Of course, the five ‘named’ Grand National fences are, in the order in which they are jumped, ‘Becher’s Brook’, ‘Foinavon’, ‘The Canal Turn’, ‘Valentine’s Brook’ and ‘The Chair’. Of that famous quintet, the two that are named after horses are Valentine’s Brook and Foinavon.
Originally known as the Second Brook, Valentine’s Brook is a 5′ high fence, with a 5’6″ wide ditch on the landing side. It is jumped as the ninth and twenty-fifth fence in the Grand National and takes its name from Valentine, a horse who performed an extraordinary feat of aerial acrobatics at the obstacle in 1840. Ridden by Irish amateur Alan Power, Valentine tried to refuse, but somehow managed to clear the fence, reputedly landing hind legs first.
Ironically, Foinavon, which is jumped as the seventh and twenty-third fence during the Grand National, is one of the smallest fences on the National Course, at just 4’6″ high. Nevertheless, the fence was the scene of a famous pile-up in 1967, when the riderless Popham Down ran along the take-off side, bringing most of the field to a standstill. Foinavon, ridden by John Buckingham, emerged from the melee with a clear lead, which he maintained to the line for famous victory at 100/1. In 1984, the fence was officially renamed in his honour.
Irish billionaire John Patrick ‘J.P.’ McManus is, far and away, foremost owner in National Hunt racing, with hundreds of horses in training on both sides of the Irish Sea. However, for all his pre-eminence, McManus has won the Grand National just twice, his two winners coming over a decade apart. Those winners were, of course, Don’t Push It in 2010 and Minella Times in 2021.
Both Grand National victories were emotional for McManus, but for different reasons. Don’t Push It, trained by Jonjo O’Neill and ridden by Sir Anthony McCoy, was a first winner of the celebrated steeplechase for owner, trainer and jockey after many previous attempts. Minella Times, trained by Henry De Bromhead and ridden by Rachael Blackmore, was, if anything, even more notable for the fact that, in 172 previous runnings of the Grand National, the highest placing achieved by a female jockey had been third. However, the victory was tinged with sadness, coming as it did shortly after the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and, more pertinently, in the wake of the sudden death of McManus’ 40-year-old daughter-in-law, Emma, on New Year’s Eve while on a family holiday in Barbados.
The Grand National was officially inaugurated in 1839 and, in 173 runnings since, a total of 84 horses have lost their lives during the world famous steeplechase, either by being killed outright or by being humanely euthanised after sustaining injury during the race. In 2021, for example, The Long Mile broke a hind leg after jumping Becher’s Brook on the second circuit and was subsequently euthanised, as was Up For Review, who was brought down at the first fence in the previous renewal of the Grand National in 2019.
Down the years, Becher’s Brook, which is jumped as the sixth and twenty-second fence during the Grand National, has proved the deadliest of the sixteen fences on the National Course, with 14 fatalities. However, in recent years, the Jockey Club, which owns Aintree Racecourse, has invested millions of pounds into improving the physical structure and composition of the fences, approach and landing areas, etc, in the name of safety. Thus, while 13 horses have been killed in the Grand National since the turn of the twenty-first century, most of the fatalities occured up to, and including, 2012. That year, According To Pete, who was brought down at Becher’s Brook second time around, and Synchronised, who survived a fall at Becher’s Brook first time around, but broke a leg when running loose, were both euthanised.
Tragically, the 1862 renewal of the Grand National was marred by the one and only human fatality in the history of the celebrated steeplechase. On that fateful day, debutant Joseph Wynne, whose father Denis, or ‘Denny’, had won the National on Mathew 15 years earlier, lined up on 33/1 chance O’Connell. Having raced in mid-division for much of the first circuit, O’Connell was involved in a melee at the fence immediately before the water jump, which would become ‘The Chair’ but was, at the time, a gorsed hurdle.
At that obstacle, Playman took off too soon and fell heavily, causing Willoughby to make a bad mistake, as a result of which he became unbalanced and was cannoned into, from behind, by O’Connell. Both horses came to grief, but while Willoughby rose without incident, O’Connell fell on top of the already unsconscious Wynne as he attempted to do so, crushing his jockey’s chest. Wynne was still alive when carried to the nearby Sefton Arms Inn, but died that evening with regaining cosnciousness. Aside from his physical injuries, pulmonary tuberculosis was also identified as contributing to his death.