The Grand National is run every year at Aintree. A National Hunt steeplechase, the Grand National is famous for being the ultimate test, with fences typically higher than in other steeplechases and one of the longest courses.
There are 16 fences in total and the horses jump 30 over two laps, missing out the final two fences on lap two in favour of the home stretch. Each fence is unique and each has its own challenges which horses and riders must meet. Some have earned names over the years, while others are referred to in number format.
The start of the Grand National was moved after a health and safety review in 2012, reducing the total distance of the race from 7.242km to 7.141km. It was decided to move the starting area 82m further forward to take it further away from the grandstands and crowds.
Fence 1 (and 17)
The first Grand National fence is set at a height of 4’6”. While not particularly challenging in terms of height, this fence often fells under-prepared runners who meet it at too high a speed.
After the 2011 race, work was undertaken to level the landing side of Fence 1 in order to help prevent horses over-jumping for safety reasons.
Fence 2 (and 18) – The Fan
Fence 2 was known for some time in the 19th century as The Fan, in honour of a particular mare who refused there three consecutive times. The name has since fallen out of use, and the 4’7” fence poses no notable difficulties today.
Fence 3 (and 19)
The third fence is colloquially known as the first ditch, with a 4’10” fence preceded by a 6’ ditch. This fence is said to pose the first real challenge on the course, especially on the first lap when the horses are not yet into their stride in terms of jumping obstacles.
Fence 4 (and 20)
In theory a fairly straightforward 4’10” fence, this has been the site of a number of Grand National catastrophes, including the fall of Corbiere in 1986 – having previously won once and come third twice – and the only ever fall of ten-times running jockey Neale Doughty in 1991.
Fence 5 (and 21)
The highest fence so far on the track, Fence 5 nevertheless poses few problems compared to many others. A plain obstacle, it is notable only for being bypassed on lap two in 2012 as medics treated a jockey who had broken a leg after a fall.
Fence 6 (and 22) – Becher’s Brook
Perhaps the most famous obstacle in the world in terms of steeplechase racing, Becher’s Brook was named after Captain Martin Becher after he fell and sheltered in the brook in the very first Grand National.
This tricky fence has a landing side which is much lower than the 4’10” take-off side, making it incredibly difficult to jump. Becher’s Brook along with Fence 20 were bypassed in the 2011 running after an equine casualty.
Modifications have been made several times in recent years to this fence in order to improve safety for the horses, including re-profiling to reduce the drop and make the jump less perilous.
Fence 7 (and 23) – Foinavon
The joint smallest and one of the least treacherous fences on the course, 4’6” Fence 7 was renamed in 1984 in honour of the 100/1 shot who surprised everyone by taking victory in 1967 despite relatively poor performance throughout the race.
As a loose horse rocketed across the fence on the second lap, almost every other horse fell or was forced to pull up. Foinavon, way in the back of the field, had the time to navigate the pile-up and crossed the fence thirty lengths ahead.
Even though 17 jockeys managed to remount and jump a second time, none could make up the lead and Foinavon managed to win the race.
Fence 8 (and 24) – Canal Turn
While the fence itself poses no major difficulty as a fairly standard 5’0” jump, Canal Turn poses its very own difficulties due to the fact that horses must turn almost 90 degrees almost immediately afterward. This causes some jockeys to try take the jump at an angle in order to maintain speed.
The name relates to some of the earlier Grand National races, where loose horses who continued straight on after the jump would physically end up in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
Fence 9 (and 25) – Valentine’s or The Second Brook
Originally referred to as the Second Brook, Fence 9 was renamed Valentine’s after an incident in 1940, in which a horse named Valentine is said to have jumped over leading with his hind legs. The fence stands at 5’0” and has a 5’6” brook to navigate on the landing side.
Fence 10 (and 26)
Fence 10 poses no particular challenges in terms of Grand National fences, standing at 5’0” under the Sefton Stand.
Fence 11 (and 27)
Fence 11 is the third 5’0” fence on the course and is made more difficult by the 6’)2 ditch on take-off.
Fence 12 (and 28)
The 5’0” Fence 11 has a 5’6” ditch on landing side. It is also here that runners are said the re-enter the racecourse proper as they cross Melling Road.
In the early days of the running of the Grand National there were hedges here, causing runners to have to jump onto the road and then back again. It is also thought this was the site of a fence known as the Table Jump in the early days.
Fence 13 (and 29)
At just 4’7” and with no additional obstacles this fence causes few problems in the grand scheme of things. Most notably it was where hotly-tipped racers Master Oats and Double Silk were part of a five horse pile-up in 1994.
Fence 14 (and 30)
The smallest fence on the course along with Foinavon, Fence 14 only really poses problems when it becomes Fence 30, and is therefore the last fence before the home straight when horses are tired.
Due to its preceding the Chair on lap one and the home stretch in lap two, most jockeys take this fence extra carefully in preparation.
Fence 15 – The Chair
One of the hardest and most famous fences on the course, The Chair is one of two fences that only get jumped once before being bypassed in lap two in favour of the home straight. The Chair stands at 5’2” tall and is preceded by a 6’0” ditch, making it the biggest jump of the course.
The ditch was introduced after the only jockey fatality in Grand National history occurred here in 1862. Joe Wynne fell from his horse and later died from injuries, although the coroner did report he was weakened by consumption at the time.
The name of this fence comes from the fact that in the early years of the Grand National the distance judge would sit here – it was formerly known as the Monument Jump, but its current name came into usage in 1930. In contrast to Becher’s Brook, horses have to navigate a landing side that is 6’0” higher than the take-off side.
The Water Jump is the only jump apart from the Chair that is only navigated once.
The home straight
There are a few interesting facts about the home straight in the Grand National, with one of the most unique being that it is not actually straight.
The home stretch, which at 494 yards is one of the longest of any steeplechases, actually has an acute elbow for horse and rider to navigate, right at the point of exhaustion. This stretch can make or break a race and no rider feels safe of victory until successfully first past the post.
This was evident in the legendary first Red Rum victory in 1973 when he came back from 15 lengths behind Crisp at the last fence to win by three-quarters of a length. In 2012, Neptune Collonges won a similarly tight race, ahead by a single nose at the finish line.
On the morning of the race, early birds can actually walk the course and see the iconic fences close up first hand. Any spectators wishing to do so must turn up at least two hours before the first race and be prepared to be disappointed if weather or ground conditions do not permit.
The fences at Aintree are part of what makes the Grand National such a thrilling and intense race, each posing a different challenge for horse and rider in their attempt of victory.