A is for Aldaniti, who, like his jockey Bob Champion, made a comeback
against all the odds to win the Grand National in 1981, a feat immortalised by the film
“Champions”. A is also for Aintree, Liverpool L10, which staged its first Flat race in
1829, and the Liverpool Grand Steeplechase in February 1836 and for Amateurs – plenty
of amateur jockeys have upstaged their professional rivals in the National, with the
last member of the unpaid ranks to taste victory being journalist Marcus Armytage, who won
on Mr Frisk in 1990. Eight years earlier, amateur Dick Saunders became the oldest winning
jockey in the race, when partnering Grittar to victory, aged 48. Mr Bretherton was the first successful amateur – aboard Jerry in 1840.
B is for Captain Martin William Becher, who, riding
20-1 shot Conrad in the first Grand National in 1839, took a soaking
when his mount fell in a specially constructed water jump – the sixth and 22nd fence – which became
known as Becher’s Brook. “I never knew water tasted so foul without whisky in it”, he remarked.
This 1907 picture of the landing side of Becher’s Brook gives you some idea of the scale of the fence.
C is for The Chair, at 5ft 2in, with a 6 foot wide ditch on the take-off side, it is Aintree’s most daunting obstacle.
The famous fence is actually only jumped once and is named after its position, which is opposite the ‘seat’ reserved for the ‘distance’ judge.
It is located at the site of the accident that claimed the only human life in the National’s history: in 1862, Joe Wynne fell here and died from his injuries.
This brought about the ditch on the take-off side of the fence in an effort to slow the horses on approach.
The ground on the landing side is six inches higher than on the takeoff side, creating the opposite effect of the drop at Becher’s.
The fence was originally known as the Monument Jump but The Chair came into more regular use in the 1930s.
C is also for Channel 4, who broadcast the Grand National meeting coverage in 2013 – the first time in the race’s history that it had been televised anywhere other than on the BBC – and for Crabbie’s new sponsor of the event from 2014, which saw the first £1 million prize fund for the contest – the partnership renewed Crabbie’s owner, Halewood International’s, longstanding relationship with Aintree and racing on a wider level. Halewood International’s founder, the late John Halewood, owned the Ginger McCain-trained Amberleigh House, who won the 2004 Grand National and the 2001 Becher Chase. During his career, the top-class chaser competed 11 times over the famous Grand National fences.
D is for Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse who was assured of victory in
the 1956 National when, with a 10-length lead, he inexplicably did the
splits 50 yards from the line, almost depositing dumbstruck Dick Francis on the
turf. To ‘do a Devon Loch’ therefore means to pluck defeat from the jaws of
victory. D is also for Distance: the winning margin equivalent to more than 30 lengths, which
was last achieved in the 2001 Grand National, when Red Marauder led four finishers home.
Only the winner and Smarty put in a clear round, as Blowing Wind and Papillon were remounted.
Other horses to win the race by a distance are Cloister (1893), Covertcoat (1913), Shaun Splash (1921), Tipperary Tim (1928) and Mr What (1958).
E is for Elbow, the kink in the 494-yard run-in, where Grand National fortunes
have changed so dramatically. In 1973, an eight-year-old called Red Rum
overhauled the brave top weight Crisp and Richard Pitman to clinch the honours and, 18 years later,
Seagram did the same to Pitman’s son Mark, aboard Gold Cup winner
Garrison Savannah. E is also for Early Mist – the first of Vincent O’Brien’s three
straight Grand National winners between 1953 and 1955, with Royal Tan and Quare Times
taking the following two renewals, making the legendary handler the only person to
saddle three winners in a row.
F is for Foinavon, the 100-1 outsider (444-1 on the Tote) for the 1967 race,
who skipped clear of his rivals who were caught in a pile-up at the 23rd fence, the
4ft 6in obstacle that now bears his name. The rider less Popham Down had caused chaos,
bringing almost the whole field to a standstill, except Foinavon, who was so far back
his jockey had time to go round the melee and jump the fence miles clear. Foinavon was
so unfancied his owner and trainer didn’t turn up to watch! F is also for Fences – there are 16 on the
National course, of which 14 are jumped twice, making 30 in all, and for Five Fifteen, the new starting time for the great race from 2016, a change designed to allow even more people to view the spectacle around the world.
Each Grand National fence is made from a wooden frame and covered with distinctive spruce branches sourced from forests in the Lake District
G is for Golden Miller, the 1934 winner and the only horse in history to land the Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season.
G is also for Gambles – the plunge from 33-1 to 10-1 on Papillon in 2000 cost the bookies £10million – and for Greys – only three have ever won the race:
The Lamb won twice in 1868 and 1871, while Nicolaus Silver and Neptune Collognes are the only greys in the last two centuries to win, (in 1961 and 2013 respectively).
