British ponies

Grand National, a British treasure

The Grand National is a cornerstone of the equestrian calendar. To think of it is to recall images of the English countryside of strawberries and cream, gin-based cocktails, landed aristocracy and the idly wealthy the Wilde loved writing about taking to the fields every spring for one of the most popular events of the equestrian arts anywhere in the world. Through film and TV and the general influence of American culture in the 20th century, people not from the UK might be more familiar with the Kentucky Derby held annually in Kentucky and is famed for the mint juleps that everyone drinks there. But the Grand National is a handicap steeplechase, nearly seven kilometres in length (4 miles and 514 yards), and has two laps and 30 jumps. With one million pounds on the table for wining, it is the most valuable jumping race in all of Europe.

Now it is one of the best known races in all of Europe although that wasn’t always the case. When it was first run—either in 1836 or 1837 depending on which sources one believes—the event was orchestrated more or less by one man. Hotel owner William Lynn and manager who leased land in the countryside, from the 2nd Earl of Sefton, William Molyneux. In 1827 it was Lynn who decided to build a course and a grandstand. It took several years for the area to be complete. And while it may seem odd to us today in an age when everything is so well documented, no one is really sure when the first Grand National was run. Possibly in 1837 or 1836 depending on who one asks, as there were conflicting dates and accounts. However, under British law there exist big differences between local and national races. What is usually well-known is that it was first considered a national race in 1839, which is generally considered the start of the race.

It’s been a fixture in British equestrian society every since then. During the First World War however the Aintree Racecourse, on which the Grand National was and still is run, was appropriated by the government to help the war effort. At that time it was called the War National Steeplechase and the proceeds from the event went to the war effort. But in 1919 it was again in private hands and was once again called the Grand National. However, the Second World War posed an even greater risk with planes being able to fly well into England and bomb targets there, so from 1941 – 1945 there was no Grand National, which was just as well because yet again the space had been commandeered by the government for the war effort.

After the war, however, the event was reinstitute and has been running ever since. Now nearly 200 years old this gem of the British racing calendar has gone from strength to strength and gives people something to look forward to every new spring.