Why is the Grand National the world's greatest steeplechase?

The countdown to the 2022 Grand National is on, so Planet Sport's Jonathan Doidge has a quick canter through the history of the world's greatest steeplechase to tell the story of why it's the best.

The Grand National has been Aintree's raison d'être since 1839, when a horse named Lottery won the great race's first running, with more than just a hint of foreshadowing.

Since then, the world's greatest steeplechase has survived wars, bomb scares, false starts, the banning of the BBC, a famous horse pile-up, the threat of extinction and protests. Despite all of that, it has been mimicked at any number of tracks in numerous countries. A 'National' has become a name given to a race over a longer distance than the norm.

The original and best has undergone numerous modifications to its more treacherous obstacles, as well as the shortening of the race distance itself and many more safety factors than were apparent for much of the race's wonderful and absorbing history.

The Grand National is the race that draws the nation together. Young and old, racing fan or not, everyone has a story to tell about the time they won, or nearly won betting on the world's greatest steeplechase.

Where is the Grand National held?

Aintree racecourse

Currently, the Grand National is held annually in April (that has not always been the case) at Aintree racecourse, a suburb of the city of Liverpool.

The racecourse can be accessed by rail, with Aintree station being situated directly opposite the racecourse. You can catch a connection to there from Liverpool's Lime Street station.

For those travelling by road, the nearest motorway is the M57, which runs close by.

Grand National distance

In its current guise, the Grand National is contested over a distance of four miles, two furlongs and seventy-five yards.

Traditionally, it's 'trip' was four miles, 856 yards but that was changed after a review by the British Horseracing Authority in time for the 2016 race.

The most famous Grand National fences

The Chair

The National fences are famously formidable. Modified these days, to make them less dangerous for both horse and rider, unlike other tracks, a number of the Aintree fences have names.

Becher's Brook would probably be the most famous of those names, while there are others such as the Chair, the Canal Turn and Valentine's Brook. The most recent fence to be named is one of the smallest on the course.

'Foinavon', the seventh fence (23rd on the second circuit) became so-named after a renowned incident in the 1967 race, where loose horses caused chaos at the 23rd fence. Straggler Foinavon was so far behind them that he managed to negotiate safe passage under jockey John Buckingham and went on the win the race at 100/1!

In total, the horses set out to jump 30 obstacles, with only the Chair and the water jump being negotiated once and all others jumped twice.

Becher's Brook was named as such after Captain Martin Becher fell from his mount, Conrad, in the first running of the Grand National, in 1839. Becher is said to have taken shelter in the brook in order to avoid injury.

Originally, the fence was three feet lower on the landing side than on the take off side but after several equine deaths there over the years it was been significantly modified, including filling in much of the ground that sloped towards the brook on the landing side.

Loose horses are now also able to run around the fence, which has been done by widening the rails around the course.

The Chair is second only to the Becher's Brook in terms of its fame. This is the tallest fence on the course, measuring up at 5'3" and including a 6'0" open ditch on the take-off side.

Once those elements have been negotiated, horse and rider are slightly surprised by the ground on the landing side being six inches higher than the take-off side, in a reverse of Becher's.

The Chair has also claimed equine fatalities over the years but just three of them since 1839 and none since 1979. It is also unique in having claimed human life, when Joseph Wynne was badly injured in a fall at the fence in 1862 and died hours later, having been taken off the course.

Grand National during war interruptions

For over a century after its inception, only war prevented the race from being run. On three successive occasions (1916-1918) during the First World War, Aintree was unable to be used for the race.

Instead, a substitute race was run each time at Gatwick. This was on the site that is now Gatwick Airport. The course was modified to make it appear like Aintree and there was just one fence fewer to jump.

Despite the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the race was still contested at Aintree in 1940. However, there would be no more Grand National until 1946, with the war eventually taking its toll for five successive years. This time, no substitute races were run.

Void race in 1993

In 1993, the race was due to be run as normal but a false start resulted in it being deemed void.

There was a delayed start to the contest due to animal rights protesters getting onto the course near the fence. Once this disturbance had been cleared, there were two false starts, both times caused by the starting tape getting tangled around jockeys.

Famously, the flag of the 'recall man', Ken Evans, which had worked perfectly well when needed after the first false start, failed to unfurl after the second one.

The result was that 30 of the 39-strong field began the race, not realising there was a recall. Utter chaos ensued, with many people trying to stop proceedings. Only after a circuit did many of the jockeys realise there was a problem and pulled their mounts up.

However, 14 runners continued on the second circuit, seven of those eventually completing the course, with 50/1 shot Esha Ness, trained by Jenny Pitman and ridden by John White, who crossed the line first. It was the second-fastest time in the history of the race but it, and the race itself did not count.

The Jockey Club later declared the race void, ruled out a re-run and blamed both the starter, Keith Brown and recall man Evans for failing to notice the second false start. The incident was a total embarrassment to British racing and cost the betting industry an estimated £75million in refunded stakes.

Red Rum

Probably the most famous National Hunt horse of all-time, on account of his exploits around Aintree.

Red Rum is the only horse to have won the Grand National three times. That is an astonishing feat in itself but he was also second in the race twice and it is hard to believe that any horse will ever better his record in the race.

As a two-year-old, ridden by the great Lester Piggott, Red Rum dead-heated for first place on his debut in a 5f sprint at the track. He would later return to make history.

In 1973, he won what many still believe was the greatest of all Grand Nationals. Two-mile champion chaser Crisp thrilled those 'live' at Aintree and the many millions watching worldwide on television with an awesome display of front-running and bold jumping under top weight of 12st.

