The Grand National is perhaps the most iconic horse race in the world and certainly one of the most popular among bettors. It is believed that around 600 million people watch the televised event each year, with another 150,000 spectators travelling to Aintree to witness the race meeting in person.
The inaugural Grand National took place in 1839, preceded by the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase races of 1836-1838. Run for the first four years as a weight-for-age race, in 1843 Sir Edward Topham transformed it into the handicap race it is today.
The race is legendary for the stories it creates and for its heroes, of which there have been many. But what is the Grand National and why is it so popular?
What is the Grand National?
The Grand National is part of the National Hunt steeplechase calendar held in early spring at Aintree racecourse in Liverpool. The race is 4 miles and 3 ½ furlongs long, making it one of the longest steeplechase races. Horses are required to run two laps of the course, jumping thirty fences before sprinting the final 494 yards to reach the winning post.
There are 40 contestants (although this number has fluctuated over the years) and the highest number of horses ever to finish the race stands at 23. Some of the jumps themselves have become famous over time, including the Chair and Becher’s Brook.
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The Story of Red Rum
In the late sixties and early seventies, it looked like the Grand National might be in its last days. Disputes over the land, poor facilities and decreasing numbers of spectators all spelled the beginning of the end for the famous race: then along came Red Rum.
Born with a debilitating disease affecting the bones of his hoof, Red Rum was trained by a car salesman on Southport Beach where reputedly the waters proved therapeutic. Initially trained as a mile sprinter, the outsider Red Rum astounded crowds at the 1973 Grand National. Having lagged behind Crisp to the extent of fifteen lengths over the final fence, Red Rum pipped him at the post, winning by less than a length achieved just two strides from the winning post.
In 1974 Red Rum came back and retained his title, followed by two years of coming a close second. In 1977, however, the horse made history, becoming the first and only horse to win the National three times.
Red Rum is accredited by many as having saved the race by drawing in the previously waning crowds once more, and is perhaps the most famous racehorse of all time. Upon his death in 1995 at the grand old age of 30, Red Rum was buried by the winning post at Aintree as tribute to his achievements there.
Over 170 years after it was first run, the Grand National continues to be one of the most popular horse races in the racing calendar, with people around the world turning to the 40 horses and riders, anxious to see who will achieve this hugely coveted victory.