As another edition of the iconic Aintree Grand National approaches, Kevin Boyle looks back at the history of the greatest race on earth.
In its 179 year history the Grand National broken hearts (and bones), enraptured millions and elevated a select few to the pantheon of National Hunt racing.
Consider for a moment the perspective of the jockey who, having dressed, weighed in, and perhaps muttered a short prayer to the racing Gods, mounts their steed and gently ushers it forward in a gentle canter towards the starting line.
En route it’s difficult to ignore the 70,000 baying spectators who are demanding that you either go and win the race or fall from your horse at the earliest possible convenience (depending on the contents of their betting slips).
But you’re a professional and you do ignore them. Besides, as you edge nearer the starting line where a sea of equine beasts swells from side to side in skittish anticipation, you’ve got more important things on your mind.
In a few short but interminable minutes you will be taking part in the biggest horse race in the world. You will attempt to navigate the 16 towering, spruce-decked fences that are spread out before you (twice) and hope that, somehow, the brave horse beneath you can tolerate his aching lungs and screaming tendons across a punishing four miles of national hunt track.
When all are gathered at the start the sheer number of runners and riders is in itself a thing to behold.
Beside you on both sides are the 39 other competitors who form a line, like a cavalry on an ancient battlefield, which stretches from one side of the track to the other. Neighbours cast nervous glances between one another and wonder which of them will manage to cross the finish line.
The runners edge forward as if on tip toe, eager to make as quick a start as possible. Anything less could mean you will be swamped by horses so that the colossal fences appear only at the last moment, rising up like enormous ice bergs from a violent sea.
All eyes turn to the starter who with a drop of his hand will send the cavalry on its way. Knuckles tighten around reins. You can barely breathe.
And they’re off.
On Saturday evening, millions of people around the world will tune in to watch the 171st running of the Aintree Grand National. 40 horses and jockeys will set out upon the most demanding course in horse racing and only one will be crowned a Grand National Champion, with the potential to frustrate pub quiz players for decades to come or even become the next legend of Aintree.
And since its first running back in 1839 many legends have emerged from the race. From the late, great Vincent O’Brien, who trained three different horses to glory over three successive years to the infamous Red Rum, the Grand National has churned out its fair share of wonder over the years.
A maximum of 40 horses can now run the Aintree Grand National, but this has not always been the case. Fields of over 50 horses were not uncommon in the past and in 1929 a total of 66 horses competed. The smallest field to ever tackle the course consisted of just ten runners.
And in 1928 only two horses made it to the finish line, after 40 of the 42 runners were unseated around the track.
The treacherous fences of Becher’s Brook (named after jockey Martin Becher who once took refuge at the bottom of it following a fall) and the Chair have ended many a hope over the decades.
Becher’s Brook alone has accounted for 14 horse deaths over the years, triple that of any other fence on the course.
Only one human fatality has occurred in the running of the Grand National. The unfortunate Joseph Wynne was unseated at the Chair fence and crushed by a falling horse.
The placement and angle of certain fences has been altered in recent years following pressure from animal rights activists and has resulted in a reduction in falls and animal fatalities.
Throughout its long and varied history, some years have thrown up incredible results, but perhaps none more so than the 1967 victory of Foinavon.
Cyril Watkins, who owned the Irish Gelding, hadn’t even attended the race so convinced was he that the horse held no chance. As the race reached its climax, Foinavon was lagging way behind the field and was firmly out of contention. Up ahead the leading pack were hurtling towards their fifth last fence when a loose horse cut across the track, taking down a number of horses and creating a pile up.
Foinavon had been so far behind that he had ample time to sidestep the carnage and saunter on to win.
In 1981 both Aldanti and his jockey Bob Champion became worldwide celebrities when they won the Grand National. Champion had recovered from a cancer prognosis that had given him only two years to live to guide home Aldanti (who also had overcome serious health issues).
The story was so huge at the time that a motion picture based on the event was produced. Aldanti got to play himself as the horse in the film, but sadly for Bob Champion he would be replaced with John Hurt.
Of course not everyone who competes in the Grand National has fond memories of the race. Some of the best jockeys in the sport went their entire careers with only broken bones and bruises to show for their efforts.
And then there was Beltrán Alfonso Osorio, the 18th Duke of Albuquerque or the Iron Duke as he was known. Osorio was a Spanish aristocrat who took a notion to becoming a jockey after watching a film as a child. Though the wannabe jockey lacked talent, he did not lack money and consequently got to live out his childhood dream.
The Duke entered the Grand National for the first time in 1952, making it less than a quarter way around the course before a fall caused him to lose consciousness and damage his vertebrae.
Eleven years later he decided to try again and the results were somewhat similar. And again in 1965 (this time breaking his leg). Some bookies even started offering odds of 66/1 for Osorio to even complete the race. In 1972 in yet another effort to win the grand national his fall resulted in a broken collarbone, vertebrae, ribs, wrist, thighbone and a two day coma.
When the determined, but clearly unstable Duke once more tried to enter the Grand National (at the age of 57) the British Racing Authority this time revoked his jockeys licence for his own good and most likely saved his life in doing so.
To back a winner of the Grand National you could study form and trends or you could pick a name that you find funnier than the others. Both will give you about the same chance of a profit – slim.
Over a four mile marathon the horse needs to jump well, stay well and be incredibly lucky. With so many obstacles and so many riders the chance of disaster is significant. The slightest misstep at one of these unforgiving fences can take down the best runners.
But as you witness the unrivalled spectacle and audacity of horse and man/woman on Saturday evening you won’t even notice or care that your €3 each way bet just fell at the previous fence.