Very few events on the calendar burst through horse racing’s boundaries to make a splash on the wider sporting scene. On the flat, perhaps only the Epsom Derby comes close to fitting that description. However, jumps racing does boast one contest which transcends the sport. It is held at Aintree Racecourse in April each year and goes by the name of the Grand National.
First held in 1839, this 4m2½f staying chase, featuring 30 of the most distinctive obstacles in the sport, has grown to become a true cultural phenomenon and the event for which the phrase “once a year punters” was invented. A huge test for the brave runners and riders and an enthralling spectacle for the millions who watch around the world, this is simply a race unlike any other.
Grand National 2023: Runners & Riders
- Any Second Now – Mark Walsh
- Noble Yeats – Sean Bowen
- Galvin – Davy Russell
- Fury Road Jonjo O’Neill Jr
- The Big Dog – Aidan Coleman
- Capodanno – Danny Mullins
- Delta Work Keith Donoghue
- Sam Brown – Johnny Burke
- Lifetime Ambition – Sean O’Keeffe
- Carefully Selected – Michael O’Sullivan
- Coko Beach – Harry Cobden
- Longhouse Poet – JJ Slevin
- Gaillard Du Mesnil – Paul Townend
- Luke Dempsey
- Le Milos Harry Skelton
- Escaria Ten – NON-RUNNER
- The Big Breakaway Brendan Powell
- Cape Gentleman – Jody McGarvey
- Felix de Gile
- Diol Ker – Kieren Buckley
- Shane Fitzgerald
- Minella Trump – Theo Gillard
- Vanillier – Sean Flanagan
- Darragh O’Keeffe
- Rachael Blackmore
- Corach Rambler Derek Fox
- Enjoy D’Allen – Simon Torrens
- Brian Hayes
- Nico de Boinville
- Cloudy Glen – Charlie Deutsch
- Hill Sixteen – Ryan Mania
- Gabbys Cross – Peter Carberry
- Jack Foley
- Alan Johns
- Our Power – Sam Twiston-Davies
- Dunboyne – Jack Tudor
- Francky Du Berlais Ben Jones
- Fortescue – Hugh Nugent
- Back On The Lash – Adam Wedge
- Born By The Sea – Phillip Enright
The Most Famous Fences in the World
The extensive site at the 75,000-capacity Merseyside venue of Aintree is home to three courses: the Mildmay Course, predominantly used for chase contests; the Hurdles Course; and the most well-known but least frequently used, Grand National Course.
There is nothing particularly distinctive about the 2m2f left-handed triangular layout of the Grand National Course. However, the spruce-topped fences are rather different from anything seen elsewhere. Ranging from 4ft6ins to 5ft2ins in height and 2ft9ins to 3ft6ins in width, the National obstacles are significantly larger than the standard fences seen at other tracks.
On top of their size, many of the fences have additional features which increase their difficulty – Becher’s Brook is around 4ft10ins on the take-off side but measures over 6ft on the landing side due to a hefty drop; Canal Turn requires the field to turn by around 90 degrees upon landing; Valentines features a 5ft 6ins brook on the landing side; and The Chair asks the field to clear both a 6ft ditch leading up to the fence and the 4ft8ins obstacle itself, before being greeted with a landing side which is 6ins higher than take off.
Much work has been done to increase the safety of the National Fences over the years, including the lowering of some obstacles and the use of more flexible and forgiving materials, but they continue to provide the most formidable jumping challenge in the sport.
All Eyes on Aintree in April
Such a spectacular contest deserves a full festival of supporting action, and the Grand National duly gets one. Taking place in early April each year – around one month after the famous Cheltenham Festival – Aintree’s three-day extravaganza features 10 Grade 1 events, including the Aintree Bowl, the Top Novices’ Hurdle, and the Liverpool Hurdle.
The Foxhunters’ Open Hunters’ Chase and the Topham Chase give racegoers a taste of the Grand National fences on Days 1 and 2 before the big one takes centre stage on the closing Saturday of the meeting.
Britain’s Richest Jumps Race
As a Grade 3 handicap affair, the Grand National is far from the classiest staying chase of the year, with that honour belonging to the Cheltenham Gold Cup. However, with a total prize pool of £1 million (2023), it is comfortably the season’s most valuable National Hunt contest.
In addition to the significant riches on offer, a win in this event ensures a permanent place in racing folklore. Win it more than once, and you will be elevated to the status of racing legend, as evidenced by dual hero Tiger Roll (2018, 2019) and three-time champ Red Rum (1973, 1974, 1977).
A Classier Contest than in Years Gone By
Open to chasers aged seven and older, rated 125 or above, the event has been landed by the young and the old over the years – Peter Simple being the oldest of all when coming home in front at the grand old age of 15 in 1853. In more recent times, the National has favoured younger runners with a touch of class. In the 10 editions between 2013 and 2023 (there was no race in 2020 due to the global health crisis), eight were won by a horse in the seven to nine year old bracket, with six of those winners having previously won at Graded level.
Other than having youth and class on their side, accurate jumping and proven stamina also count for plenty. It goes without saying that any contender with a number of falls or unseats in their form should be treated with caution, whilst a good run over the National fences – in the Topham Chase, the Becher Chase or the Grand Sefton Chase – is a positive. There aren’t too many events directly comparable to the National in terms of the demands placed on staying power, but seven of the 10 winners over this period had previously won over at least three miles.