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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

The race that captures the world's imagination

The Aintree Grand National is a race that inspires near instant recognition in almost every country of the developed world, where spectators and viewers are either in awe, trepidation, anger or sheer amazement at the sight of the cavalry charge toward Becher's Brook and the other 29 fences that make up this unique race.

2021 will constitute the 173rd running of a race that was spawned in 1839, at the height of the Victorian expansion of horseracing in Great Britain. And even in the Victorian era, it was what the English would describe as a "Marmite race" - you either love it or you hate it. For those outside the UK, Marmite is a leading brand of yeast extract used as a spread on bread or toast.

The earliest recorded races in the Liverpool area date back to 1576, when a four mile race each year was held at Crosby for a silver bell valued at over £6, no small sum by the standards of the day. When this petered out, there was a lengthy break until around 1776 when racing began again, falling away again after 20 years through lack of support.

The connection with Aintree came about through the acquaintance and business connections between John Formby, a landowner with an interest in the Maghull races, and Liverpool hotelier, William Lynn, who colluded to abandon Maghull in favour of a new course at Aintree. Lynn, whose syndicate rented the Maghull ground from Formby, took the lead in leasing land at Aintree and putting up a grandstand.

The first races were held in 1829 on the Flat. However, a steeplechase was added in 1836, allowing the introduction of a man who is synonymous with Aintree - Captain Becher, as near a professional amateur as you could be in that era.

Lynn's concept of the creation of a race that would fill his hotel with wealthy guests did not match reality. In the 10 years preceding the first National, the enterprise beggared him, writing to an artist looking to sell his work around the race, "I shall have to go through the Gazette to get quite out of the racecourse concern. I should have been worth £30,000 if I had never had anything to do with it. Now I have to begin the World all over again."

Future owners of Aintree would understand those sentiments all too well in years to come.

With Lynn withdrawing, a new syndicate was set up to refinance Aintree, and submitting a decent prize, there was considerable public interest in the race from the publication of entries on January 6 1839. The race date was set for February 26. A crowd estimated at between 40-50,000 attended the day to see Lottery, ridden by Jem Mason, beat 16 rivals in a time of 14m 53s (the course record by Mr Frisk in 1990 is 8m 47s).

Where does Becher fit into this? Early in the race was an obstacle made of stout post and rails 3ft high, leaning forward to lessen the height, with a brook and drop the other side - a spread of some 23ft. Becher, leading the field on his mount Conrad, fell at the obstacle, and crept into the brook to shelter from the rest of the field, before remounting and chasing after the rest of the runners. That fence and that brook look somewhat different now, but Becher's Brook is the best known fence on the entire course.

Gainsayers were plentiful post-race. The Liverpool Mercury ran a damning editorial, "It was no doubt a very exciting spectacle, but we can no more be reconciled to it on that account than we are to cockfighting, bull baiting, or any other popular pastime which is attended with the infliction of wanton torture on any living being."

Plus ça change, one might say. This is a race that has inspired intense emotions at opposite ends of the spectrum from the off.

Lottery was back at Aintree in 1840, but despite being a multiple winner elsewhere, the conditions of the race gave him a substantial weight which he couldn't overcome.

The Liverpool Steeplechase was renamed and turned into a handicap in 1843, whence it became a cornerstone of the British and Irish calendar, especially with the demise of the renowned St Albans Steeplechase. The descriptor Grand National didn't come about until 1847. The decision to adopt a handicap was the brainchild of Edward Topham, part of the Sefton syndicate and a handicapper in his own right. And 100 years on, the Topham family bought the course outright, managing it in the meantime.

Early runnings had as much in common with the cross country courses at Cheltenham, Craon and Punchestown as with a contemporary steeplechase. For example, Lord Sefton, leader of the syndicate owning Aintree, was begged to add a stone wall in time for the 1840 running to encourage Irish entries, and agreed with the proviso he would include an oxer that would appeal to Leicestershire horses. Racing pace was slower until the advent of professional jockeys in the twentieth century.

The first Irish winner was Mathew, in 1847.

In the early years, the race was punctuated by success by some of the country's best known riders; George Stevens won the race 5 times between 1856-70, Tom Olliver 3 times from 1842-53. Their fame helped, but it was the addition of a railway to Aintree that enabled the masses to make their way out into the country from the city centre.

