The Grand National at Aintree has been a British sporting institution since 1839, when a horse called Lottery won the inaugural running and Captain Becher parted company with his horse at a now world famous brook.
In those days, the horses had to jump a stone wall, cross a stretch of ploughed land and finish over two hurdles. The race was then known as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.
The course was founded by William Lynn, a syndicate head and proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel, on land he leased in Aintree from William Molyneux, 2nd Earl of Sefton. Lynn set out a course, built a grandstand, and Lord Sefton laid the foundation stone on 7 February 1829.
There is actually much debate regarding the first official Grand National; some leading published historians, including John Pinfold, now prefer the idea that the first running was in 1836 and was won by The Duke. This same horse won again in 1837, while Sir William was the winner in 1838. These races have long been disregarded because of the belief that they took place at Maghull and not Aintree.
However, some historians have unearthed evidence in recent years that suggest those three races were run over the same course at Aintree and were regarded as having been Grand Nationals up until the mid-1860. Contemporary newspaper reports place all the 1836-38 races at Aintree although the 1839 race is the first described as “national”. To date, though, calls for the Nationals of 1836–1838 to be restored to the record books have been unsuccessful.
In 1838 and 1839 three significant events occurred to transform the Liverpool race from a small local affair to a national event. Firstly, the Great St. Albans Chase, which had clashed with the steeplechase at Aintree, was not renewed after 1838 leaving a major hole in the chasing calendar.
Secondly, the railway arrived in Liverpool, enabling transport to the course by rail for the first time.
Finally, a committee was formed to better organise the event.
These factors led to a more highly publicised race in 1839 which attracted a larger field of top quality horses and riders, greater press coverage and an increased attendance on race day. Over time the first three runnings of the event were quickly forgotten to secure the 1839 race its place in history as the first official Grand National.
By the 1840s, Lynn’s ill-health blunted his enthusiasm for Aintree. Edward Topham, a respected handicapper and prominent member of Lynn’s syndicate, began to exert greater influence over the National. He turned the chase into a handicap in 1843 after it had been a weight-for-age race for the first four years, and took over the land lease in 1848. One century later, the Topham family bought the course outright.
Later in the century the race was the setting of a thriller by the popular novelist Henry Hawley Smart.
The Grand National has produced a colourful array of stories throughout its illustrious past. Here are our favourites, including some famous video clips:
It was over 40 years ago now that Red Rum recorded the first of the three victories in the Grand National that earned him pride of place in the record books forever. He still remains the only horse to have won the Grand National three times and, as that statistic suggests, the great horse was a phenomenon.
Bred to be a sprinter, Red Rum went on to win the gruelling four-and-a-half mile chase in 1973, 1974 and 1977, as well as finishing second on his other two starts, to become the greatest Grand National performer ever. All of this was achieved after overcoming the debilitating bone disease pedalosteitis, which should have rendered him unraceable. However, fate stepped in: Red Rum was at probably the only yard in the country where the training took place on a beach. The sea water, into which trainer Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain banished Red Rum after viewing the hobbling horse, worked an amazing transformation.
On 31 March, 1973, he started 9/1 favourite for his first Grand National. However, by the time the runners had reached the Chair the giant Australian chaser, Crisp, who was shouldering top weight of 12st (a weight that is now forbidden in the National), had built up a massive lead and appeared unstoppable with four fences to go. But, conceding 23lb to Red Rum, his stamina started to wane and he slowly began to falter at the famous Elbow after being more than 15 lengths in front of his rival at the last. Red Rum gradually wore Crisp down, getting up on the line to beat him by three-quarters of a length in a then record time of 9 min 1.9 sec, knocking nearly 20 seconds off Golden Miller’s previous best under 12st 2lb in 1934 – this new record would stand for the next 16 years. You can watch this incredible race and finish here:
Red Rum was never better than in the 1973/74 season when he won four more races before collecting his second Grand National, this time carrying the maximum weight of 12st. Giving 1lb to the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, L’Escargot, Red Rum started third favourite at 11/1, racing off a mark nearly two stone higher than for his 1973 victory. He was the first to achieve the double since Reynoldstown in 1936. Only three weeks later, Red Rum won the Scottish Grand National as the 11/8 favourite under 11st 13lb.
