I have a confession to make. Today I’ll be taking an afternoon off to watch the Grand National, one of Britain’s great sporting traditions. My excuses, if you wish to accept them...
1. I’m horse crazy.
2. I used to work for Venetia Williams, trainer of the 2009 winner, Mon Mome.
3. I won my first bet on Red Rum back in the 1970’s (when I was still underage and had to get my granddad to put the money on for me!)
4. The race is still unpredictable enough to be exciting.
Which is quite a mix of reasons, but I think for most people it's number 4 that makes the Grand National so famous/infamous, depending upon your point of view. Even today with all our carefully-studied form books, safer fences, rules and regulations, the Grand National provides thrills and spills a-plenty. It is still possible (maybe even probable) that a 100-1 outsider will beat the favourite, and that means it’s also possible for someone who can’t tell one end of a horse from another to back a winner.
But how did it all start, and why?
An Irish wager (18th century).
The first steeplechases were run over open fields from one church steeple to the next (hence the name). It all started, apparently, as a wager between two gentlemen in County Cork, who decided to settle the bet by racing their horses across country four miles to the next village. There were few rules, and every obstacle – hedges, ditches, gates, stray sheep – had to be jumped or otherwise climbed over. It was dangerous but must have been very exciting (I don't remember that far back).
|an early steeplechase from church to church|
The sport quickly caught on. The first recorded steeplechase on a prepared course was run at Bedford in 1810, and the first recognised English National Steeplechase took place on 8th March 1830. This 4-mile race from Bury Orchard in Bedfordshire to the Obelisk in Wrest Park was won by Captain Macdowall on a horse called The Wonder in a time of 16 mins 25 seconds. Not bad, when you consider it can take an hour to drive that distance on a bank holiday!
The First National (1836... maybe)
|Becher's Brook, 1890|
The War Years (1916–1918)
During the First World War, Aintree Racecourse was taken over by the War Office. To avoid disappointing the racegoing public, the race was moved to Gatwick Racecourse, disused these days and just as well since it is now part of Gatwick Airport. The 1916 race was renamed the Racecourse Association Steeplechase, and the 1917 and 1918 became the War National Steeplechase. They are not usually recognised as Grand Nationals, either.
Last horse standing – Tipperary Tim (1928)
Tipperary Tim started the 1928 Grand National at odds of 100-1. A friend teased his jockey before the race, saying: "You'll only win if all the others fall down!" (I don't remember that year either, but people have said similar things to me in the past). It was a case of famous last words, since 41 of the 42 starters fell during the mist-shrouded, muddy race. Although Billy Barton's jockey managed to remount and complete the race, Tipperary Tim came in first. With only two riders completing the course, this race holds the record for the fewest number of finishers.
“Doing a Devon Loch” - Dick Francis' disappointment (1956)
In 1956 the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Loch, had cleared the final fence and was leading the field five lengths clear of the second horse. Only yards from what seemed like certain victory, Devon Loch inexplicably half-jumped into the air and collapsed on his belly. Despite efforts by his jockey Dick Francis, he was unable to complete the race. Afterwards, the Queen Mother famously commented: "Oh, that's racing!" and the phrase "to do a Devon Loch" is still sometimes used to describe a last-minute failure to achieve an expected victory. It's the stuff of fiction - as his jockey later proved, when he retired from racing to write his best-selling thrillers. Needless to say, I love those books.
The horse who had a fence named after him - Foinavon (1967)
When I was a little girl, a melee at the 23rd fence in the 1967 Grand National allowed 100-1 outsider Foinavon to become another surprise winner. A loose horse, which had unseated his rider at the first jump, suddenly veered across the leading group, causing them to stop, refuse, and/or unseat their riders too. Some horses started running in the wrong direction back the way they had come. Foinavon had been lagging 100 yards behind the pack, giving his jockey John Buckingham plenty of time to steer wide of the havoc and make a clean jump of the fence on the outside. Although 17 jockeys remounted and some of them made up considerable ground, none could catch Foinavon before he crossed the finishing line. The 23rd fence (the 7th first time round) is now called “the Foinavon fence” in his memory.
