When Was the First Grand National?
The Grand National Steeplechase was founded in 1837 by William Lynn, a Liverpool innkeeper, proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel, on land he leased in Aintree from William Molyneux, 2nd Earl of Sefton. Lynn set out a course, built a grandstand, and Lord Sefton laid the foundation stone on 7 February 1829.
There is much debate regarding the first official Grand National; most leading published historians, including John Pinfold, now prefer the idea that the first running was in 1836 and was won by The Duke. This same horse won again in 1837, while Sir William was the winner in 1838. These races have long been disregarded because of the belief that they took place at Maghull and not Aintree.
However, some historians have unearthed evidence in recent years that suggest those three races were run over the same course at Aintree and were regarded as having been Grand Nationals up until the mid-1860s. Contemporary newspaper reports place all the 1836-38 races at Aintree although the 1839 race is the first described as “national”. To date, though, calls for the Nationals of 1836–1838 to be restored to the record books have been unsuccessful. The Duke was ridden by Martin Becher. The fence Becher’s Brook is named after him and is where he fell in the next year’s race.
In 1838 and 1839 three significant events occurred to transform the Liverpool race from a small local affair to a national event. Firstly, the Great St. Albans Chase, which had clashed with the steeplechase at Aintree, was not renewed after 1838, leaving a major hole in the chasing calendar. Secondly, the railway arrived in Liverpool, enabling transport to the course by rail for the first time.
Finally, a committee was formed to better organise the event. These factors led to a more highly publicised race in 1839 which attracted a larger field of top quality horses and riders, greater press coverage and an increased attendance on race day. Over time the first three runnings of the event were quickly forgotten to secure the 1839 race its place in history as the first official Grand National. It was won by rider Jem Mason on the aptly named, Lottery.
By the 1840s, Lynn’s ill-health blunted his enthusiasm for Aintree. Edward Topham, a respected handicapper and prominent member of Lynn’s syndicate, began to exert greater influence over the National. He turned the chase into a handicap in 1843 after it had been a weight-for-age race for the first four years, and took over the land lease in 1848. One century later, the Topham family bought the course outright. Later in the century the race was the setting of a thriller by the popular novelist Henry Hawley Smart.
After being given a number of different titles, this world-famous horse race acquired its present name, the Grand National Handicap Steeplechase, in 1847. But it is usually referred to as the ‘National’. The event is regarded as one of the most formidable horse races in the world. Often only a few of the competitors manage to finish the course. The stiff obstacles lead to many falls and sometimes a horse is killed.
The ‘National’ takes place every year at Aintree, Lancashire, on a Saturday at the end of March or the beginning of April. It is run over a distance of four miles 856 yards in which 30 fences have to be jumped. The most spectacularly hazardous of these obstacles are Becher’s and Valentine’s Brook where the water is 15 feet wide.
To qualify for the race, horses must have been placed first, second, third or fourth in any steeplechase at Aintree over the Grand National fences, or have won elsewhere a steeplechase of three miles or more, or have won any steeplechase to the defined value or more. The horses must be fairly mature, strong enough to withstand fatigue over long distances, but agile enough to clear the fences safely without unseating their riders.
In 2010 the National became the first horse race to be televised in high-definition in the UK. In August 2013 Crabbie’s was announced as the new sponsor of the Grand National. The three-year deal between the alcoholic ginger beer producer and Aintree saw the race run for a record purse of £1 million in 2014.
In March 2016 it was announced that Randox Health would take over from Crabbie’s as official partners of the Grand National festival from 2017, for at least five years. The sponsorship is controversial as Aintree’s chairwoman, Rose Paterson, is married to Owen Paterson, a Member of Parliament who also earns a £50,000 annual fee as a consultant for Randox. The most recent running of the race, in 2018, was won by Tiger Roll, ridden by jockey Davy Russell for trainer Gordon Elliott. The next Grand National meeting will start on 4 April 2019 and finish on 6 April 2019. As of 2017, the race and accompanying festival are sponsored by Randox Health.