Grand National: An A-to-Z of the race’s history

Esha Ness takes a jump in the 1993 Grand National. Picture: TSPL
Esha Ness takes a jump in the 1993 Grand National. Picture: TSPL
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WE’RE under starter’s orders for the greatest show on turf at Aintree tomorrow. But what do you know about the Grand National and its often controversial history? Here, we’ve put together a lowdown on the big race

A is for AINTREE A syndicate headed by William Lynn brought racing to Aintree and the first fixture at the Liverpool track – on the Flat – was held in July 1829. Jumps fixtures followed in 1835 and Lottery became the first winner of the Grand National in 1839. The course evolved from 1934 into the modern-day circuit. Aintree also hosted motor racing and staged five British grands prix, Scotland’s Jim Clark winning the final one in 1962.

Devon Loch jumped a 'phantom fence' in 1956 and lost at the last. Picture: AP

Devon Loch jumped a 'phantom fence' in 1956 and lost at the last. Picture: AP

B is for BECHER’S BROOK Aintree’s most notorious obstacle, with a daunting drop of 6ft 9in on the landing side. Becher’s is jumped twice during the four mile, three-and-a-half furlong, 30-fence race – as the sixth and 22nd fence. It takes its name from Captain Martin Becher, who fell from his mount, Conrad, in the first National in 1839, and took shelter in the brook to avoid injury. Several safety modifications have been made in recent years.

C is for the CHAIR The Grand National’s tallest fence, at 5ft 3in. One of only two obstacles to be jumped only once (the other is the water jump), it is the 15th fence. It is preceded by a 6ft open ditch before take-off. It was responsible for a nine-horse pile-up in the 1979 running of the National. It takes its name from the chair which used to sit alongside the fence, at which a distance judge would sit.

D is for DEVON LOCH Perhaps the unluckiest loser of the Grand National, Devon Loch gained notoriety for throwing away the 1956 prize with the race at his mercy. Owned by the Queen Mother and ridden by future novelist Dick Francis, the well-fancied Devon Loch surged five lengths clear in the run-in before inexplicably jumping into the air and landing on his stomach 50 yards from the finish line. As hard as Francis tried, he couldn’t get his mount going again. “Oh, that’s racing,” the Queen Mother sportingly shrugged.

E is for ESHA NESS Named after a lighthouse off the Shetland Islands, Esha Ness was the horse that “won” the Grand National that never was in 1993. Amid chaotic scenes, created by animal rights protests, a second false start was called – but not heard by 30 of the 39 runners who hurtled off to run the race. TV pictures caught the torment of “winning” jockey John White, whose face crumpled from joy to despair as he learned he had been denied a famous victory.

Barry Geraghty shows his delight as Monty's Pass wins in 2003. Picture: Getty

Barry Geraghty shows his delight as Monty's Pass wins in 2003. Picture: Getty

F is for FOINAVON The supposed no-hoper who in 1967 encapsulated the old tale of the Tortoise and the Hare. A 100-1 rank outsider, Foinavon was ambling along at the back of the field when a massive pile-up at the 23rd fence turned the race on its head. With many of the more fancied runners left with nowhere to go, Foinavon skipped through the snarl-up under jockey John Buckingham to claim one of the National’s most famous wins. The 7th/23rd fence was named after Foinavon in 1984.

G is for GAMBLE More than £100 million will be staked on the Grand National this year. Bookmakers William Hill alone are estimating a turnover of £25m on the big race, which is expected to peak in the hour up to the off with 7,000 bets per minute, or 116 bets per second, predicted to be placed online or on mobile devices. With the smartphone and tablet boom, William Hill are expecting to take up to 500,000 bets on their App or mobile site this year – a 130 per cent increase on 2012.

H is for HOLIDAY Holiday company king Fred Pontin was the winning owner as Specify won the 1971 Grand National in a thrilling finish. Ridden superbly by John Cook, the 28-1 shot got the better of a five-way battle to the line. Pontin was knighted in 1976 and died in Blackpool aged 93 in 2000.

I is for IAN STEWART The ultimate fan of the big race. Stewart, from Coventry, attended his 50th consecutive Grand National in 2010 and was inducted into the John Smith’s hall of fame as a Grand National “People’s Legend”. His first National was the 1961 race, won by Nicolaus Silver, and his favourite winners include Foinavon, Red Rum and Aldiniti.

J is for JENNY PITMAN She became the first woman to train a Grand National winner when Corbiere won in 1983. She went on to win a second National with Royal Athletic in 1995, and was the trainer of Esha Ness, who won the National that never was in 1993. She retired from training in 1998 and is now an author of fiction based mainly on horseracing.

