Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Grand National: Victories and Tragedies, Drama and Suspense

Saturday, April 9th saw the running of one of the most famous horse races in history, at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool – the Grand National. It has to be the most famous jump race held anywhere. Never short of suspense, the National has also had more than its share of drama. And for every victory there are often more than a few tragedies.

1839 Grand National winner, Lottery, ridden by Jem Mason
The National has often been called the greatest test of horse and rider, and it’s not hard to see why. A four-mile, three-and-a-half furlong race, involving two circuits of the Aintree course, jumping thirty big fences.

The largest of these is The Chair, which stands at 5 ft 2in high and also has a 6 ft wide ditch in front of it. The take-off side is 6 in lower than the landing side. This fence had recorded the only human fatality so far during the race itself, back in 1862. The jockey Joe Wynne fell there and died of his injuries, although the coroner reckoned the fact he had consumption was a major contributing factor.

The lowest fence is possibly the water jump, which is a mere 3 ft 2 in on the take-off side, but also has an 8 ft 10 in shallow water-filled ditch on the landing side, making the fence by far the widest. In early Nationals, the fence itself was a stone wall, although this has long-since been replaced by something a bit more forgiving.

The fences are mostly built around a plastic core and covered with spruce branches. A hundred and fifty tons of them are shipped down from the Lake District to Aintree for the purpose.

There is some controversy about the date of the first race, with steeplechases taking place in 1836. The winner then, The Duke, was ridden by Capt Martin Becher, for whom the Becher’s Brook fence is named. He took shelter there after falling the following year. But the first big event was in 1839, won by Lottery that is seen as the first proper running of the race.

Becher's Brook, named after Capt Martin Becher

The National has seen plenty of remarkable stories. In 1928 an outsider called Tipperary Tim won when he was the only horse out of 42 starters not to fall. A fallen horse at the Canal Turn on the first circuit caused a pile-up from which only seven horses and jockeys emerged unscathed, the others falling before the finish and leaving Tipperary Tim and his jockey, William Dutton, to romp home unopposed.

Tipperary Tim
In 1956 the horse Devon Loch, owned by the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and ridden by Dick Francis, made a phantom leap on the run-in to the finish, while leading the race. Nobody quite knows what happened, but perhaps the mystery inspired Dick Francis into his crime thriller career?

Devon Loch's downfall, with jockey Dick Francis
In 1967, another outsider called Foinavon was so far behind the leaders that when a loose horse cut across in front of the pack at fence 7/23, causing most of them to stop or unseat their riders, Foinavon’s jockey, John Buckingham, time to steer round the obstruction and go on to win. That fence was officially renamed Foinavon in 1984.

The 1967 pile-up, which allowed Foinavon to win
 The 1970s belonged to a horse called Red Rum, who won three times in 1973, 1974 and 1977, and was second in the two intervening years. This is despite being lame when he arrived in trainer Ginger McCain’s yard. Fortunately, exercising in saltwater on Southport sands had a highly beneficial effect, and Red Rum became the most successful horse in Grand National history.

Red Rum (number 8) on his way to victory
The 1981 National was a fairytale story. Two years previously, jockey Bob Champion had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and told he had months to live. His mount, Aldaniti, had recovered from career-threatening leg problems. The pair went on to win by four-and-a-half lengths and were instant celebrities. A movie of their story was made, with Champion played by John Hurt, and Aldaniti played by himself.

The 1990s saw a disaster in the form of the 1993 Race Which Never Was, when some horses became tangled in the starting tape, which failed to rise correctly. Thirty of the 39 riders didn’t realize a false start had been called, and ignored course officials waving at them as there had been a series of protests on the course. Horse Esha Ness came home first, but the result was declared void.

And in 1997 a coded IRA bomb threat was received, causing the immediate evacuation of Aintree and leaving thousands of race-goers stranded without their vehicles. Hotels overflowed, so local residents took them in, and the race was run two days late, on the Monday.