It was then presumed that, having reached a zenith, Red Rum’s talent would gradually decline in keeping with the rolling years. Between the autumn of 1974 and the spring of 1976, he ran in 18 chases, winning twice and being placed seven times. But he also gallantly failed to resist first L’Escargot and then Rag Trade in the 1975 and 1976 Grand National’s.
The 1976/77 season began dismally. After an initial small win at Carlisle, Red Rum appeared totally lacklustre in his next four races, and even McCain began to think that he might have “gone”.
A foul winter had waterlogged the Southport sands, making them useless for training purposes, but Red Rum finally showed something like his old sparkle in his prep race for the 1977 Grand National, the Greenall Whitley Chase at Haydock. Worries about the now 12-year-old gelding’s unwonted bulk abated when, in his last gallop before Aintree, he dazzled McCain and assorted members of the press who had gathered to watch.
Ridden by Tommy Stack, as he had been in 1976, Red Rum tackled his fifth Grand National in 1977. In the lead from the eighth last, Red Rum appeared momentarily to have a challenger in Churchtown Boy, but the latter’s mistake at the third last compared with Red Rum’s foot-perfect agility soon settled things in Rummy’s favour. The noise of the cheering crowd was deafening as he led up the long run-in, winning by 25 lengths under 11st 8lb and you can watch the historic race below:
In 1976, Red Rum had given Eyecatcher 17lb and beat her by eight lengths; in 1977, he gave her 21lb and a 31-length beating, rating an improvement at the age of 12 of two stone. The treble, five years in the making, had been achieved.
The celebrations in Southport which received the three-time Grand National winner home were long and rapturous. But the greatest Aintree horse of all time was not yet finished. Up until the morning of the 1978 Grand National, Red Rum was being trained for a sixth attempt at the great race.
He had run well all season, amassing two seconds and a fourth under mighty weights in his five races. But, after his customary pre-National work-out on the day before the big race, Red Rum pulled up lame. The problem proved to be a hairline fracture and the horse had to be retired.
Retired, that is, from the realm of racing. But Red Rum’s career as a celebrity continued – a role to which he was as well-adapted as to tackling the Aintree fences. He thrived as the centre of attention, as anyone who saw the 1977 episode of Sports Personality of the Year Awards can testify. Hearing the voice of Tommy Stack, who was speaking from his hospital bed with a broken pelvis, Red Rum immediately pricked his ears, displaying the great intelligence and showmanship so evident in the horse throughout his life. He went on to lead the parade in many Grand Nationals.
Red Rum died on Wednesday, October 18, 1995 and was buried by the winning post on Aintree’s Grand National course. His grave is marked by an engraved stone listing his Grand National record, and a life-size bronze commemorates this legendary competitor, along with a race staged at the Grand National meeting, the Red Rum Chase, named in the great horse’s memory.
There was hardly a dry eye among the crowd when Aldaniti won the Grand National in 1981. It was a victory for both courage and determination in the face of adversity.
In late 1979, Bob Champion, the successful jockey, was told that he had cancer and only months to live, while Aldaniti had almost been retired because of leg trouble. Against all the odds, the gallant partnership held on to beat Spartan Missile, ridden by John Thorne, a 54-year-old grandfather and amateur rider.
The winner’s true-life story inspired the 1983 film Champions, starring John Hurt. Aldaniti died at the age of 27 in March, 1997. Bob Champion made a full recovery and, with the help of Aldaniti, has raised millions of pounds for cancer research.
Aldaniti’s name was a jumble from the names of four grandchildren of his breeder, Tommy Barron: ALastair and DAvid Cook plus NIcola and TImothy Barron.
The Pitman family has a special association with the Grand National. In 1983, Jenny Pitman became the first woman to train a winner of the race when Corbiere beat Greasepaint. She followed up this victory in 1995 with Royal Athlete who succeeded at the long odds of 40/1, but experienced heartbreak when Esha Ness “won” the 1993 void race.
