Grand National Saturday in early April is the one day of the year in which nearly everybody becomes interested in National Hunt Horse Racing. Almost everyone in Britain either puts on a bet or takes part in a ‘National Sweepstake’ and people who for the rest of the year cannot tell their Becher’s Brook from their Canal Turn spend hours scanning the list of runners searching for a hidden link that will reveal the name of the winning horse and jockey combination.
The Aintree Grand National has been a huge part of British social and sporting life for a long time. The first race was in 1839, although some historians like to put its birth three years before that when the forerunner to the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase – as it was formerly known – took place. Apart from during the war years, it has been an ever-present since then. From 1916 to 1918 they even reproduced the race at Gatwick Racecourse, site of the present airport, when Aintree was unavailable.
The race represents a four and a half mile endurance test, jumping thirty daunting fences, and some of the winners have become part of the folklore of the country. Red Rum, ironically bred as a sprinter, became the only horse to win the race three times and everyone knew of his training runs on the Southport beaches with ‘Ginger’ McKain. Aldaniti and Bob Champion became legends when the horse that had nearly been invalided to retirement won with the jockey who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Similarly, few will forget 1967 when Foinavon became a 100/1 winner because of the multiple pile-up at the twenty third fence; the horse just leaving the havoc behind and coasting home to victory.
Older people might recall an even stranger event when a horse that didn’t win the National became forever famous; Devon Loch in 1956. Practically the whole country wanted the Queen Mother’s horse to win the race that year and victory looked assured until, just 50 yards from the finish, Devon Loch tried to ‘jump’ a phantom fence and unseated the jockey, soon to be famous thriller writer Dick Francis. One wonders how many people recall that E.S.B. won the National that year.
It is the ability of the Grand National to turn up heart-warming stories and thrilling finishes – and, as in 2009 with Mon Mome, the occasional 100/1 winner. Although often criticized by animal rights’ organizations because of the difficulty of the course and the potentially hazardous jumps, over the entire history of the race, there have been only 58 fatalities and four of those were in 1954. The only jockey to have died during the race was George Ede, back in 1870.
The Grand National always attracts thousands of people to the Aintree Race Course just outside of Liverpool. There are now five main Grandstands for spectators at the course – the Princess Royal, The County, the Queen Mother and the recently opened Earl of Derby and Lord Sefton Stands. All offer wonderful views of the course and excellent facilities; with the Princess Royal and Queen Mother Stands being best suited for disabled visitors. In addition, there are various enclosures and paddocks. Full details of all the available ticket and hospitality packages can be found on the race meeting’s own official website.
If you are travelling to Aintree Race Course by car, then be advised that there is very little on-course parking available, although there is parking for Disabled drivers, which needs to be booked in advance. A free ‘Park and Ride’ scheme operates. The course can be reached by bus with route numbers 300, 311, 345, 350 and 351 from Liverpool. Special race trains operate from Liverpool Central Station (just a short walk from the mainline Lime Street station) and any train travelling on the Northern Line to Ormskirk will stop at Aintree. The main station entrance is directly opposite the course.