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    Interesting facts, people, and horses from the history of the Grand National
Interesting facts, people, and horses from the history of the Grand National
Aintree Racecourse during the Grand National. Source: thejockeyclub

Interesting facts, people, and horses from the history of the Grand National

The famous Steeplechase race known for being the longest, toughest, and most dangerous in the world, held at Aintree, Merseyside.  

The Grand National, which first took place in 1839, was originally a cross-country obstacle race that started at the hippodrome and extended into the surrounding countryside, with obstacles like hedges, ditches, gates, and barns marked by red flags. The modern race still includes some of this rural area in its route. 

The Grand National circuit spans 6.907 km and features 16 hurdles, with horses jumping over 14 of them twice during the two laps of the race. The race includes 30 hurdles in total, with challenging obstacles like the Becher Stream and the Chair, which have height variations, as well as the tricky Canal Turn where horses must make a sharp 90° turn to avoid ending up in the canal.

One of the Grand National barriers. Source: thejockeyclub
One of the Grand National barriers. Source: thejockeyclub

In 1883, a minimum of 10 horses participated in the race, while in 1929, a record-breaking 66 horses took part. However, to avoid collisions and injuries, the number of participants was later limited to 40. In recent years, there have been 34 horses starting in the Grand National. 

On average, 18 horses finish the race, with approximately half retiring. The Grand National serves as a test for resilient jockeys and hardy older horses aged 7 years and above. 

Due to its challenging nature, the Grand National has a rich history that attracts determined individuals seeking to conquer the difficult distance. Remarkable stories and legends have emerged from the race, showcasing the incredible feats achieved by both humans and horses.

Red Rahn statue at Aintree Racecourse. Source: grand-national-guide
Red Rahn statue at Aintree Racecourse. Source: grand-national-guide

Red Ram

Red Ram is synonymous with the Grand National, having achieved the remarkable feat of winning the race three times and placing second twice. This incredible horse became a beloved national hero in Great Britain after his third victory. Throughout his impressive 10-year career, Red Ram never fell, showcasing his exceptional talent and resilience on the track. A testament to his legacy, a life-size bronze statue of Red Ram stands proudly at Aintree Racecourse. 

Tipperary Team

In 1928, 2 horses out of 42 completed the race, the first was the outsider Tipperary Tim, whose odds were 100/1, and the second was Billy Barton's horse, who threw his rider. Tipperary Tim was considered slow, but he rarely fell, a quality that eventually proved superior, more important than speed. The track that day was extremely difficult, fog fell. At the Canal Turn barrier, several horses collided, after which another 20 horses refused to take the barrier. The race continued with 7 horses that passed the barrier on the outside, among them Tipperary Tim with amateur jockey Bill Dutton, a lawyer. By the end of the second lap, five horses had fallen and lost their riders, and Tipperary rival Tom also fell off his horse before the finish. Slowly, but firmly and confidently, the race outsider, led by an amateur jockey, came to the finish line; the second horse to cross the finish line was Billy Barton, a riderless horse.

The moment of the fall of Devon Lough, Grand National, 1956. Source: Racing Post
The moment of the fall of Devon Lough, Grand National, 1956. Source: Racing Post

Devon Loch and Dick Francis

Dick Francis, famous as Her Majesty the Queen's jockey and a skilled detective, recounted the 1956 Grand National in his autobiography, The Sport of Queens. Riding the favourite horse, John Loch, everything seemed to be going smoothly as they approached the finish line. However, just 50 meters away, the horse inexplicably jumped up, lay down on its belly, and refused to finish the race, handing victory to its competitor. Despite the disappointment and confusion surrounding Devon Loch's unexpected fall, Queen Elizabeth simply remarked, "It's a race." To this day, Devon Loch and his jockey are remembered for their near victory in the prestigious event. Despite being medically sound, the reasons behind the sudden fall remain a mystery. 

Foinavon

An equally bizarre story happened in 1967 with Foinavon, a black Irish gelding. Before the competition, three jockeys refused to ride him because the owner decided not to pay extra money for the horse because he didn’t particularly believe in him. Three days before the start of the race, his coach finally found aspiring jockey John Buckingham, who agreed to ride with Foinavon. Neither the horse's owner nor trainer was present at the race; they were at, in their opinion, more promising competitions. Foinavon was at odds of 100/1. On the second lap, he brought up the rear when, at the lowest barrier 23, the leading Popham Down, after a jump, “cut off” the one following, they fell and a crush formed. All subsequent horses crashed into each other, fell or threw their riders, some of them ran in the opposite direction. Behind him, Buckingham broke into a light canter, found a gap in the fence and continued the race. When everything was settled, 17 pursuers were no longer able to catch up with Foinavon, he came first, even with a good time. After the race, similar things were repeated at this obstacle, and in 1984 the 7/23 barrier was officially named the Foinavon barrier. 