Mark, her son, must have gone through similar emotions when he was caught in the dying strides by Seagram whilst riding Garrison Savannah in 1991, also trained by his mother. Garrison Savannah was bidding for an historic double – and to emulate the great Golden Miller – having won the Cheltenham Gold Cup a few weeks earlier.
Years earlier, Richard Pitman, then-husband to Jenny and Mark’s father, was caught even closer to the winning post by Red Rum, the Aintree specialist, when he partnered the gallant top weight Crisp in 1973.
Mrs Pitman was awarded an OBE in the 1998 New Year’s Honours List and in the same year fought a successful battle against cancer. She has now retired from training as, for the time being, has her son Mark who carried on the family tradition for a while (he trained Smarty to finish second in 2001 when only four horses completed the course in terrible conditions, and sixth in 2004).
Jenny Pitman was also one of the first batch of inductees to the Grand National Legends (the Hall of Fame-style initiative that was established in 2010), along with Red Rum and his trainer, Ginger McCain.
Watch Corbiere win the 1983 Grand National ahead of Greasepaint:
The 1956 National is remembered more for the defeat of Devon Loch than for the victory of ESB. Owned by Her Majesty The Queen Mother, Devon Loch had the race won when he inexplicably gave a half-leap just 50 yards from the finish, sprawling and almost unseating Dick Francis, the unfortunate jockey, and leaving the crowd stunned. Afterwards, The Queen Mother famously said “That’s racing”.
Debate still rages as to why the incident happened – according to some reports, Devon Loch suffered a cramp in the hindquarters and this caused the collapse. However, other reports claim that a shadow thrown by the water jump (which horses only jump on the first circuit of the Aintree course) may have confused Devon Loch into thinking another leap was required and – unsure as to whether he should or not – he half-jumped and collapsed. Reports that the horse had suffered a heart attack were dismissed, as Devon Loch recovered far too quickly for that to have been the case.
Whatever the truth, the incident so puzzled Francis that he became a thriller writer, inventing mysteries himself and over the decades Francis learned to be as philosophical. As did his wife Mary who once said that had he won the Grand National there would have been no bestselling autobiography and no thrillers.
“As I said in my autobiography, an ambulance came by and the driver said, ‘Jump in the back!’ I was never more pleased to get away from all the people who were rushing towards me. What happened? I’ve thought about it time and time again…I remember jumping the last fence and I could hear the crescendo of cheering building up in the stands. There were 500,000 people there that day. They were all cheering for the Queen Mother. She was there and the Queen was there and Princess Margaret was there.” Francis is quoted as saying.
“I never thought about it at the time but I heard them cheering and I just rode to the finish. I was winning easily. I didn’t have to pick up my stick or anything like that. I’ve looked at the newsreel time and again and as the horse approaches the water jump – which this time round he didn’t need to cross – you can see him prick up his ears and gallop past it. As he pricked up its ears – Christ! – his hindquarters refused to act and down he went on to his belly. How I didn’t fall off him I don’t know.”
Devon Loch is a metaphor now used in modern day sports and otherwise to explain the sudden, last-minute failure of teams or a sportsman to complete an expected victory, e.g. “United can only hope Arsenal do a Devon Loch.”
Dick Francis died of natural causes on 14 February 2010 at his Caribbean home in Grand Cayman, by which time he had written 40 international best-sellers.
Watch Devon Loch sprawl on the run-in to the 1956 Grand National, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and allowing ESB to claim an unlikely success:
Devon Loch spread-eagled on the run-in at the 1956 Grand National
Foinavon sensationally won the 1967 National in bizarre circumstances. At the smallest fence on the second circuit, the 23rd, the riderless Popham Down cut right across the course causing a pile-up that almost brought the entire field to a standstill. John Buckingham, Foinavon’s jockey, was able to steer his mount wide of the melee and thus won on the 100/1 outsider.
The Aintree executive named the fence in honour of the horse – fence 7 or 23 (depending on the circuit), at 4ft 6in, one of the smallest jumps on the course, is situated between the more daunting Becher’s Brook and the Canal Turn.
