Although still known, at the time, as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase, the first ‘official’ running of the race that would become the Grand National is generally accepted to have taken place at Aintree Racecourse in Merseyside, North West England on February 26, 1839. In the earliest, pioneering days of the race, runners really did go ‘out into the country’, where they encountered an assortment of natural obstacles, including banks, ditches and watercourses. On their return to the ‘racecourse proper’, they did, indeed, face a 16′ wide stone wall, which is immortalised in a painting by contemporary British artist Charles Hunt.
The stone wall fell in, and out, of favour over the next few years before it was finally replaced, permanently, by the Water Jump – which remains the final fence on the first circuit and is jumped only once during the Grand National – in 1847. In 1840, Lottery, who had won the inaugural Grand National the previous year, took a terrible fall at the stone wall, bringing down the favourite, The Nun, and two other horses. The stone wall was replaced, temporarily, by an artificial brook, in 1841, but was reintroduced in 1843, at the behest of Irish participants. It was replaced by an artificial brush hurdle in 1844, before being reinstated in 1845 and being replaced, once again, by the same obstacle in 1846.
Along with Becher’s Brook, Valentine’s Brook, The Canal Turn and, more recently, Foinavon, The Chair is one of the fences on the Grand National Course that has become famous in its own right. At 5’3” high and 9’ wide, including a 6’ wide ditch on the take-off side, The Chair is one of the tallest and broadest fences on the National Course but, unlike the other ‘named’ fences, is jumped only once. That said, by contrast to say, Becher’s Brook, the ground on the landing side of The Chair is 6” higher than that on the take-off side, so the fence presents a unique test for horse and rider.
Originally known as the Monument Jump, The Chair took its name, quite literally, from the chair that originally stood on a concrete plinth alongside the fence and, in the early days of the Grand National, housed the distance judge. The distance judge was a course official who assisted the racecourse judge by declaring any horse that had not passed him when the previous finisher crossed the winning line to have been beaten a ‘distance’ and therefore, officially, have failed to finish. The distance judge became a thing of the past in the mid-eighteenth century, but the original chair remained – at least, until 1994, when it was replaced, for safety reasons, by a plastic replica – and the fence known as ‘The Chair’ has become part of the heritage of the Grand National.
Valentine’s Brook is, of course, one of the five ‘named’ fences on the Grand National course. Originally known simply as the ‘Second Brook’, Valentine’s Brook consists of a 5’ high fence, followed by a 5’6” wide brook, and is jumped as the ninth and twenty-fifth obstacles in the National. Valentine’s Brook is generally regarded the lesser of the two ‘brook’ fences but, like Becher’s Brook, owes its name to an event in the early history of the Grand National.
In 1840, in what was just the second ‘official’ running of the Grand National, a horse named Valentine set off lickety-split and, by the time he reached the obstacle that now bears his name, was well clear of his rivals. Valentine attempted to refuse, but his momentum carried him forward and, somehow, he corkscrewed, or pirouetted, over the fence, reputed landing hind legs first, with his jockey, John Power, still intact. After a remarkable recovery, Valentine continued and eventually finished third behind Jerry and Arthur.
Fences and hurdles or, more correctly, ‘flights’ of hurdles, are obstacles to be negotiated in different types of National Hunt race and, consequently, differ in their construction, height and rigidity. Fences, which are used for steeplechase races, are the more substantial, higher and less yielding of the two. Steeplechase fences typically consist of a rigid steel or wooden frame, filled with artificial or real birch, cut to size and bound together. With the exception of a water jump, all steeplechase fences must be a minimum of 4’ 6” in height. By contrast, hurdles, which are used, unsurprisingly, in hurdle races, consist of individual, lightweight panels of cut brushwood, each at least 3’6” in height. The panels are driven into the ground, side-by-side, at an angle, to create a ‘flight’ of hurdles at least 30’ wide and at least 3’1” high.