H is for Bruce Hobbs, the youngest Grand National winning jockey – he was just 17 when he
drove Battleship to a narrow success in 1938, and for Handicap – with the
horses allotted different weights, from 11st 10lb down to 10st, meaning that all 40
runners should theoretically cross the finishing line together. Senior BHB handicapper
Phil Smith has had plenty of criticism from trainers in the past, and a few of them may
have wished that he’d carried out his threat of throwing himself off the Aintree grandstand
if the 2003 Grand National winner scored by more than seven lengths. Monty’s Pass romped home by 12.
I is for Ireland, which has supplied six of the last seventeen National heroes (although Silver Birch was their last winner in 2007), and for Ilex – in 1890, renowned gambler George Masterman reckoned his horse was “a certainty” under 10st 5lb. He was right – Ilex was sent off the 4-1 favourite and won easily. I is also for ITV who won the right to screen the big race on terrestrial TV from 2017.
J is for jockeys, the almost certifiable men on top. George Stevens is the
most successful jockey in National history, winning five times (1856, 1863,
1864, 1869 and 1870) – twice more than anyone else. Ruby Walsh and Leighton Aspell have been the jockeys to follow
in the Grand National in recent years, with two wins each. Since 2012, any jockey – amateur or professional – riding in the Grand National must have ridden at least 10 winners over fences and a minimum of 15 in total in hurdles and chases. J is also for Jim Joel, whose
Maori Venture scored in 1987. He is the oldest winning owner, at 92.
The jockey room at Aintree racecourse, where jockeys prepare for the big race
K is for Count Graf Karl Kinsky, the Austro-Hungarian nobleman who became
the first rider from outside the British Isles to compete in the Grand National,
winning on his debut when his mare Zoedone beat just nine rivals – the
smallest-ever field assembled for the race – to score in 1883.
L is for Lottery, the winner of the first Grand National in 1839, who was aptly named,
given the part played by chance in every running. L is also for Last Suspect, who
sprang a 50-1 shock in 1985 and who is remembered for trainer and arch pessimist Captain Tim Forster’s final words to jockey Hywel Davies: “Keep remounting.”
M is for Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain, the Southport-born car salesman and part-time taxi driver who
trained Red Rum to win three Grand Nationals (1973, 1974 and 1977), before
saddling 2004 winner Amberleigh House. M is also for the Melling Road, which the
runners cross on the way to the first fence and Manifesto: the epitome of a Grand National horse who
ran in the race eight times between 1897 and 1904. He won twice, finished third three times, came
fourth once and eighth on his final start, aged 16! He only once failed to complete.
The Melling Road dissects Aintree racecourse
N is for Nickel Coin, who in 1951 became the 13th and most recent mare to land the Grand National
and for None: the number of Grand National winners ridden by champion jockeys Peter Scudamore and John Francome.
Scudamore managed one third on Corbiere in 1985, while Francome finished second in 1980 and third in 1979 on Rough And Tumble.
Arguably the greatest pilot of them all, Tony McCoy, broke his Grand National duck aboard Don’t Push It in 2010, whilst Paul Nicholls trained his first winner in 2012,
courtesy of Neptune Collognes. N is also for Nose, being Neptune Collonges’ winning margin in 2012 and the shortest in the history of the race.
O is for Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the ‘Voice of Racing’ who delivered his first
commentary on the race on radio in 1947, switching to television 13 years
later. O’Sullevan’s final Grand National call was for Lord Gyllene’s win in 1997,
49 hours later than expected, owing to an IRA bomb scare. O is also for Owners: holiday
camp magnate Fred Pontin celebrated success in the 1971 Grand National with Specify,
a win which inspired Trevor Hemmings to get into racehorse ownership, and he in turn tasted victory at Aintree with Hedgehunter in 2005, Ballabriggs in 2011 and Many Clouds in 2016. 1976 winner, Rag Trade, was owned by Raymond Bessone. Bessone was better known as Mr Teasy-Weasy. He is widely regarded as Britain’s first celebrity hairdresser and had his own show at Saturday teatime.
P is for Jenny Pitman – dubbed the ‘Queen of
Aintree’ – successful with Corbiere in 1983 and Royal Athlete 12 years later, and the
first woman to have trained a National winner. Her son Mark trained Smarty, who
finished second to Red Marauder in 2001. P is also for Party Politics, who scored for
coincidence backers in 1992 – his win came five days before the General Election.
Party Politics, ridden by Carl Llewellyn, winning the 1992 Grand National
Q is for the Queen Mother, who philosophically
observed: “Well that’s racing,” as her Devon Loch capsized 50 yards from the line in the 1956
National. Q is also for Quare Times, who gave Vincent O’Brien an unprecedented Grand
National hat-trick in 1955. Three years later O’Brien switched from jumping
to concentrate on the Flat and won the Derby just the six times!