However, Red Rum spoiled his party, creeping ever close in the last half mile and passing Crisp in the shadows of the post to win his first National in a record time.

In addition to the record time, the fact that former dual-Cheltenham Gold Cup winner L'Escargot was third, added fuel to the form experts' argument that this truly was the best ever renewal.

A year later, the 'Ginger' McCain-trained 'Rummy' returned, this time shouldering topweight himself. It made no difference, as he put up one of the race's great weight-carrying performances to win by a wide margin from his old foe, L'Escargot.

However, the tables were turned in 1975, when L'Escargot, under Tommy Carberry, finally got one over on Red Rum, relegating him to second place.

It was the same outcome for the Southport-based gelding 12-months on, except this time it was Rag Trade who took his measure to win the great prize.

Then, at the ripe old age of 12 and when most thought his best days were behind him, he did what seemed impossible.

Now partnered by Tommy Stack, who had taken the mount over in the 1976 race, after McCain fell out with his dual-winning partner Brian Fletcher, Red Rum was imperious.

Taking up the running well over a mile from the finish, he drew further and further clear for a 25-length win from Churchtown Boy, prompting one of the greatest commentaries ever by the late, great Sir Peter O'Sullevan.

"I think it's bloody marvellous," his delighted trainer told BBC presenter David Coleman. He was right.

Red Rum was all set to tackle the race for a sixth time in 1978 but McCain had to withdraw him due to injury on the eve of the race. He was, however, allowed special permission to lead the parade of runners on the big day.

He died in 1995 at the ripe old age of 30 and is buried in the shadow of the winning post at the track he graced like no other.

Tiger Roll

Tiger Roll and Davy Russell win the 2018 Grand National

Given that Red Rum's 1974 success had ended a drought of dual winners dating back to Reynoldstown, who scored in both 1935 and '36, it showed just how difficult winning twice at Aintee was.

That remained the case until 2019. Tiger Roll probably wouldn't have been dissimilar to Red Rum in stature. He was certainly not a big, imposing chaser but he too jumped economically around the track, if not quite as tidily as his famous forerunner.

Already a Grade 1 Cheltenham Festival winner, the Gordon Elliott-trained gelding was allotted 10st 13lb, carried number 13 on his saddle cloth and was a 10/1 chance when he first lined up for the Grand National, in April 12, 2018.

By now, the course had been modified and the race distance shortened by 300 yards or so. In a race that saw all the runners bypass Becher's Brook on the second circuit due to an incident first time around, Tiger Roll was hunted around by the race's oldest jockey, Davy Russell.

Content to let Pleasant Company lead him around home turn, he travelled well, jumped the last two neatly and looked as though he had quickly put the race to bed.

However, the Gigginstown House Stud-owned runner idled in front and just hung on to beat a resurgent Pleasant Company by a head.

A year later, he etched his own name in Grand National history when winning the race for a second time. This time the bookmakers took no chances and with public popularity assured in the betting, he went off the 4/1 favourite.

He was one of a record-breaking 11 runners saddled in the race by trainer Gordon Elliott. With similar tactics to a year earlier, Russell produced him to jump the second last upsides the leader Magic Of Light, before cruising clear after the last and enjoying a more comfortable success in joining the Grand National greats.

Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic denied Tiger Roll the chance to become the first horse to win three successive Grand Nationals.

By 2021, his owners Michael and Eddie O'Leary of Gigginstown House Stud, refused to let him attempt to win a third Grand National, as they believed that the handicapper had asked him to carry too much weight.

It was the same a year later. Tiger Roll was officially retired at the Cheltenham Festival in 2022 and did so unbeaten over the National fences.

Aintree's first ladies

Rachael Blackmore rides Minella Times to victory in the Randox Grand National Handicap Chase during Grand National Day of the 2021 Randox Health Grand National Festival at Aintree Racecourse, April 10, 2021

Women did not ride in the Grand National until Charlotte Brew got the mount on Barony Fort in 1977, though the partnership failed to complete the course.

The first women to achieve that distinction was Geraldine Rees on Cheers in 1982.

Trainer Jenny Pitman then re-wrote history, sending out Corbiere to win the 1983 renewal under Ben de Haan. A wonderful handler of horses, Pitman, the former wife of jockey-turned-broadcaster Richard, went on to train Royal Athlete to win the 1995 Grand National under Jason Titley and also had the first past the post, Esha Ness, in the void race of 1993.

Venetia Williams, who had ridden in the race herself, has thus far been the only other woman to train the winner of the Grand National. She achieved the feat with 100/1 shot Mon Mone, under Liam Treadwell, in 2009.

Despite that, chances for female riders in the race were limited, especially on better-fancied horses.

Katie Walsh began to change that and became the first woman to be placed, when she partnered Seabass to be third behind Neptune Collonges, in 2012.

The pairing was then made favourite to win in 2013, making Walsh the first woman to ride a Grand National market leader. However, this time they could only finish 13th.

By 2018 Walsh, who now had a ride every year in the great race, was joined by an improving young fellow-Irishwoman by the name of Rachael Blackmore.

Although Blackmore fell at The Chair that day on Alpha Des Obeaux and Walsh was on board the last of 12 finishers, Baie Des Iles, things were about to change.

Blackmore completed for the first time in 2019, finishing 10th on Valseur Lido. Then, after there was no race in 2020 due to the pandemic, she hit the jackpot in 2021.

With spectators still not allowed at the venue because of Covid-19 restrictions, Blackmore didn't receive the 'live' acclaim that so many others had but that surely did not sour her feelings on crossing the line on Minella Times, as the first female to ride the winner of the Grand National.

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