K is for KATE WALSH The sister of top jockey Ruby Walsh could become the first woman to ride a National winner tomorrow. She has the mount of fancied Irish raider Seabass, trained by her father, Ted, on which she finished third in last year’s race. Geraldine Rees was the first woman to complete the course on Cheers, a 66-1 shot, in 1982.

L is for LADBROKES With the race at its lowest ebb in 1975 – the Grand National attracted its smallest-ever attendance that year – the owner of Aintree, Bill Davies, put forward a plan to sell the course for property development. After widespread public anger, betting company Ladbrokes stepped in to conclude a deal with Davies to sponsor and manage the race, so ensuring its future.

M is for MELLING ROAD Crossing the Melling Road has become one of the best-known phrases of any National commentary. The road is, in fact, a dirt track which cuts across Aintree and forms access to the golf course and driving range that lie within the course boundaries. Golf facilities are closed when Aintree is in use.

N is for NATIONALS Scotland, Ireland and Wales hold their own Nationals. Scotland’s big race, which takes place at Ayr on 20 April this year, has a long and illustrious history, beginning in 1867 when it was won by Elk at Bogside racecourse in Glasgow. The race moved to Ayr in 1966. The Welsh National takes place at Chepstow racecourse in January and was won this year by Monbeg Dude, with fancied Aintree runner Teaforthree second. The Irish National takes place at Fairyhouse in April, with 50-1 shot Liberty Counsel winning earlier this week.

O is for OUTSIDERS Since the National began in 1839, there have been five 100-1 winners, 1928, Tipperary Tim; 1929, Gregalach; 1947, Caughoo; 1967, Foinavon; and 2009, Mon Mome. Tipperary Tim’s win had echoes of what happened in 1967. Legend has it that jockey William Dutton heard someone call out at the start: “Billy boy, you’ll only win if all the others fall down.” As it turned out, they did, with the rest of the runners falling in a pile-up at the Canal Turn, leaving Tipperary Tim to win from the remounted Billy Barton.

P is for PROTESTERS Equine fatalities have attracted many animal rights protests over the years, and the 1993 National fiasco was, in part, due to a delay to the start caused by protesters on the course. Animal Aid plan to hold a demonstration at Aintree tomorrow.

Q is for QUEEN MOTHER Although her horses never won a Grand National, the Queen Mother came agonisingly close in 1956 when Devon Loch, which she owned, collapsed while leading with 50 yards to go. The Queen Mother, who died in 2002, began her involvement with National Hunt racing in 1949, and the highlight of her owning career came in 1984 when Special Cargo won the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown. She found herself receiving the trophy she had agreed to present.

R is for RED RUM The most famous horse in the history of the race, Red Rum, trained by Ginger McCain, won the National in 1973, 1974 and 1977, and also came second in 1975 and 1976. His victory in 1973, when he won after being 30 lengths behind the runaway leader, Crisp, is considered one of the greatest races in the history of the National. Red Rum, renowned for his jumping ability, never fell in 100 races.

S is for SCOTLAND There has only been one Scottish-trained success at the Grand National – Rubstic, in 1979. Owned by Scotland and British Lions rugby internationalist John Douglas, Rubstic was piloted by Maurice Barnes and trained by John Leadbetter at Bedrule near the village of Denholm in the Borders.

T is for TOTE The British bookmaker was founded by the Government in 1928 with the intention of providing a safe, state-controlled alternative to illegal off-course bookmakers and is a familiar sight at the UK’s racetracks, becoming the official betting partner of the Grand National meeting five years ago. It was sold to Betfred in 2011.

U is for USA After Rubstic in 1979, you could be forgiven for thinking Scotland had consecutive winners when Ben Nevis triumphed in 1980. But the winner was bred in England and trained in the United States.

V is for VINCENT O’BRIEN The Irishman who in 2003 was voted the greatest influence in horseracing history, was better known for success on the Flat yet trained three consecutive Grand National winners – Early Mist in 1953, Royal Tan in 1954 and Quare Times in 1955.

W is for WINNINGS There have been a number of huge gambles landed on the big race, but one of the most spectacular came in 2003. Owner Mike Futter won £800,000 after betting on his horse, Monty’s Pass, at 66-1. The eventual starting price was 16-1.

X is for X-RATED Tragedy is part of the Grand National story. Television viewers are often unaware of the fate of fallen horses until after the race, unless they spot the screens going up or the race being diverted. So far 69 horses have died in the history of the race, including two last year.

Y is for YOUNGEST The youngest winning jockey of the National is New York-born Bruce Hobbs who, aged 17 years and three months, steered Battleship to success in 1938.

Z is for ZOEDONE Zoedone was the slowest National winner, in 1883. Owned and ridden by Bohemian diplomat Count Charles Kimsky, she recorded a time of 11m 39s. The fastest ever was Mr Frisk in 1990, who galloped home in 8min 47.8s.