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History of the Grand National

Our Top 10 Grand National Moments

1839: Bechers Brook is Born

1848: In-Race Bribery

1875: Tom Wins Drunk

1885: Poisongate

1947: One-lap Wonder?

1956: Loch Mess

1960: Iron Man on TV

1967: Foinavon Fortune

1977: Red Rum Reigns

1981: A True Champion

The Grand National is one of the most famous horse races in the world.  It all officially started back in 1839, with the running of the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.  Below we look at the some of the biggest moments in Grand National history.

1836: The First Unofficial Grand National    

Most points of reference refer to the first Grand National taking place in 1839.  However, there is strong evidence that the race started in 1836.  It is unclear of the precise reasons why this is not recorded as the first official Grand National.

Some suggest that the race was actually run at nearby Maghull and not Aintree, but the body of evidence suggests that actually the Maghull races were held prior to 1936. 

A further theory is that the races from 1836-1838 were poorly organised and largely failed to capture the public imagination.  In 1839, the race was under new management, and with the newly opened Liverpool railway open for business, it made the event more accessible to the public and became a major event.  By the time Grand National history started to be written, the races from 1836-1838 had therefore largely been forgotten and, as a result, when the first honours board was erected at Aintree in the early 1890s these races were omitted.

Whatever the theories, the first official race tends to be recognised as 1839, although the race wasn’t renamed the Grand National until 1847.

For the record, the winner of the 1836 race was The Duke, rode by Captain Becher (of Becher’s Brook fame).  The race was won in a time of 20 minutes 10 seconds, over twice the present course record.  Ten runners started the race over 20 fences.

1839: The First recognised Grand National

1839 is the first recognised Grand National race.  At this point the race was called the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.

The race was won by Lottery who started the race priced at 9/1.

The race is arguably most famous for the christening of Bechers Brook.  At the time of the 1839 race, the fence was known as First Brook.  Captain Becher, who was riding 20/1 shot Conrad, famously lost the lead here as he lost his mount and fell, diving for cover into the brook as the other horses cleared the fence.  First Brook was re-named and the legendary “Bechers Brook” was found.  Legend has it that Captain Becher was heard to tell spectators that he did not realise how filthy water tasted without the benefit of whisky!

1847: The race is officially called the Grand National

For all the debate about when the Grand National actually started, the race wasn’t officially called the Grand National until 1847.

26 runners started the race, with 7 official finishers (a further 16 finished the race, but were not counted as official finishers as they had fallen too far behind. A rule that no longer applies.).  The race was won by Matthew who started the race at odds of 11/1 and beat St Leger by a length.

1849: In-race Bribes as Peter Simple wins

In 1849, Tom Cunningham rode Peter Simple to victory despite being offered bribes by the jockey behind him during the run-in.

The second placed horse was The Knight of Gwynne, owned and ridden by Captain D'Arcy.  The Captain had placed several large bets on his own horse winning and the horse stared the race priced at 8/1.  In the final run-in, Peter Simple was clearly ahead and Captain D’Arcy found that The Knight of Gwynne was struggling to make up the ground.  D’Arcy resorted to shouting ahead to his rival to slow his horse to allow The Knight of Gwynne to pass.  It is alleged that his first offer was £1,000, and as his desperation grew, so did his offer, up to £4,000!

It’s unclear whether D’Arcy was reprimanded, but D'Arcy never again competed or entered horses at Aintree again.

(Note – there was a further bribing scandal in 1860 when Tom Pickernell, nearing the finish whilst leading on Anatis, ignored the offer of a £1,000 bribe from the rider of the second placed horse, Huntsman, and went on to win.)

1875: Blind Drunk, But Still a Winner

Tom Pickernell was a true Grand National veteran, riding in 17 Grand Nationals and winning in 1860, 1871 and 1875.

He had been known to ride under the name Mr Thomas.  This was due to his family being clerics who didn’t approve of his horseracing.

During the 1875 National, when aged 41, he rode an outsider called Pathfinder. Pickernell is said to have had more than a little alcoholic dutch courage before the race and reportedly had to ask a fellow jockey which way he should be facing at the start. During the race, Pathfinder was struggling on the heavy going and Pickernell was going to pull him up, but decided to let the owners have a run for their money. Suddenly, after Valentine's Brook, Pathfinder began to pick up and went on to win by half a length!

1885: Accusations of poisoning

Zoedone, ridden by the Czech Count, Karel Kinsky, went into the 1885 Grand National as second favourite.  The horse had previously won the 1883 Grand National, against a weak field with only 10 runners.

In 1885, Zoedone was part of the so called 'Spring Double' with Bendigo who had earlier won the Lincoln.  (the Spring Double is one of the longest established wagers in British racing which couples the winner of the Lincoln with the winner of the Grand National.) If Zoedone had won the Grand National, then it is believed that the Bookmakers would have taken a huge hit.

