The Grand National is quite possibly the most famous horse race in the world. Certainly, it is the most well known in the UK and also the biggest and most iconic National Hunt contest anywhere. In the UK, just about everyone has at least some awareness of the Grand National. Whether you are a seasoned horse racing veteran, a regular punter who bets on all the big occasions in most sports, a total betting newbie or even someone who doesn’t normally have a bet on anything, the National is the National. Offices all over the country will do a sweepstake, once-a-year punters will fumble their way around the local betting shop and everyone from taxi drivers to hairdressers to ageing grandmothers will be talking about the big race.
What may be slightly less well known is that there are many races that are called the Grand National. When we talk simply of “the Grand National”, we invariably mean the race that takes place at Aintree in spring and features iconic fences, such as the Chair and Becher’s Brook. These days, it invariably goes by a sponsored name, the Randox Grand National in 2021, for example, but you may also hear it referred to as the English Grand National or the Aintree Grand National. This is because there are equivalent races in Scotland, Wales and a host of other places too.
In this feature, we will explain where the name “Grand National” comes from, how many different Grand Nationals there are and also provide details of some of the most famous contests that share this name.
Aintree: Some Nationals Are Grander Than Others
As said, there is no doubt at all that the race held at Aintree is the one being referred to when someone simply says “the Grand National”, or even just, “the National”. This marathon contest is very much first among equals and is the biggest and best in many different ways. First run all the way back in 1839, it scores very highly in terms of history, whilst at a distance of more than four miles and two furlongs (four miles, 514 yards to be exact) there are few longer races.
With a purse that hit seven figures in 2017, it is also the richest jumps race in Europe, whilst the incredibly tough fences and huge field make it a test like no other for the horses and jockeys that take part. As we have already said, the National is the National and it is easy to see why.
The race is televised in well over 100 countries worldwide and is believed to pull in around 600m viewers each year. That is incredible for a sport that is generally considered quite niche in comparison to more established sports such as football and cricket. It has been broadcast on the radio every year since 1927 and on terrestrial TV in the UK since 1960. It makes front and back page news and whilst other races may feature quicker, more valuable and better-bred horses, any animal winning the National achieves a level of fame that few others will.
Alternative Grand Nationals in Horse Racing
The National at Aintree may be the number one Grand National in the world but, as said, it is far from the only horse race to have such a name. The table below shows some of the other major Grand Nationals from UK and Irish racing and even some from further afield.
|Welsh Grand National
|Scottish Grand National
|Irish Grand National
|Midlands Grand National
|Grand Steeple-Chase des Flandres (Belgian Grand National)
|Just under 3m
|Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris (Grand National de France)
In addition to the races listed above, there are a good number of other Grand National races around the world, including races in both Norway and Sweden. However, let us now look in a little more detail at the biggest of these National alternatives. As far as most UK punters are concerned, this means the races that take place on the British Isles, chiefly the Scottish, Irish and Welsh versions of this famous equine contest.
Scottish Grand National
The Scottish Grand National was first run at the now-defunct Bogside course in Irvine, not too far away from its current home at Ayr. For a number of years prior it had been contested as the “West of Scotland Grand National” and run at a course in Houston so whilst it can trace its roots back to 1857, most consider 1867 to be the first running of the Scottish National.
Bogside was home to the Scottish National until 1965 when the course closed. It has been run at Ayr every year since 1966 with the sad exception of 2020 when much of global sport was put on hold. Back in 1867 winning connections took home £100, a sum that had risen to well over £120,000 by 2019.
Over the years a select number of horses have managed to take glory in the Scottish National, as well as its Aintree equivalent. Music Hall, back in the 1920s, was the first horse to achieve this impressive double and whilst other horses have won both races only one has ever won both in the same year. Perhaps less well known is that this horse also turned on the Blackpool illuminations one year and the animal we are talking about is, of course, the mighty Red Rum, perhaps the greatest jumps horse to have ever lived.
Red Rum won both Nationals in 1974 but purely in terms of the Scottish race he is well behind a trio of three-time winners. Couvrefeu II was the first horse to complete the hat-trick in this contest, in 1911, 1912 and 1913, before Southern Hero in 1934, 1936 and 1939, and most recently Queen’s Taste in 1953, 1954 and 1956.
About the Course
The race is contested as part of a two-day Grand National Meeting and takes place in April each year. There are 27 fences in this Grade 3 handicap and whilst a truly severe test is provided, the obstacles are significantly easier than those found at Aintree.
