There are of course many more significant victims other than the sport of horse racing when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the planet, and one can only hope we come out the other end of it sooner rather than later.
That said, the toll taken on the horse racing industry – which is estimated to be worth £4 billion, and is responsible for the employment of thousands of individuals – already looks set to be significant: all UK racing has been cancelled for now, with the most notable victim being the biggest horse race in the world: Aintree’s Grand National.
Annually attracting viewers running into the hundreds of millions, hailing from 140 different nations, and also being by some distance the highest turnover betting race of the season, the Grand National will be a huge miss for owners, trainers, jockeys, bookmakers and punters alike; particularly as this had been one of the most anticipated renewals in years, thanks to the hat-trick bid of Tiger Roll.
The loss of such a big event on the sporting calendar may seem unprecedented but – whilst it hasn’t happened often – the 2020 edition of the world’s greatest steeplechase won’t be the first to be missing from the history books. It does turn out that the only thing to have actually stopped the race in the past has been a world war – a sobering reminder of just how serious the current situation may be – but the nation, and the sport of horse racing, made it through those testing times, and will no doubt come through this too. The sight of the sport’s top chasers tackling the most famous fences in the game in 2021 will certainly be all the sweeter with these dark days behind us.
Let’s now take a closer look at those previous occasions when this great race has run into a bump in the road – a tale of two world wars, a bomb threat, and an officiating disaster.
Grand National Cancellations During Wars
1916-1918: The War Nationals
With the first World War officially beginning on 28th July 1914, that year’s Grand National had already taken place before the escalation of hostilities. And in fact, Aintree did also manage to stage the race in 1915, with the first female-owned winner, Ally Sloper, coming home in front. By 1916 though the course had been commandeered by the British Government for use in the war effort, with the result that no race could be staged at the Merseyside venue between 1916 and 1918.
The Aintree Grand National record therefore shows no result for the war years of 1916-18, but Britain’s love for horse racing, and more specifically its most famous race, wasn’t to be defeated entirely during this period. For whilst Aintree may have been out of action, Gatwick Racecourse – now the site of Gatwick Airport – was still available for use; and put to use it was, with 1916 seeing a Grand National alternative titled the Racecourse Association Steeple Chase take place at the Surrey venue.
Gatwick repeated the feat in the two subsequent years, with the 1917 and 1918 editions both going by the name of the War National Steeplechase. The Ernie Piggott-ridden Poethlyn landed that 1918 edition, and repeated the trick in 1919 when once again coming home in front upon the race’s return to its Aintree home.
1941-1945: Second World War
Whilst it had proved possible to hold a Grand National or replacement race during every year of the first World War, staging the event during the devastation of the Second World War predictably proved to be too tall an obstacle for even Aintree to overcome. Once again put to use by the War Office – this time as a prisoner of war camp – no Grand National was held at Aintree, or anywhere else, between 1941 and 1945. The first time in the 102 years of the race’s history that the sport’s biggest contest hadn’t been staged at all.
The race quickly returned to normality following the laying down of arms – with Lovely Cottage coming home in front in the 1946 edition – and has taken place annually ever since, making the 2020 edition the first to have been cancelled in 75 years.
There may have been no cancellations since 1946, but we have nevertheless witnessed a couple of unusual entries in the annals of the Aintree history books since those war abandonments – both of which came in the 1990’s.
Other Disruptions to the Grand National
1993: Starters Mess Denies Esha Ness
Given the inevitable traffic problems resulting from 40 steeplechasers navigating their way around Aintree’s famous course, there have no doubt been a number of unlucky losers during the great race’s history. When it comes to the unluckiest “winner” of the race though, there is one horse who stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The runner upon whom that dubious honour falls is 1993 combatant, Esha Ness. Cruising into contention approaching the final flight, the Jenny Pitman-trained 10 year old forged to the front rounding the elbow to come home in front in the second fastest time in the history of the race. There is nothing unusual in that description of the race’s conclusion; however, the damage had long been done by that stage. Esha Ness’s cracking time, and indeed the result of the race, would never be officially recognised, as rather than “Esha Ness”, the two words written next to the 1993 edition of the race are “Race Void”.
It all went wrong before the race had even begun. Officiating at his final Grand National before heading into retirement, unfortunate starter Keith Brown certainly went out with a bang, as he presided over what has become known as the biggest farce in the history of the race. It was a disaster which looked to have been averted too, with the runners and riders being recalled successfully, following an initial false start due to a problem with the starters tape.
However, the issue reared its head a second time – with the tape this time becoming entangled around the neck of star jockey Richard Dunwoody. Brown once again waved his red flag, however this time to no avail, as 30 of the 39 runners ploughed on regardless and jumped the first fence. As the race wore on many jockeys did belatedly see the light and pull their mounts up, but seven horses stayed on to complete the course – led home by the greatest winner there never was, the unfortunate Esha Ness.
The suggestion of the hapless starter that the race should be rerun – but only with the nine horses who had been pulled up prior to taking the first fence – ultimately fell on deaf ears, with the race subsequently being declared void for the one and only time its history. Bad news for the bookmakers who were forced to refund £75 million in total stakes on the race!
1997: The Monday National
Scheduled to be the 150th running of the Grand National, the 1997 edition of the Aintree showpiece was already a notable occasion; but when all was said and done, it also had the distinction of being the only Grand National to take place on a Monday. Initially due to take place in its traditional Saturday slot, the cause of this 48-hour delay came in the rather sinister guise of a bomb threat from the Irish Republican Army.
Set to go under starters orders at 3:45pm, preparations for the big one were already well underway when the first phone call stating there was a bomb at the track came in at 2:49pm. With this being swiftly backed up by another warning at 2:52pm, the course and police took the only decision they could in quickly evacuating a crowd of approximately 60,000 from the track, and abandoning racing for the day. Despite the police force successfully completing two controlled explosions at the course, there was understandably still significant doubt as to whether the race could take place at all against such a backdrop.
Any such doubt was to prove unfounded, as the organisers and racing fans defied the wishes of the terrorists to ensure that the jewel in Aintree’s crown would still have its chance to shine. The Liverpool public certainly did their bit; showing that famed Scouse hospitality to open their doors, and provide a bed, to those racegoers from further afield who were now in need of accommodation. The BHA meanwhile opted against an abandonment, and swiftly rescheduled the race to take place on the Monday afternoon, and so the show went on. Some viewed predictions of a crowd of 10,000 as being on the optimistic side given the short notice of the new date, but in the end over 20,000 turned up on Monday 7th March to see the Tony Dobbin ridden Lord Gylene storm to a 25-length success.