1993. On that occasion, a combination of circumstances, including disruption caused by animal rights’ protesters, led to two false starts, the second of which insufficiently signalled by the starter. The majority of the jockeys set off, with several completing the National Course, and the Jockey Club was forced to declare the result null and void.

In 1997, the so-called ‘Monday National’ was postponed by 48 hours after a coded IRA bomb warning, but the race was still run. The last time the Grand National was cancelled outright was in 1945, during the final months of World War II, at which point Aintree Racecourse was still commandeered by the Army.

What happened to the Grand National during World War I?

World War I officially began on July 28, 1914 and ended on November 11, 1918. The 1914 renewal of the Grand National was staged, as usual, at Aintree Racecourse on March 27, four months before the commencement of hostilities, and the 1915 renewal was also staged on Merseyside.

However, in 1916, Aintree Racecourse was requisitioned by the War Office and, under the auspices of Frederick Cathcart, who was, at the time, Chairman of Gatwick Racecourse, a substitute version of the Grand National, renamed the ‘Racecourse Association Steeplechase’, was run at the Surrey venue. Notwithstanding the fact that Gatwick Racecourse was right-handed rather than left-handed, the substitute race was run over the full Grand National distance and bona fide ‘National’ fences.

Subsequently renamed the ‘War Steeplechase’, the substitute Grand National was held at Gatwick Racecourse again in 1917 and 1918, before returning to Aintree Racecourse in 1919. The 1918 winner, Poethlyn, who was ridden by Ernie Piggott, grandfather of Lester Piggott, went on to win the Grand National ‘proper’ at Aintree the following year. Of course the 2020 Grand National was cancelled due to the Coronavirus, despite thoughts about holding it behind closed doors. I guess we needed a bit more of that wartime spirit!