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.
The first female jockey to win the Grand National was Rachael Blackmore who, on April 10, 2021, partnered Minella Times to an historic, 6½-length victory over 100/1 outsider, and stable companion, Balko Des Flos. Owned by John ‘J.P.’ McManus and trained by Henry De Bromhead, Minella Times was sent off 11/1 fourth-favourite for the celebrated steeplechase, so there was no fluke about his performance or that of his trailblazing jockey.
In a year of ‘firsts’, Blackmore had already become the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, on Honeysuckle, and the first female jockey to win the Holland Cooper Leading Jockey Award for the Ruby Walsh Trophy, with six winners during the week. At that stage, De Bromhead paid tribute to her, saying, ‘She’s riding out of her skin’, but little did he know what Aintree had in store for the 31-year-old Irishwoman. Previously, the closest a female jockey had come to winning the Grand National was in 2012, when the now-retired Katie Walsh, sister of Ruby, finished third, beaten 5 lengths, behind Neptune Collonges.
As far as the Grand National is concerned, it was Jenny Pitman who first broke through the ‘glass ceiling’ when saddling Corbiere, who was still a novice, to victory in 1983. In 1995, ‘Mrs. P.’ won the Grand National again with the 12-year-old Royal Athlete and, in the meantime, has been joined by three more female trainers on the Grand National roll of honour.
In 2009, Mon Mome, trained by Venetia Williams, caused a shock – although, to be fair, there appeared no fluke about his performance – when driven clear by the late Liam Treadwell to beat the 2008 winner Comply Or Die by 12 lengths at odds of 100/1. Four years later, in 2013, Auroras Encore, trained by Sue Smith, belied odds of 66/1 with a comprehensive 9-length win. Four years later still, in 2017, One For Arthur, trained by Lucinda Russell, was sent off at a rather more ‘punter friendly’ starting price of 14/1 and, having travelled and jumped well, stayed on strongly to win by 4½ lengths; in so doing, he not only made Russell the fourth female trainer to win the Grand National, but became the first Scottish-trained winner since Rubstic in 1979.