Duke of Albuquerque on Nereo in 1974 (right). Source: new european
Duke of Albuquerque on Nereo in 1974 (right). Source: new european

 Beltran Alfonso Osorio, 18th Duke of Albuquerque

The Duke of Albuquerque, a Spanish nobleman, was tall and lean, with a physique ill-suited for a jockey. However, his determination and courage knew no bounds. Inspired by a film about the Grand National at the age of 8, he made it his lifelong goal to compete in the prestigious race. 

Despite numerous setbacks and injuries, the Duke kept pushing forward. From falling at barriers to breaking bones, he faced countless challenges on his quest to compete in the Grand National. Even with a cast and injuries, he never gave up. In 1974, he defied the odds and completed the race, becoming a symbol of resilience and determination in the eyes of the public. The Duke and his horse, Nereo, were celebrated as heroes in the media, showing that true grit and perseverance can triumph over any obstacle. 

In 1976, at the age of 58, the Duke once again took part in the Grand National, only to suffer a serious fall that resulted in multiple injuries including broken ribs, vertebrae, hip, wrist, and a severe concussion that left him in a coma for two days. 

Despite his injuries, the Duke expressed his intention to continue racing in the Grand National, but his licence was revoked by the Jockey Club stewards. Jokes circulated in the press about the potential consequences of his continued participation, but the Duke went on to race in various competitions across Europe until he was 65 years old. 

The Duke of Albuquerque's bravery and dedication to the Grand National made him a beloved figure in England, where he is fondly remembered for his resilience and loyalty to the sport. 

Rachel Blackmore, 2021 Grand National winner. Source: The sun
Rachel Blackmore, 2021 Grand National winner. Source: The sun

Women, participants and winners of the Grand National

In 1977, Charlotte Brew was the first female jockey to compete in the Grand National. She was almost finishing the race, but fell at the penultimate hurdle and was unable to complete the race. 

In 1982, Geraldine Rees completed the race, finishing eighth on the horse Cheers. 

In 2012, Katie Walsh was third in the tournament. For a long time, her result was the best among women, until in 2021 the race was won by Rachel Blackmore on the horse Minella Times. She became the first female winner in the history of the Grand National. “I don’t feel like a person, neither a man nor a woman, it’s an incredible feeling!” - these were her words with tears in her eyes immediately after the finish.

Failed race and “postponed Monday”  

Famous 1990s commentator Peter O'Sullen called the 1993 race the greatest disaster in the history of the Grand National. There was a slight hiccup and a false start was called, but 30 of the 39 jockeys didn't realize it and started the race. Racecourse employees ran onto the field and tried to stop them, but the jockeys mistook them for a protest group. The fact is that shortly before the start, a group of animal rights activists broke into the field, protesting against the life-threatening race for horses. Seven horses completed the course, with Asha Naess leading the way and her time being the second fastest in the history of the race. But alas, it was a deafening failure. 

In 1997, before the start of the race, two bomb threats were received from the Irish Republican Army, IRA, a designated terrorist organisation. The racecourse was cordoned off by the police, jockeys, staff and 60,000 spectators had to be urgently evacuated. Many could not leave because their cars were blocked at the hippodrome. There were not enough hotels in the city, so local residents hosted people evacuated from the stadium in their homes. Two days later, on Monday, the race was held, and the organisers allocated 20,000 free tickets for spectators. 

Formation before the race. Source: The jockey club
Formation before the race. Source: The jockey club

 Death Race  

The Grand National is known as the longest and most perilous race for horses, with a high risk of fatalities. Over a span of 1,000 runners, more than 4 deaths occur. In the period from 2000 to 2010, out of 439 competing horses, 6 tragically lost their lives - a figure significantly higher than official records indicate. Following the deaths of two horses at the Becher's Brook obstacle in 1989, safety measures were implemented, including filling in part of the stream, levelling the slopes, reducing barrier heights, and imposing stricter criteria for horse eligibility. Horses must now rank in the top four in a steeplechase race of at least 3 miles leading up to the Grand National. 

In the 2023 Grand National race, 17 out of 39 starters successfully crossed the finish line. Unfortunately, Hill Sistine's horse was fatally injured at the first hurdle, with two more horses also dying in the early days of the festival. Despite the belief of owners and trainers that the race provides a tough but fair test for horses, animal rights activists are calling for the event to be shut down due to safety concerns. However, with thousands of eager fans and participants, closing the race is a difficult, if not impossible, task. 

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