The Grand National Steeplechase
The Grand National Steeplechase. The biggie of them all. What makes this Steeplechase such a big race and why is the Grand National watched and revered all over the World?
For 170 years the Grand National Steeplechase has been the horse race that gets the world talking.
The combination of the marathon four-and-a-half mile distance, the 30 incredibly daunting and unique obstacles, and the history associated with one of the most dramatic sporting and betting events in the world, makes the Grand National Steeplechase one of the most exciting races anywhere on the globe.
Set in the unlikely surroundings of Aintree, in industrial Liverpool, the race has endured plenty of ups and downs during a turbulent history but has, during the last 25 years, emerged from near oblivion to become the highlight of many people's sporting and social calendars.
Even those who don't follow horseracing and rarely, if ever, have a bet on the sport, delve into their pockets and have at least a token bet on a race that can produce virtually any result imaginable. Only last year 100/1 chance Mon Mome proved that dreams still can come true for any racehorse owner, trainer, Grand National jockey, or punter.
The course itself is what sets the Grand National Steeplechase apart from any other race. Even the names of the fences themselves are known to the general public: Becher's Brook, The Chair, the Canal Turn, Valentines, the 'Foinavon' fence.
These days, up to 42 horses might be facing the starter on Grand National day, but in the past as many as 66 runners have been known to take their chance in the contest. Runners and riders must complete two circuits of the course, requiring a winning horse to be blessed with abundant stamina, courage, and, most of all, luck. Over the years, so many horses have appeared to have the race in their grasp only for fate to take a hand and rob them of the greatest prize of all.
Most famously, in 1956, the Queen Mother's Devon Loch had the race at his mercy, being around 20 lengths clear of ESB with only 100 yards left to go. With Dick Francis on board on his way to adding his name to the list of legendary Grand National jockeys, Devon Loch inexplicably jumped into the air and did the splits, sprawling to a slithering halt and leaving the crowd in complete shock as ESB went plodding past to take victory.
There were some theories that suggested the horse had been hit by a stun gun, and others wondered if the roars of the crowd anticipating a royal success caused the gelding to lose concentration. He might have jumped a shadow, or even missed a heartbeat; we will never know. The Queen Mother famously commented afterwards, "Well, that's racing!"
The luckiest horse of all is surely Foinavon, a modest steeplechaser who was ignored in the Grand National tips for the betting for the 1967 'National' at 100/1. Some way behind when the field reached the smallest fence on the course second time around (the 23rd), one horse refused and blocked the path of all the runners, none of whom managed to jump over, except Foinavon, ridden by unheralded John Buckingham, who clambered over the obstacle (that would later bear his name) and went 200 yards clear with only a mile left to run. He hung on to win and became one of the most unlikely winners ever of the race.
Even the greatest horses need luck. When Red Rum took his first Grand National Steeplechase in 1973, it was only because he was receiving lumps of weight from the great Australian chaser Crisp. Crisp, a horse who had proved very popular with the betting public, but whose engine finally ran on empty in the last furlong, wandered around like a drunk at closing time, completely losing his stride pattern and leaving the lightly-weighted, and subsequent triple winner, Red Rum to gallop ahead in the shadow of the post.