Those protesters at the 1993 National have not been the only time the race has been the cause of controversy, and it remains so to this day. Since 2000 eleven horses have died in the race itself, and a total of 46 over the course of the Grand National meetings. This despite alterations to the fences in theory to make them less injurious.

Take this year’s race, for instance, although the industry reported proudly that there were no fatalities during the National itself, they didn’t mention too much about the four horses that died at the meeting overall, which began two days earlier.

According to Animal Aid figures, 40 Thoroughbreds have died as a result of racing injuries so far this year. One has to wonder if the danger is what makes the Grand National so compelling to many who are non race-goes for the rest of the year.

I have always been a horse lover, and don’t consider myself particularly sentimental. I know there is nothing you can do to persuade a horse to jump if it doesn’t have the will and the aptitude, but even so I have my deep-seated doubts about the way the racing industry seems to have become an adjunct of the betting industry and the effect that is bound to have on the magnificent animals who give their all for the sport of kings.

2016 Grand National winner, Rule The World, ridden by David Mullins
This week’s Word of the Week is necropsy, meaning a post-mortem examination, particularly one carried out on an animal.


  1. Zoe, I have never known a horse personally, but they fascinate me. And statues of them never fail to rivet my attention. They appear as the companions of human beings in three of my four published novels. The picture you and Bob, yesterday, paint of them is what I imagine the relationship between a horse and person to be. I tend to be sentimental and have worried that I was making more of that bond than really exists. You here, and Bob yesterday, have given me insight into the truth. Next time a horse shows up in one of my stories--and many certainly will--I will not hold back on describing the magnificence of horses. Thank you!

    1. OH, and Red Rum by the way, as all Stephen King fans know, is MURDER spelled backwards.

    2. Hi Annamaria. It's wonderful how animals always seem to turn their cameo roles in my books into something far larger, becoming characters in their own right. There are horses in FIFTH VICTIM (and no, none of them are the victim mentioned in the title!) and at one point Charlie even uses one as an improvised weapon.

      But they are utterly magnificent, so don't hold back!

      Stephen King was onto something there ...

  2. As I'm sure you know, 'Rummy' won three times and was second twice- beaten by the soft ground and the handicap weight. I recall him winning a special sports personality of the year award - he walked into front of a live TV studio audience and he loved every minute of it. Frank Bough asked if it was OK for the audience to clap ( as he thought Rummy might take fright), the horse lapped up the applause. When Tommy Stack (??) his national jockey appeared by satellite Rummy pricked up his ears as if to say 'Are we going for a run then??'
    I am a member of the campaign to ban the grand national/ shorten it/ make it even safer. But the issue with making it safer, means it gets faster and that means it gets more dangerous.
    I have Rummy, Arkle (The ONE as the Irish call him ) and Desert Orchid above my fire. Three very handsome boys.

    1. I remember Red Rum being brought into the studio for that show, and how calmly he took it all. I wonder if the person who had him gelded ever regretted the decision, although I'm told he didn't race well until he was.

      And if I had to pick my champion of champions, I think it might have to be Frankel, for the way he seemed to have another gear other horses didn't possess, and when he switched into it, he left the field behind as if they were standing still.

  3. Thanks, Zoë, I'd never read or heard much about The Race in particular. As for making it 'safer,' I fear that's a lost cause, beyond banning it entirely, or limiting it to the point at which everyone just loses interest and it dies a slow death. Kind of like the chances of boxing being made safer. "It could happen..." There's just too many danger-loving, blood-thirsty folks that keep being born.

    1. Many sports are dangerous, but usually the participants are fully aware of those dangers when they agree to take part. Not so with racehorses. And everybody in the horse world knows there are more ex-racehorses around than anything else, bred to fill ever-more race cards at ever-more tracks, for the benefit of the betting industry and without the welfare of the animals concerned.

  4. Though I never made it to he National, as an avid Dick Francis fan in my younger years--reading all he'd written up to that time one after another--I feel as if I've been there! Never knew of his 1956 fall...or graciously forgot about it if I had.

  5. I too am a Dick Francis fan, and he didn't shy away from the nastier side of the racing game in his books. Riveting stuff.