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The Grand National – a look back at its extraordinary history


Held annually in Aintree, Liverpool, the Grand National is currently the most valuable jump horse race in Europe, with a prize fund of £1 million in 2016

The Grand National is a National Hunt horse race which has become prominent in British culture: and being popular even amongst those who do not normally watch horse racing.

‘National Hunt’ racing is the name given to the kind of horse racing which involves the jumping of fences and ditches, and the Grand National is also a handicap steeplechase, meaning different horses, depending on their ability (determined by the handicapper), will carry different weights throughout the race to better encourage the horses to finish at closer times.

First run in 1839, the event was founded by William Lynn. Lynn was a syndicate head and proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel, and leased land in Aintree from William Molyneux, second Earl of Sefton, on which Lynn would set out the course and build a grandstand, with Lord Sefton laying the foundation stone in February 1829. Although there is much debate over the first official Grand National, it is a general consensus that the first event was held in 1839.

However, there were three races leading up to what has become the first officially-named Grand National event, and they were held in 1836, 1837 and 1838. Many claim that these races were held at Maghull and not Aintree, therefore determining them unofficial, but some historians have found evidence that point towards these three races being held at Aintree, thus declaring them as official Grand National events. Although the first race to be referred to as a ‘national’ was the 1839 race, the winner of the first of these three pre-races was Martin Becher, and the famous fence in the course, Becher’s Brook, is named after him.

Certain events took place in 1838 and 1839 that helped transform the beloved Liverpool race into a national event from a small local affair, such as the railway arriving in Liverpool enabling easy transport to the course, and a committee being formed to better organize the event. The annual event then took off and gained huge popularity, but it wasn’t without its problems. The First World War inevitably caused problems for the event, forcing it to be held at Gatwick Racecourse instead of Aintree, which was taken over by the War Office during 1916 to 1918.

Further problems down the line prevented the Grand National from being held at all (officially, anyway), whereby in 1993 the race was declared void after a jockey got tangled in the starting tape which had failed to rise properly. Many of the other jockeys continued the race, unaware of its illegitimacy, in which Esha Ness actually achieved the second fastest time ever. Sadly, it didn’t count. So the Grand National is not without its controversy, but all the best sporting events are the ones that get people talking.

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