On the morning of the race, Kinsky believed there was something wrong Zoedone.  When Kinsky mounted, he later said he felt the mare was "a dead horse" and she fell when schooling over a hurdle before the race. Zoedone was still allowed to start, and got around the first circuit before falling on the 2nd circuit.  Most agree that she was poisoned before the race, but nothing was ever proved.

As for Kinsky (Karl, 8th Prince Kinsky of Wchinitz and Tettau to give him his full title), he was an interesting character to say the least.  He was made the Austro Hungarian ambassador to Britain and then won the Grand National in 1883.  When he won the race in 1883 he was in tears. When asked why, he answered that there was now “nothing else for which to live”.  He had an affair with Winston Churchill’s mother Jenny and then remained in the UK until war commenced in 1914.  It is thought that he refused to fight against the British, a country he saw as his second home and so was sent to the Russian front.  He survived but returned to a broken homeland and the knowledge that it was unlikely he would ever be welcome in England again. A broken man, shell shocked and likely suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he died in 1919.

In what has now become a side story, the race was ultimately won by Roquefort, the 100/30 favourite.

1947: Caughoo wins and is accused of only doing 1 lap!

The 1947 race was the first one to be run on a Saturday.  This was done at the request of Clement Attlee, who claimed that it was "in the interests of British industry”.

The racing season in 1947 had been epitomised by bad weather. However, on Grand National day, it was not the rain that the riders had to contend with, but heavy fog. The result of the race came as a huge surprise, with the 100-1 outsider Caughoo, jockeyed by Edward Dempsey, romping home by 20 lengths.

Rumour has it that Dempsey decided to take advantage of the foggy conditions, slowing his horse up for the first lap, and hiding away whilst the leading pack completed the first circuit; when he heard the leading pack coming up behind him he then set out for the finish line at full pace.  In short, the accusation was that Dempsey’s Caughoo went on to win the Grand National having run only a single circuit of the racetrack.

The most vocal protester was Jockey Daniel McCann who was well beaten on Lough Conn.  He accused the winning jockey Eddie Dempsey of hiding ‘Caughoo’ in the thick fog.  The argument apparently ended in fisticuffs in the bar afterwards.

Photographic evidence later proved that Caughoo had completed the full course.

The accusations were probably due to the fact that no-one thought that the 100-1 winner ‘Caughoo’ would even complete the Aintree course.  In Anne Holland’s book The Grand National, the Irish at Aintree, a jockey at that time, Morney Wing, jokingly suggested the best thing to do with the horse was shoot it!

One of the reasons for Caughoo’s surprising run, may have been that has had been able to train on the strand near Dublin while most of his rivals were held up by a three-month freeze.

1956: Devon Loch fails on the run-in

Possibly the most famous Grand National of them all.  The Queen mother owned Devon Loch looked certain to romp home to Victory as he entered the final straight, 4 to 5 lengths ahead of ESB in 2nd.  Bob Danvers-Walker’s commentary rang out “Into the final straight with victory in sight for Devon Loch. He’s clear away from ESB and Gental Moya. Only 40 yards to go … Devon Loch can’t lose … but he’s slipped … he’s down … ”

40 yards from the line with no further fences to jump, Devon Loch spread his legs and hit the ground.  ESB ran through to win.  The crowd looked on in disbelief as Loch’s jockey, Dick Francis, dismounted, threw down his whip and wept. ESB was the winner, but the story was all about Devon Loch’s failure; what had happened?

There are several theories from the horse being frightened by the noise of the crowd, to being confused by the shadow of the water jump to his left. Others believe the explanation is more straightforward; the horse was simply suffering from cramp and exhaustion at the end of a gruelling race.  The theory that it was cramp is one endorsed by George Milburn, who rode Gental Moya to 2nd place, passing Devon Loch in the run-in. 

Milburn states that, following a race at Sandown the next season, Devon Loch “…did exactly the same thing he’d done at Liverpool. Not as bad, but he went down and then got straight back up on his feet…I think it was cramp, a muscular problem that overtook him when he was getting tired. They were both long distance races, Liverpool four and a half miles and Sandown three miles five furlongs.”

Perhaps the Queen Mother herself has the best explanation.  When the winning owner, Mrs Carver, expressed her sympathy, Queen Elizabeth smiled and said. "Oh that's racing!"

1960: Iron Man takes the honours in front of the first live TV audience

The 1960 Grand National was the first to be broadcast live on television. It was broadcast on BBC and the studio presenter, David Coleman, told viewers they were “witnessing television history”.  How true he was, as the Grand National’s own Iron Man, jockey Gerry Scott, fought through the pain barrier to ride Merryman II to glory.