Foinavon has sometimes been likened to a slow plodding carthorse, but records show that his 1967 winning time was one of the fastest in this gruelling race. Equally, this so called no-hoper had taken part in some top class races before attempting the Grand National and he had finished fourth in a King George and took part in a Gold Cup at Cheltenham, so perhaps his odds of 100/1 may have been a bit generous (although the Tote SP was 444/1). Nevertheless, his owner was so unenthusiastic about his chances that he was not even at Aintree for the great race.
Buckingham said later that at the time he did not realise that they were the only pair to jump the fence at the first attempt but he just kept going. Although some 17 horses remounted and finished the race the distance Foinavon had “stolen” at the obstacle meant that he led over the final seven fences to go on to collect his prize, 15 lengths clear of the fast-closing favourite, Honey End, and Red Alligator, who went on to win in 1968.
Foinavon did also run in the following year’s Grand National but fell or was brought down at the water jump.
Foinavon was at one time owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, whose colours were also carried by the much superior Arkle – both were named after Scottish mountains. She also owned Last Suspect who won the 1985 Grand National.
Watch the 1967 Grand National, courtesy of British Pathé (scroll to around 1 minutes, 20 seconds to see all the drama unfold):
The commentary of Michael O’Hehir of the carnage at the 23rd fence ranks among the most famous in the history of BBC televised sport and is often shown when BBC Sport puts together nostalgic montages of great sporting moments. O’Hehir received particular respect from his peers for the speed and unflustered coolness with which he identified Foinavon as the horse emerging from the mêlée. O’Hehir later said in an interview that it was precisely the unfamiliarity of Foinavon’s colours that made him so instantly recognisable during the race. O’Hehir visited the weighing room before the race, as is the custom of many National commentators, to familiarise himself more clearly with the colours of the silks but found himself completely stumped when looking at the black with red and yellow braces being worn by John Buckingham. Eventually O’Hehir had to ask Buckingham who his mount was. A confused O’Hehir said that his racecard showed two-tone green quarters, as worn by the rider in the Cheltenham Gold Cup a few weeks earlier, but Buckingham explained that the owner felt green to be unlucky and so had registered new colours for the National.
The “Iron” Duke of Alburquerque
Beltrán Alfonso Osorio y Díez de Rivera, known as the “Iron” Duke of Albuquerque (1918-1994), surely ranks as the worst jockey in horse-racing history. After receiving a film of the Grand National as a gift for his eighth birthday, the Duke became obsessed with it: “I said then that I would win that race one day,” he later recalled. He nearly died trying.
This magnificently barking mad Spanish aristocrat and amateur jockey entered the Grand National seven times with impressively consistent results. Generally he would start with the others, gallop briefly and then wake up in the Royal Liverpool Infirmary (where apparently he always booked a private room when he rode in the race). Each year, Sir Peter O’Sullevan would gravely intone: “And the Duke of Albuquerque’s gone”.
On his first attempt in 1952, he fell from his horse at the sixth fence, nearly broke his neck and woke up later in hospital with a cracked vertebra. His next try was in 1963, when he fell from his horse yet again, this time at the fourth fence. Undeterred, he returned in 1965 but again fell from his horse after it collapsed underneath him, breaking his leg.
His ineptitude was so apparent that in 1963 bookies even offered odds of 66/1 – against him even finishing the race atop his horse!
He returned in 1973 when his stirrup broke, although he clung on for eight fences before being sent into inevitable orbit.
In 1974, after having sixteen screws removed from a leg he had broken after falling in another race, he also fell while training for the Grand National and broke his collarbone. Nevertheless, he then competed in a plaster cast, this time actually managing to finish the race for the only time in his splendid career, but only in eighth (and last) place aboard Nereo: “I sat like a sack of potatoes and gave the horse no help” he said after the race.
One anecdote from this race is that he barged into Ron Barry at the second Canal Turn; Barry said “What the f*** are you doing?” to which he replied: “My dear chap I haven’t a clue…I’ve never got this far before!”
In 1976, he sustained his most serious injuries after being trampled in a race by several other horses. He suffered seven broken ribs, several fractured vertebrae, a broken wrist and thigh, and a major concussion, and was in a coma for two days. After recovering he announced, at the age of 57, that he planned to race yet again. Race organisers wisely revoked his license “for his own safety”.
