History of the Grand National

The First Grand National

The history of the Grand National is long and varied. The Grand National was founded by William Lynn, the owner of the Waterloo Hotel, on land he leased in Aintree from William Molyneux, 2nd Earl of Sefton.

There is a great deal of debate over what is considered the first official Grand National.  The ‘Grand Liverpool Steeplechase’ took place on Tuesday the 26th February 1839 at Aintree.  This is considered to be the first running of what became later known as the Grand National.  The winner of the first race was the aptly named ‘Lottery’ and the race was run over a 4 mile course with partly ploughed fields, fences, banks, two brooks and a stone wall!

Also taking part in the inaugral race was a horse named ‘Conrad’.  The horse’s jockey was non other than Captain Martin Becher. Becher fell during the race, giving his name to possibly the most famous obstacle in Horse Racing, Becher’s Brook.

Some historians, including John Pinfold, now believe that the first running was actually in 1836 and was won by a horse called The Duke.


The races between 1836 and 1836 inclusive had previously not been classified of running’s of the famous race, because historians previously believed they took place at Maghull and not Aintree.

In recent years further evidence has been found to suggest those races were run at Aintree.

Newspaper reports from the time place all the 1836-38 races at Aintree although the 1839 race is the first described as “national”. To date, calls for the ‘Nationals’ of 1836–1838 to be restored to the record books have not succeeded. 

In the 1840’s William Lynn fell into ill health and Edward Topham, beacme more involved in the running of the National. He turned the chase into a handicap in 1843 and took over the land lease in 1848. In 1949, the Topham family bought the course outright.

First World War

During the First World War, for a period of 3 years while Aintree Racecourse was taken over by the British Government, an alternative race was run at Gatwick Racecourse.  In 1916 race was held called the ‘Racecourse Association Steeplechase‘, and in 1917 and 1918 the race was known as the ‘War National Steeplechase‘. The races at Gatwick are rarely recognised as official ‘Grand Nationals’.

The 1928 Grand National

The 1928 Grand National remains one of the most famous renewals of the race. The winner Tipperary Tim was one of only two runners to complete the race.

Before the race had begun, Tipperary Tim’s jockey William Dutton heard a friend call out to him: “Billy boy, you’ll only win if all the others fall down!” 

The race was run in foggy conditions and the going that day was very heavy.  As the field approached the Canal Turn on the first circuit, Easter Hero fell, causing a multi-horse pile-up.  At this stage, only seven horses remained with jockeys in the saddle.  As the race unfolded, approaching the penultimate fence only 3 runners remained in contention. 

Great Span’s saddle slipped, leaving Billy Barton in the lead until he also  fell leaving Tipperary Tim to win the race at odds of 100-1. Billy Braton’s jockey managed to remount, leaving only two finishers. 



The 1940’s and 50’s

The Grand National was run as normal in 1940, but again the commandeering of Aintree for defence use in 1941, meant there was no  Grand National between 1941 and 1945.

The 1956 Grand National is another that went down in history. Devon Loch, owned by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, jumped the final fence five lengths clear from E.S.B.  Just forty yards from the finish line with no obstacles remaining, Devon Loch suddenly, half-jumped into the air and belly-flopped on to the ground. Despite efforts by jockey (and author) Dick Francis, to get Devon Loch going again, the horse was unable to complete the race, leaving E.S.B. to cross the finishing line first.

Foinavon and the 1960’s

The unlikely hero of the 1967 Grand National was a horse named Foinavon.  The unfancied 100-1 outsider Foinavon started the race slowly.

At fence number 23 a loose horse named Popham Down veered violently to his right and slammed into Rutherfords. This started a huge pile-up, with fallers and unseated horses blocking the track.

Jockey John Buckingham skillfully guided Foinavon around the carnage. With 6 fences remaining Foinavon had a 30 length lead.  Buckingham managed to keep Foinavon’s nose in front despite some jockey’s remounting, including the jockey of 15-2  favourite Honey End. Only 18 of the original 44 starters finished the race.

The sixties were also notable for Fred Winter who won the race once as a jockey and twice as a trainer over the decade.

There is a great short film from 1969 showing footage of the run up to the Grand National that year.  

The Most Famous Grand National Winner of All

The 1970’s was a decade dominated by Red Rum.  Originally bought for the equivalent of just £420, Red Rum later changed hands for 6000 guineas (or £6300) when trainer Ginger McCain bought him on behalf of Noel Le Mare.  Just two days after buying the horse, McCain noticed that the horse was lame. McCain treated by galloping him in sea water.

In the 1973 Grand National 1973, Red Rum started as 9-1 favourite. With 4 fences to go Australian horse Crisp led by 33 lengths. But, conceding 23lb to the favourite, Crisp began to falter. Red Run finally prevailed by 3/4 of a length in what was a record time of 9 min 1.9 seconds, nearly 20 seconds faster than the previous record. 

Red Rum went on to win the National a record three times in the history of the Grand National and in the process, along with trainer Ginger McCain became a national treasure.

The 1993 National Debacle

The 1993 Grand National did not get off to a clear start. Earlier in the day a group of protestors had invaded the course, and when the time came for the race to start it was a nervy affair. 

When under starter’s orders, one jockey got tangled in the starting tape which had not risen correctly. A false start was declared, but this was not clear to the jockey’s taking part.  30 of the 39 jockeys failed to realise and started the race.

Officials tried to stop them after they set off by waving red flags, but many jockeys continued to race, in the mistaken belief that they were more protesters.

Just seven horses completed the race and the result was declared void. 

Up to Date

In 1981 jockey Bob Champion won the race on Aldaniti.  

Two years earlier Bob Champion had been diagnosed with testicular cancer, and his doctors only gave him a matter of months to live. Aldaniti had recently recovered from leg issues.  The pair went attained legendary status after coming back to win the race. Their story was immortalised in the film Champions, starring John Hurt.

In a another great story Red Rum’s trainer Ginger McCain returned to the Grand National in 2004. McCain’s Amberleigh House was ridden home by jockey by Graham Lee. Lee overtook Clan Royal on the final straight after Hedgehunter, winner the following year, fell at the last fence while leading. 

2009 saw Mon Mome become the longest priced winner of the National for over 40 years, at odds of 100-1.

In 2018, the race was won by Tiger Roll, under Davy Russell, ahead of Pleasant Company and Bless the Wings.

Who will be the next horse to go down in the history of the Grand National?


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