Fronting up the show were the BBC's head of outside broadcasts, Peter Dimmock, and commentator Peter O'Sullevan. For O’Sullevan, it was to be his first of 37 televised Grand Nationals. O'Sullevan later described his nervousness at commentating on the famous race for the first time on television, his nerves amplified by a restricted view and an unreliable monitor.  It’s fair to say that the technology wasn’t quite up to today’s standards of HD TV!

Peter Dimmock describes the situation: "Come race day, they hired me a monitor from a local electrical store down the road and they'd provided with it a boy assistant to twiddle the knobs for us. But there was scarcely any identifiable image on the screen, so when the race began it was all very scary, even more than usual a seat-of-my-pants occasion. As well, the communications from the control scanner were almost inaudible, and nor could I hear much from any fellow commentator out in the country. I just picked up the running when I thought it seemed right – and mercifully at the end everyone said it had all gone pretty well in spite of our pre-transmission nightmares and panic stations."

The race was won by nine-year-old Merryman II at odds of 13/2. His jockey, 22-year-old Gerry Scott, had been lucky to take part in the race, having broken both collar-bones just 12 days before the race.

It’s fair to say that Scott was a battle-hardened jockey. Over his career he broke his legs six times; his collar-bones a dozen times; he had two smashed vertebrae and broke most of the bones in his hands.

Merryman’s trainer was Neville Crump. Following this latest injury, Crump put the vote to a three man panel of medical experts.  Scott tried his best to conceal the seriousness of the injury and the panel voted 2 to 1 in favour of him being able to ride.

Scott recalls that the first man to greet him and congratulate him on his victory was the doctor who said he would not be fit enough to ride in the race.

1967: Foinavon takes advantage of a pile up

The race had been pretty uneventful for Foinavon prior to the famous pile-up.  28 of the 40 starters were still in the race as they jumped Bechers Brook (the 22nd fence) and Foinavon had been well behind.  Then came the incident that has been firmly implanted in the Grand National history books.

As the leaders approached the 23rd fence, a loose horse veered to the right, across the path of several other horses.  Those horses immediately behind had little time to react and a pile-up ensued.  Fortunately for Foinavon and Buckingham, they were so far behind at the time that they could see this unfold and had time to react.  Buckingham took Foinavon wide to the right of pile of flailing horses and jockeys and jumped into the lead.  By the time any of the other contenders managed to remount and jump the fence, Foinavon had a clear lead.  When Buckingham came to the 24th fence (the Canal Turn), he looked back and saw that he had a 30 length lead with only 6 fences to go.

The 15/2 favourite, Honey End, gave a valliant chase, but the gap was too large and although the lead was reduced to around 20 lengths by the end, Foinavon completed the race a comfortable winner.   

Buckingham has since described the run up to the National and his willingness to ride anything available just to get a place on the starting line: “Three jockeys had turned him down so they asked me…I’d have ridden Dick’s Donkey in the Grand National”. 

Buckingham goes on to describe the race as he jumped the next fence as he: “turned down looking towards valentine and saw there was nothing there, I couldn’t believe it, I thought I’m on my own with another 7 fences left to jump”.

Ultimately, although the chaos sounds like a freak chain of events, Buckingham goes on to say: “what people don’t realise is we had it all planned out in the weighing room!!”.

Although, clearly a remark made in jest, unbelievably, a similar chain of events occurred in their last win together at Uttoxeter. Foinavon was trailing in fourth of the four left standing when a loose horse carried out the other three at the fourth-last fence.

The 23rd fence was officially named the Foinavon Fence in 1984.

1977: Red Rum Reigns Supreme

1977 was the year that Red Rum re-wrote the history books.  The years from 1973 to 1977 we dominated by “Rummy” as he won in 1973, 1974 and 1977, whilst also finishing 2nd in 1975 and 1976. An outstanding record that surely will never be matched!

By the time 1977 came around, Red Rum was aged 12 and generally considered to be coming towards the end of his racing days.  His form that season had been poor, with only one win in 7 which came in a 3 horse race at Carlisle.  However, there were better signs in his later races and this small upturn in form, along with his past Grand National experience and huge support from an adoring and loyal public meant that he started the race as joint favourite at odds of 9-1, with a weight of 11st 8lbs.

On to the race and Boom Docker made the early running, taking a huge lead before slowing and then refusing at the 17th.  That left Andy Pandy 10 lengths clear, with red Rum in the group behind.  On to Bechers Brook and Andy Pandy falls, leaving Red Rum 3 lengths clear as they jump the canal turn with Churchtown Boy in behind.  As they jumped the 2nd last fence, Red Rum glides over whilst Churchtown Boy drags his legs and suddenly a gap starts to open up as Rummy heads for home and ultimately wins by a huge margin of around 25 lengths. An unbelievable sporting achievement.