Though the Iron Duke never won the Grand National, he certainly broke more bones than any other jockey in attempting to do so.
Notable Dates In Grand National History
1837: THE DUKE wins the first Great Liverpool Steeplechase at Maghull, some three miles from the present site of Aintree racecourse.
1839: Aintree becomes the new home for the event, with LOTTERY carrying off the prize and Captain Martin Becher christening the now-famous brook as he crawls in for safety after a fall.
1847: MATTHEW records the first Irish-trained victory on the day the race is officially named the Grand National.
1887: GAMECOCK wins the National at 20-1 and follows up by winning the Champion Chase over the big fences the very next day.
1897: MANIFESTO, the 6-1 favourite, records the first of his two wins in the race. He ran eight times up to the age of 16, also finishing third three times and fourth once.
1907: Jockey Alf Newey brings EREMON home in front, despite riding without stirrups from the second fence.
1927: Ted Leader rides SPRIG to a popular victory in the first Grand National to be covered by a BBC radio commentary.
1928: On the day of the race, before it had begun, TIPPERARY TIM’S jockey William Dutton heard a friend call out to him: “Billy boy, you’ll only win if all the others fall down!”. These words turned out to be true, as 41 of the 42 starters fell during the race. It was run during misty weather conditions with the going very heavy. As the field approached the Canal Turn on the first circuit, Easter Hero fell, causing a pile-up from which only seven horses emerged with seated jockeys. By the penultimate fence this number had reduced to three, with Great Span looking most likely to win ahead of Billy Barton and Tipperary Tim. Great Span’s saddle then slipped, leaving Billy Barton in the lead until he too then fell. Although Billy Barton’s jockey, Tommy Cullinan, managed to remount and complete the race, it was Tipperary Tim who came in first at odds of 100-1. With only two riders completing the course, this remains a record for the fewest number of finishers.
1934: The legendary GOLDEN MILLER becomes the only horse ever to win the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season, carrying 12st 2lb to victory in record time.
In the 1934 Grand National, Golden Miller set a new course record of 9 min 20.4s. That win was in the middle of five consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cup victories
1947: CAUGHOO beats 56 opponents at a mist-shrouded Aintree and is then accused of only going round once.
1956: DEVON LOCH and jockey Dick Francis, looking certain to give The Queen Mother victory when clear on the run-in, suddenly sprawl flat on the ground yards from the winning post, allowing ESB to win.
1967: The year of the horrific pile-up at the 23rd. John Buckingham and complete outsider FOINAVON avoid the melee and gallop on to a 100-1 win.
1974: Grand National character the Duke of Alburquerque completes the course for the one and only time in numerous attempts on NEREO, despite breaking his collarbone only a week before the race.
1977: The incomparable RED RUM rewrites the record books with his historic third victory. ‘Rummy’ had five runs, with three wins and two seconds, from the age of eight to 12.
1979: RUBSTIC makes history by becoming the first Scottish-trained winner. His homecoming party was heralded by a piper leading him back to the hamlet of Denholm, Roxburghshire.
1981: ALDANITI, nursed back from career-threatening injury three times, wins a fairytale National ridden by Bob Champion, who fought, and beat, cancer.
1982: Dick Saunders, at the age of 48, becomes the oldest winning jockey on GRITTAR. Geraldine Rees becomes the first woman to complete the course, riding the leg-weary CHEERS.
1983: Years of doubt about the Grand National’s future are ended when the Jockey Club, helped by public donations, buys the course. CORBIERE’s victory ensures Jenny Pitman goes into the history books as the first woman to train the winner.
1987: Jim Joel becomes the oldest winning owner at 92. He is on his way back from South Africa when MAORI VENTURE wins a thrilling race from The Tsarevich.
1993: The darkest day in the history of the National. There is chaos after a second false start as 30 out of the 39 jockeys began the race despite a false start being called, leading to a void result for the seven horses who finished. John White passes the post first on the Jenny Pitman-trained ESHA NESS, only to discover the race has been declared void.
The 1993 Grand National – the race that never was. Racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan described it as “the greatest disaster in the history of the Grand National”
1994: MIINNEHOMA, owned by comedian Freddie Starr, gives multiple champion trainer Martin Pipe his first National victory, and 51-year-old grandmother Rosemary Henderson completes the course on her own horse FIDDLERS PIKE, who finishes fifth.
