Following three runnings of the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase, the first ‘official’ running on the Grand National National took place at Aintree on February 26, 1839. In the best part of two centuries, or 182 years, to be exact, since, the Grand National has been cancelled outright just six times. Even during World War I, when Aintree Racecourse was requisitioned by the War Office, a substitute race was staged at Gatwick Racecourse in 1916, 1917 and 1918.
During World War II, Aintree Racecourse was, once again, occupied by the military, leading to the outright cancellation of the Grand National in 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. However, the Grand National returned to Aintree in 1946, shortly after the departure of American troops and, thereafter, enjoyed an uninterrupted spell until 2019. Of course, the 2020 renewal was cancelled outright due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Aside from outright cancellations, the Grand National has been declared void once, in 1993, when a fiasco at the start led to many of the jockeys setting off around the course, despite a false start being called. It has also been postponed once, in 1997, but only by 48 hours, after a coded terrorist bomb threat led to the complete evacuation of Aintree Racecourse on Grand National Day.
The Grand National was broadcast by British Pathé News and BBC Radio from the early part of the twentieth century onwards, but not live on BBC Television until March 26, 1960, and not in colour until March 29, 1969. On the first historic occasion, the BBC employed 16 cameras, including the so-called ‘Roving Eye’, a vehicle with a television camera and a telescopic mast mounted on the roof, which allowed pictures and sound to be broadcast, unimpeded, as it pursued the runners around the National Course.
Commentary came from Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Clive Graham and Peter Bromley, who later recalled how unsafe he felt in the huge, swaying tower built in the middle of the course for the occasion. The race was broadcast live, in black-and-white, of course, as part of the ‘Grandstand’ sports programme. A total of 26 runners faced the starter and victory went to the 13/2 favourite, Merryman II, trained by Neville Crump and ridden by 22-year-old Gerry Scott, who had broken his collarbone a fortnight earlier. Eight horses completed the course, with Merryman II coming home 15 lengths clear of his nearest pursuer, Badenloch, with Clear Profit a further 12 lengths behind in third place.
Nowadays, the Grand National has a safety limit of 40, so the days of huge fields are long gone. However, in the 1947 Grand National, won by 100/1 outsider Caughoo, 57 horses faced the starter and even that wasn’t the largest field ever assembled. In 1929, which was, ironically, the year after the open ditch at the Canal Turn was filled in for safety purposes, the National attracted 66 runners and was won by another 100/1 outsider, Gregalach.
At the other end of the scale, the smallest field ever assembled for the Grand National was just ten, in 1883. At a time when the National Course still included an expanse of ploughed field, some owners of top-class staying chasers baulked at the idea of running in the Grand National on the grounds that it involved too little jumping and, unbelievably, that the obstacles, at that stage, were too small. The 1883 Grand National was acknowledged by the contemporary press as a poor renewal, lacking strength in depth, but that didn’t stop Zoedone, owned and ridden by Count Karel Kinsky, being ‘hunted’ around to win, unchallenged, by 10 lengths. Apart from a slight mistake at the second last, Zoedone barely put a foot wrong and came home in a pedestrian 11 minutes 39.0 seconds.
Granted that his historic third win came more than four decades ago, it may no longer be the case that every schoolboy knows that the horse who holds the record for the most wins in the Grand National is Red Rum, who was victorious in 1973, 1974 and, after finishing second in 1975 and 1976, again in 1977. However, his name has passed into legend and has been mentioned often enough in relation to the latest dual winner, Tiger Roll, that even younger readers are probably aware of his achievement.
As far as consecutive wins in the Grand National are concerned, Red Rum and Tiger Roll, who achieved back-to-back victories in 2018 and 2019 jointly hold the record. However, not including Poethlyn, who won the ‘War National’ at Gatwick in 1918 before winning the Grand National at Aintree in 1919, three other horses have also recorded two consecutive wins in the world famous steeplechase. Those horses are, in chronological order, Abd-El-Kader in 1850 and 1851, The Colonel in 1869 and 1870 – who was ridden on both occasions by the most successful jockey in Grand National history, George Stevens – and Reynoldstown in 1935 and 1936.