Red Rum makes me richer (1970’s)
Red Rum is the most successful Grand National horse to date. Originally bought as a yearling in 1966, he passed through various training yards before being bought by trainer Ginger McCain on behalf of one of his owners. Two days later, McCain noticed that Red Rum appeared lame. It turned out his new horse was suffering an inflammatory bone disorder. But McCain had witnessed many lame carthorses recover after being galloped in sea-water, and successfully used this treatment on Red Rum, who went on to win the Grand National three times in 1973, 1974, and 1977 (when he won me my riches - about £2 as I recall). Red Rum finished second in the intervening years 1975 and 1976 and is now buried at Aintree, where his statue also stands, overlooking the course he loved so much.
|Red Rum's statue at Aintree|
The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 made it possible for female jockeys to enter the Grand National. The first female jockey to enter the race was Charlotte Brew, who rode the 200-1 outsider Barony Fort in 1977. Sadly she did not finish the race, since her horse refused at the 26th fence. I suppose, being a girl, I should have been rooting for her... except then Red Rum wouldn't have won.
Safety First (1989)
After the 1989 Grand National, in which two horses died at Becher's Brook, Aintree finally sucumbed to popular sentiment and modified the course to make it a bit safer. The infamous brook on the landing side of Becher's was filled in, and the incline levelled out although there is still a fearsome drop on the inside of the course. Other fences have been reduced in height, and the entry requirements for the race have been made stricter. The field is now limited to a maximum of 40 horses.
The race that never was (1993)
In 1993, while the race was still under starter's orders, a jockey (think she might have been female, but don't tell anyone) became tangled in the starting tape, which had failed to rise correctly. A false start was declared, but lack of communication between course officials meant that 30 out of the 39 jockeys did not realise this and continued to race. Officials tried to stop the runners further by waving red flags, but many jockeys thought that they were protesters who had invaded the course earlier and ignored them. Seven horses completed the course, including the “winner” Esha Ness (in the second-fastest time ever), ridden by John White and trained by Jenny Pitman – but as the start had been declared false, the result had to be declared void. I can still remember the expression on the winner’s face when he realised this... more stuff of fiction.
A Bomb Scare (1997)
The 1997 Grand National had to be postponed after two coded bomb threats were received from the IRA. I was watching the meeting on TV at the time, terrified there would be an explosion, since my husband was there that year with Venetia’s horses. The course was evacuated, and all cars and coaches were locked in the course grounds leaving 20,000 people without their vehicles for the weekend. With limited accommodation available in the city, local residents opened their doors and took in many of those stranded. My husband slept in his lorry, after stabling the horses nearby. The race was finally run two days later on the Monday.
Up the Girls! (2000 onwards)
In 2009, Mon Mome won at 100-1 for Venetia Williams, only the second female trainer to have a victory in the race since Jenny Pitman. I had got divorced and left the yard by then, but was excited enough to phone my ex-husband and congratulate Venetia's team.
In 2012, Katie Walsh completed the course on Seabass to finish in third place after an exciting race, the best result to date for a female jockey.
I’m writing this ahead of time, so I can’t tell you yet which horse will win in 2013 (if I could, I'd have the mortgage on the beast!). But you can be sure this year’s Grand National winner will touch the hearts of many who do not normally care about horse racing. Will it be another 100-1 shot outsider or the favourite On his Own? Or will Katie Walsh beat her brother Ruby and make it a first for a jockey girl? What a story that would make!
So did you pick a winner this year?
|Me and friends playing at being jockey girls in County Sligo, Ireland|
Katherine Roberts is an award winning children's author www.katherineroberts.co.uk
Her latest series the Pendragon Legacy about King Arthur's daughter is published by Templar - Book 3 Crown of Dreams is now available in hardcover.