And whilst those individuals were the nineteenth century's equivalent of professional riders, the same could not be said of the first foreign-born winner of the race, Count Karl Kinsky, the 8th Prince Kinsky of Wichnitz & Tettau, was an Austrian aristocrat. He visited Aintree in the late 1870s and resolved to buy himself a horse to ride in the race. The third in the 1882 race, Zoedone, fitted the bill and subsequently won the race the following year under his guidance. As attaché for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in London, Kinsky set the scene for a string of other able and wealthy amateurs to follow his lead in the twentieth century. His winner was not so lucky, being mysteriously poisoned after the race.

Aintree pre-war was still a rural location
Aintree pre-war was still a rural location

The advent of war in 1914 abruptly brought racing to a close, and the sport at large was slow into its stride after the armistice, not least since Ireland, nursery of Jumping stock, was struggling for independence in a civil war. However, this period brought to the fore a family that dominated racing in the UK, and latterly, further afield. Ernie Piggott, grandfather to the legendary Lester, was an accomplished Jump jockey and won the Liverpool National in 1912 on Jerry M and in 1919 on Poethlyn and a replacement National held at Gatwick the previous year. His son, Keith, won the race as a trainer in 1963 with Ayala.

The fifties also saw an acceleration of Irish interest as Vincent O'Brien followed on his Cheltenham successes with an assault on Liverpool too. Three consecutive Nationals from 1953-56 with Early Mist, Royal Tan and Quare Times cemented an Irish passion for the race that has subsequently delivered a further seven winners of the race, six of those since the new millennium.

But whilst the post-war period cemented the race as a national institution, being afforded status as one of TV's crown jewels that have to be broadcast on a free-to-air terrestrial channel, the status of Aintree became less and less certain. The Topham family, which had run the race since its earliest days, bought out the racecourse freehold in 1949, but declined to invest in the course, which became more and more run down during a period when racecourse attendances at large were declining rapidly.

That's not to say that the redoubtable Mrs Topham was not an innovator, and she should not necessarily be cast as villain of the piece. Under her guidance, a second race - the Topham Trophy - over the National fences was introduced, alongside a new course - the Mildmay course. She even brought the British Grand Prix to Aintree, but none of these initiatives was sufficient to stop the financial rot.

The freehold sale in 1949 had included a covenant that the land should always be used for agricultural or horseracing purposes. After numerous appeals, during which it became standard parlance to talk of the "last National to take place at Aintree" each year, Topham Ltd finally overturned the covenant and sold the racecourse to property developer William Davies in 1973.

At exactly the time that Red Rum was making history with his hattrick of wins from 1973-77, Aintree hit rock-bottom. Bookmaker Ladbrokes took on the management in the late seventies with a £3m investment, but it was perhaps Red Rum that saved the race and led the Jockey Club to rescue the racecourse from an inevitable closure with an innovative public fund-raising appeal to buy out Davies in 1983.

To outsiders, Aintree is as memorable for its disasters as for its triumphs. And with typical Liverpool panache, sometimes those disasters have been turned into triumphs instead. Who could forget the fiasco of the void race in 1993, when a false start was ignored by half the field. It was a Kennedy moment for racing fans; everyone can remember where they were that day.

The first false start that was recalled
The first false start that was recalled

The same is the case for the extraordinary Saturday 3 years later, when a bomb threat forced the total evacuation of the site in short order, leaving belongings behind. The people of Aintree took in racegoers, riders, trainers and all in a Blitz spirit of goodwill and the race was rescheduled for late afternoon the following Monday, to be won by Lord Gyllene under Tony Dobbin for Stan Clarke, owner of the St Modwen Group and a string of racecourses of his own.

Over 70,000 spectators were ejected from Aintree during the bomb scare
Over 70,000 spectators were ejected from Aintree during the bomb scare

Controversy stalks the race like a grim reaper, and yet a majority of the British public, never mind a TV audience of 600m worldwide, is fascinated by this 9 minutes of pure theatre once a year. And it's that audience scale that makes this race the most critical barometer of the popularity of horseracing worldwide. Purists will tell you the race has been dumbed down by changes to the fences that pander to apologists, but the reality remains that this is a race to supersede all others - an endurance test to mark out the partnership with the strongest stamina and jumping ability.

A winner of the National, whether horse, trainer or rider, meets instant recognition afterwards, and brings racing to a broader audience than any other race in the world. And a sure sign of the continued popularity of the race is that copycat Nationals are run at other racecourses all over the UK and Ireland, and further afield, albeit none with the same staggering £1m prize fund.

Tiger Roll, the first dual winner since Red Rum 45 years ago
Tiger Roll, the first dual winner since Red Rum 45 years ago

Long may it continue. William Lynn's legacy is here to stay.

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