R is for Red Rum, the world’s most famous racehorse. Having dead-heated for
an Aintree selling plate the day before Foinavon’s success in 1967, ‘Rummy’,
exercised on Southport beach by Ginger McCain, returned to land the 1973 and 1974 Grand Nationals. Second in each
of the two following years, he became the only three-time victor in 1977,
and is now buried by the winning post. R is also for Geraldine Rees, who became the first woman to complete
the National, on Cheers in 1982, and Fred Rimell, who trained four different horses to win the Grand National between 1956-76 including a grey, Nicolaus Silver. Finally, R is for Reserves – since 2000, every year bar one (2004) has seen a full field of 40 line up. This is partly due to a system of reserves begun in 2000. Runners are declared 48 hours before the race and up to four reserves can be utilised the previous day if one of the original declarations is a non-runner by 9am.
Red Rum, ridden by Tommy Stack, winning his third Grand National in 1977
S is for Dick Saunders, whose victory as a 48-year-old amateur on Grittar in
1982 – his only ride in the race – makes him the oldest Grand National-winning
rider. S is also for Tommy Stack who was on board for Red Rum’s historic third win, while 1991
hero Seagram is another for the coincidence fans – Seagram sponsored the race.
Finally, S is for Spectators: crowds of around 70,000 racegoers flock to Aintree on Grand National day,
while the estimated worldwide audience is 600 million, with the race being distributed to around 140 countries.
T is for Nigel Twiston-Davies, who stunned the BBC’s Des
Lynam after Earth Summit’s 1998 victory with a brusque: “I don’t do
interviews.” He was more forthcoming after Bindaree’s win in 2002. T is also for the
heroic John Thorne, a 54-year-old amateur who chased home Aldaniti on
Spartan Missile in 1981. Finally T is for Topham: the family involved in the creation
of the great race. Mr Edward William Topham was part of the original syndicate
which first staged races at Aintree, and he took over the lease of the course in 1848,
which remained within the family until it was sold in 1973. The track is now
part of Jockey Club Racecourses.
U is for the USA. With a staple
diet of boring six-furlong claiming races, is it any wonder Americans are
fascinated by the most pulsating horse race on the planet? Both Jay Trump
(1965) and Ben Nevis (1980) started life over fences in the USA before winning
the Grand National. US owners have won on ten occasions, including in 1938 with Battleship, who was
owned by actor Randolph Scott’s wife Marion Du Pont Scott. The most recent US-owned winner
was Betty Moran’s Papillon in 2000.
V is for Valentine’s. In 1840 Irish amateur rider Alan Power had a big bet
he would reach the (then) stone wall fence first on front-running outsider
Valentine. He did, and his horse gave his name to the lesser of Aintree’s
two brook fences. V is also for Void race: the infamous 1993 running of the Grand National
was declared void after chaotic scenes at the start. With some horses getting tangled up
in the starting tape, a false start was announced, but 30 of the 39 starters failed to heed
the false start notice and though Jenny Pitman’s Esha Ness completed the course in first,
the race was declared void.
W is for weights. The biggest weight carried in the race is 13st 4lb by 1839 winner Lottery when he returned in 1841, only to be pulled up at Becher’s second time. Horses carrying more than 11st have had a better record in recent years, with Hedgehunter in 2005, Don’t Push It in 2010, Neptune Collognes in 2012 and Many Clouds in 2016 all carrying more than 11st to victory. The most carried to victory is 12st 7lb, by four horses, Cloister (1893), Manifesto (1899), Jerry M (1912) and Poethlyn (1919). Incredibly, Manifesto returned in 1890, to carry 12st 13lb and finish third.
X is for X-ray, which brings us to the eccentric aristocrat Beltran de Osorio y Diez de Rivera. The
“Iron” Duke of Albuquerque was a true Grand National nutter who between 1952 and 1976 had seven rides in the race,
the last aged 57, completing once (he finished eighth on Nereo in 1974) falling three times and pulling up twice.
He sustained, by his own reckoning, 107 fractures at Aintree, including a broken leg, cracked vertebrae and broken ribs.
He was declared medically unfit to ride in the race in 1977.
Y is for Arthur Yates, whose Grand National career is one of
extreme fortunes. Playman, Yates’s first runner, was
running loose when he fell and killed jockey James Wynne in 1862. But Yates
returned to win the race with Roquefort in 1885 and Cloister, who carried
12st 7lb to win by 40 lengths, in 1893. The Youngest jockey to win the Grand National
was Bruce Hobbs, who was aged just 17 when he triumphed on board Battleship in the 1938 renewal of the race.
Z is for Zoedone, the mare who holds the record as the slowest Grand National
winner – she recorded a time of 11m 39s. Owned and ridden by Bohemian diplomat
Count Charles Kimsky – the mare won the 1883 renewal of the Grand National, the first time the Count had ridden in the race.
Z is also for Zongalero, Nicky Henderson’s first runner in the race when second to Rubstic in 1979 – and
still the Seven Barrows trainer’s best placing.