1995: Jenny Pitman, the first lady of Aintree, gains her second success – two years after her first – with ROYAL ATHLETE.
1997: The National has to be postponed after two coded bomb threats were received from the IRA. The course was secured by police who then evacuated jockeys, race personnel, and local residents along with 60,000 spectators. Cars and coaches were locked in the course grounds, leaving some 20,000 people without their vehicles over the weekend. With limited accommodation available in the city, local residents opened their doors and took in many of those stranded. This prompted tabloid headlines such as “We’ll fight them on the Becher’s”, in reference to Winston Churchill’s famous war-time speech. The race was run 48 hours later on the Monday, with the meeting organisers offering 20,000 tickets with free admission. The rearranged race was won in spectacular style by 14/1 shot LORD GYLLENE.
A mass evacuation of Aintree racecourse took place on Saturday 5 April 1997
1999: Father-and-son trainer-jockey team Tommy and Paul Carberry combine to land a first Irish win for 24 years with BOBBYJO.
2000: Ted and 20-year-old Ruby Walsh emulate the feat of their compatriots 12 months previously as PAPILLON lands a gamble, backed from a morning 33-1 into 10-1 before taking the prize.
2001: RED MARAUDER and Smarty are the only horses to put in clear rounds in a race run in atrocious conditions, though all horses return unscathed.
2003: MONTY’S PASS lands a massive gamble, with owner Mike Fuller netting close to £1million from ante-post bets. The horse is backed from 40-1 into 16-1 and romps home.
2004: Ginger McCain, veteran trainer of Red Rum, enjoys an emotional victory as 12-year-old AMBERLEIGH HOUSE lands the spoils, having been third in 2003.
2005: HEDGEHUNTER becomes the first horse since Corbiere in 1983 to carry more than 11st to victory in the great race, romping clear in great style under Ruby Walsh to slam Royal Auclair by 14 lengths. John Smith’s take over from Martell as the main sponsor.
2006: John Smith’s launched the John Smith’s People’s Race which gave ten members of the public the chance to ride in a flat race at Aintree on Grand National day. In total, thirty members of the public took part in the event before it was discontinued in 2010.
2008: COMPLY OR DIE allows David Pipe to join his legendary father, Martin, in the record books as a National-winning trainer in just his second season. The race also carries record prize money of £800,000.
2009: MON MOME becomes the biggest-priced winner since Foinavon when powering home at 100-1 for trainer Venetia Williams and jockey Liam Treadwell, who was having his first ride in the race.
2010: DON’T PUSH IT, trained by Jonjo O’Neill and owned by legendary gambler JP McManus, provides perennial champion jockey Tony McCoy with his first success at the 15th attempt. McCoy went on to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award that year – the first person from the world of horse racing to do so. The 2010 renewal was also the first horse race to be televised in HD in the UK.
2011: Another emotional victory as BALLABRIGGS’ success on a sweltering day at Aintree allows Donald McCain to join his legendary father, Ginger, who trained both Red Rum and Amberleigh House, in the Grand National record books.
2012: One of the closest finishes in the race’s illustrious history sees NEPTUNE COLLOGNES beat Sunyhillboy by a nose, giving Paul Nicholls his first Grand National success. Katie Walsh achieves the highest finishing position by a lady jockey by claiming third place on Seabass, trained by her father Ted.
2013: Legendary showjumper Harvey Smith and his wife Sue send out 66-1 AURORAS ENCORE to cause a shock in a race in which only two of the forty runners fell on the first circuit. Fellow trainer Evan Williams has to settle for a place for the fifth time in as many years.
2014: Part time trainer, Dr Richard Newland, landed the first ever £1 million renewal of the race, courtesy of PINEAU DE RE. William’s amazing run continued with Alvarado fourth for the Welsh handler.
2015: Incredibly, another place for Williams with Alvarado fourth again behind MANY CLOUDS, who made a mockery of the trends as an eight year old carrying 11st 9lbs to land another victory in the race for Trevor Hemmings.