Irish Grand National
The Irish version of this race came along a few years later, the first official running taking place in 1870. Also a handicap contest, it is run at Fairyhouse, the course where it all began way back in the 19th century. The race takes place on Easter Monday each year as part of the Meath track’s Easter Festival and offered a very impressive total purse of €500,000 in 2019, with €270,000 of that going to the winner.
Several horses have taken glory at this race and Aintree though the same-year double has never been landed. Arkle may well be the race’s most famous winner, taking glory in 1964. Brown Lad is the only horse to have won this one three times, in 1975, 1976 and 1978. Tom Dreaper stands alone in terms of trainers having won the Irish National an incredible seven times between 1942 and 1966.
Welsh Grand National
The races listed above are open to horses aged five years and older whilst the Welsh version of this race allows horses a year younger to take part. Its scheduling is also very different too, appearing closer to the start of the NH calendar in December. It is currently run as part of the Christmas schedule on the 27th December at Chepstow, although both the date and the host venue have changed over the years.
First run at Ely Racecourse in Cardiff, the Welsh National has also been contested at Newbury as a one-off due to the weather in 1994 and also at Caerleon. In modern times, the weather has been a huge issue for the race, with waterlogging, frozen ground or snow often causing the postponement or cancellation of the race. With the race taking place in December this can sometimes be an issue but the Welsh National used to be run on Easter Tuesday until 1969.
At this point, it was moved to February with the aim of attracting a higher standard of horse before a switch to December in 1979. We do now see a decent calibre of animal come to Chepstow and it can be an informative race in terms of both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the English Grand National. Burrough Hill Lad won this one in 1983 before taking the Gold Cup just a few months later, whilst Native River and Synchronised have also won both races. The legendary Corbiere, plus Bindaree and Silver Birch are some of the horses that have taken glory at both the Welsh and Aintree Grand Nationals.
In terms of prize money, this race is more akin to the Scottish National than either the English or Irish versions, with the winner taking home £85,425 in 2019.
Where Does the Name ‘Grand National’ Come From?
Way back in 1839 when the aptly named Lottery won the inaugural “Grand National”, the race was actually called the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase. A very similar contest had been run for a few years prior to this but these are not officially, for now at least, considered to be part of Grand National history. The first race may have taken place even earlier but certainly the contests in 1836, 1837 and 1838 were very similar to what eventually became the Grand National.
Exact dates aside, by 1839 the race certainly had a far bigger profile, having changed from a local race to more of a nationally recognised one. This was partly down to better rail links between the North West and London, partly due to the demise of a rival steeplechase, the Great St Albans Chase and partly down to improved administration and organisation at Aintree.
Surprisingly given the size of the race, but less puzzlingly given we are talking about the 1830s, little is really known about how, why or when the name changed to become the Grand National. It is thought that the word “National” first became attached to the race as early as 1839, even though it was called the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase. It seems most likely that the “Grand” was simply to try and create an air of importance for the race, with the “National” doing the same and also reflecting the fact that horses would travel from far and wide to take part, something that was less common in those days.
Some sources claim the first Grand National proper, using that name, came in 1847. There is little to really verify this though, even on the Jockey Club’s official Grand National history page.
Why Is the Aintree National So Important?
As we have noted on more than one occasion, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the Grand National held at Aintree is the Grand National. It is the biggest, the best, the most-watched and the most prestigious and it is the one race that truly captures the imagination of the UK public, even those who do not like racing normally. But why is this the case?
Well, there is no simple, single answer and many of the reasons are interlinked, with it not always easy to separate cause from effect. What is clear though is that the Grand National was the first race of its type. Whilst there are many older races and even various really big contests with longer and unbroken histories, such as the St Leger (1776) and the other Classics of Flat racing such as the Derby (1780), in terms of comparable steeplechases nothing can match the history of the Grand National.
Being the original has certainly helped cement its place at the top of the Grand National pecking order and the fact that it is essentially the English iteration of this race also helps. No other countries or regions celebrate jumps racing like the British Isles and England is the biggest part of these islands, helping make the race richer and more well known than its rivals.
As well as being older and offering far more prize money, the Grand National also serves up the stiffest test. The other Grand Nationals are obviously no walk in the park and Chepstow’s almost guaranteed boggy ground can make the Welsh National a real slog but even so, the Aintree marathon is longer than all the others and a good deal longer than many of them. It also boasts more fences and perhaps even more importantly, more challenging fences and this combination makes it a test truly unlike any other, something that has really captured the imagination of fans all over the world.