Over the five year period from 1973 to 1977 inclusive, Red Rum completed 5 Grand Nationals, finishing in the top 2 in every race.  Taking into account that this was an era when the fences were even tougher that they are today, you can understand the size of the achievement.  Jockey Tommy Stack described the moment: "Anything I say won't do him justice…I'm just glad to have been part of him."

When Red Rum died in 1995, the news made the front page of the national press.  He was buried at the winning post at Aintree; a fitting burial for a true Grand National legend.

1981: The Comeback Kings

The 1981 Grand National was memorable for two great comebacks.  Aldaniti won the race having been nursed back from a series of career-threatening injuries, whilst the winning jockey, Bob Champion had recently recovered from cancer.

Aldaniti was born at Tommy Brown’s stables and is understood to have been named after his 4 grandchildren, Alistair, David, Nicola and Timothy, to make the name Aldaniti. The horse was sold to the trainer Josh Gifford.

Gifford entered Aldaniti for his first race, a 2-mile Novices Hurdle at Ascot, in January 1975.  Ridden by his young stable jockey Bob Champion the horse beat 16 other runners to win by 4 lengths, at odds of 33-1! The performance caught the eye and Aldaniti was subsequently sold on to Nick Embiricos.  Gifford continued to train the horse under Embiricos’ ownership.

The strong start to Aldaniti’s career continued until early 1976 when he was found to be lame.  The horse took a year out before returning to racing.  Injury problems were unfortunately a blight on Aldaniti’s career.  Each time the horse had a good run of form, injury seemed to strike.  The horse was taken lame 3 times in total between 1976 and 1980.  On the 3rd occasion, Aldaniti picked up a serious tendon injury. Josh Gifford and the vet thought it would be better for the horse to be put down, but Nick Embiricos made the decision to persevere and Aldaniti spent the whole of 1980 recuperating at his owner's Barkfold stables.

Champion had ridden each of the Aldaniti’s first 22 races.  But this pattern came to a grinding halt in July 1979 when Champion was diagnosed with cancer.  During many months of chemotherapy treatment Josh Gifford gave Bob the promise that his job would still be there if he returned to race riding fit and well. After Aldaniti had run so well in the Scottish Grand National, it was planned to aim him at the 1980 Grand National, giving Bob Champion a further incentive to beat his illness.

Champion, left hospital in January 1980, but the illness and the chemotherapy had left him so weak he could hardly stand. However, with Aldaniti giving Bob the will to live and race again, he eventually beat the disease, and began a gruelling training regime to regain his full fitness. By the end of 1980 he had returned to his old job as Gifford's stable jockey.

At the same time Aldaniti had made a comeback of his own such that in December 1980, Nick Embiricos asked Josh Gifford to have him back for training, adding "We're going to have a crack at the National."

The rest, as they say, is history.

1993: False Start Chaos leaves a blot in the Grand National History Book

The 1993 Grand National was a sad day in the history of the event. 

A second false start causes chaos as as 30 out of the 39 jockeys fail to notice the false start flags and start the race.  Seven horses complete the entire course, with Esha Ness finishing first, but the result is declared void.

The events at Aintree on 3 April 1993 were dissected in great detail and at great length by a high court judge Sir Michael Connell. The basic findings were:

  • The start of the race was delayed by animal rights activists, who staged a protest near the first fence.
  • Brown then made two attempts to send the 39 runners on their way. On both occasions, the long length of elastic on the starting gate, which was sagging and waterlogged after persistent rain, snagged on one of the runners as it rose
  • Brown declared a false start both times and at the first time of asking the recall system worked as planned. Brown waved a flag to alert Ken Evans, a recall man stationed on the run to the first fence, and he in turn waved a flag to tell the jockeys to pull up.
  • After the second false start, however, Evans – according to Connell – failed to wave his flag (although this was something that Evans always denied). Thirty horses set off and jumped the first and, though some pulled up or fell at various stages, including 11 who stopped before going out on to the second circuit, seven completed the course.

Many question how the race couldn’t be stopped, but as the jockey Charlie Swan, explains “There's a point of no return and that's what it was. Halfway round there were people waving flags but it was hard to know, was it officials or was it protesters, so everybody just kept going.”

A host of bad luck stories have since emerged.  An Oxford vicar correctly forecast the first three horses to finish, but as the race was void, bookies only gave him his stake back.  Punter Judy Higby tried to bet the race wouldn't take place after dreaming about it, but her bookie refused to accept the bet.

But the ultimate bad luck story is for John White, the Jockey riding Esha Ness who was first past the post.  The moment when White realised the race was void was on every front page the following day. White, who never won the race again, spoke later of the moment when he realised his career highlight was going to be taken away. "You could wait a lifetime and only have one good shot at winning the National. The first inkling I had that something might be wrong was when fellow jockey Dean Gallagher came up to me just past the winning post to say that he thought the race was off. I was stunned."