The Grand National is a race like no other.
Ever since the aptly named Lottery won the first running of the race in 1839, the race has continued to entertain and astound in equal measure and this year’s rendition looks to have all of the ingredients of a classic.
On Saturday the 8th of April 2017, 40 horses will attempt to gallop their way around the fabled four and a quarter miles at Aintree racecourse, with just the small matter of 30 fences of differing height and depth standing in their way.
The names Becher’s Brook, The Canal Turn and The Chair are synonymous with the Grand National, and there’s no finer spectacle in sport than seeing the majestic thoroughbred leaping over these towering obstacles and seeing the birch scatter as they do so.
Three famous winners
Past winners of the Grand National have earned a special place in British sporting folklore. Red Rum is perhaps the most famous of all, as the only three time winner of the race (1973, 1974 and 1977) who was expertly guided through his career by his trainer, the late Ginger McCain.
The first of his wins could be considered the most memorable, as he was 15 lengths behind the Australian raider Crisp at the last fence but showed tremendous reserves of stamina to charge up the run in and win by three quarters of a length.
Foinavon is another name that will forever be associated with the Grand National, as he famously won the 1967 running at odds of 100/1 after the rest of the field either fell, were brought down or refused at the 23rd fence, which has since been renamed in his honour.
More recently Don’t Push It and Sir A.P. McCoy won the 2010 edition, in what would be the only win in the race for the greatest jumps jockey of all time, before his retirement in 2015. These are just three examples of horses that have relished the unique challenge that Aintree poses and earned themselves a place in the history books as a result.
Changes to promote safety
Whilst the main challenges of the Grand National remain the same as those faced by past champions, changes have been made in recent years to promote horse and jockey safety.
The fences may still be referred to by the same names but their character has changed. Long gone are the hard wooden bases that offered no room for error; instead the horses are now faced with more forgiving designs. The height of the fences remains the same but the solidity of the structure has been reduced.
Now, more loose birch is used to maintain the intimidation factor of these unique fences whilst also allowing horses to brush through if they make a mistake, as opposed to falling or unseating the rider.
Stricter qualification criteria for the horses has ensured that only those with a suitable level of experience are allowed to partake in the race. Jockeys must also meet the strict standards put in place by the British Horseracing Authority before they are able to get to the start line on the big day.
The start line itself has been moved away from the stands so as to encourage calmness amongst the horses and their riders. These changes have yielded good results; since they were introduced before the 2013-14 season there have been no fatalities during the Grand National.
Over £300 million will be wagered on this year’s running of the race, which will see 40 of the finest equine athletes in the United Kingdom and Ireland attempt to add their name to the prestigious role of honour.
Red horse on the course
A ‘red’ horse will attempt to continue the fine record of his predecessors who have also had the colour in the name, as the uniquely spelled Definitily Red will attempt to join the aforementioned Red Rum and the 2001 winner, Red Marauder.
Scottish trainer Lucinda Russell has a good chance with One For Arthur, and there will no doubt be several punters who can empathise with the owners, who are known as the ‘Two Golf Widows’. One For Arthur was an impressive winner of the Classic Chase at Warwick earlier in the season and he will hope to give Scotland a second win in the race and the first since Rubstic in 1979.
There would be few winners as popular as Vicente, as he is owned by Trevor Hemmings, who suffered the ultimate cruelty in the sport when his 2015 Grand National winner Many Clouds died of a heart attack immediately after bravely beating Thistlecrack, the highest rated staying chaser in Britain and Ireland, at Cheltenham in January.
Hemmings has a long affinity with the Grand National and has tasted success with Ballabriggs and Hedgehunter in addition to the ill-fated Many Clouds, and no-one would begrudge him another win this year.
Whilst it may not be easy to predict which horse will cross the line first on Saturday, it is easy to foresee another unique race that will showcase all of the qualities that are traditionally associated with National Hunt racing. The abundant skill, determination and courage of all the horses and jockeys is what makes the Grand National so special, and is why we should savour the world’s greatest steeplechase.