Aintree is the home of the Grand National which is arguably the greatest horse race in the world. No other race comes close to matching the excitement at Aintree Grand National day.
The story of the Aintree race course is also the story of the Grand National. It’s inconceivable now to imagine the Grand National being held at any other race course in England but this looked a distinct possibility in the early post war years. In 1965 the Aintree course looked likely to be sold to a property developer and every year the press warned this could be “The Last Grand National”.
In 1973 the course was eventually sold to property developer Bill Davies who gave a commitment to keep the race going but his heart never quite seemed in it. Attendance at the 1975 Grand National was the lowest in living memory (admission prices had been tripled by Davies) and the Grand National had reached its lowest point and it looked like the end for the great race.
In 1975 a campaign was started by Ladbrokes Bookmakers to revive the ailing Grand National race. Ladbrokes had a deep love for the National and when they took control of managing it they were determined to keep it going. After 8 years of management by Ladbrokes the future of the Grand National and Aintree seemed secure.
Property developer Davies was unimpressed by the swift chances in fortune and still seemed determined to sell the Aintree course. Finally the general public realised that this may be the last chance for the Grand National to be saved and a huge campaign was launched to rescue the race once and for all. Generous donations from the public allowed the Jockey Club to purchase Aintree from Davies. In 1984 distillers Seagram stepped in to provide the solid foundation on which Aintree’s revival has been built. The last Seagram sponsored National was in 1991 when the race was won by a horse which chairman Straker twice had the opportunity to buy; the horse’s name was Seagram!
A subsidiary of the Seagram company, Martell Cognac, took over sponsorship in 1992. During this time the National experienced a big boom. In 2004 around 150,000 people were at Aintree to witness the last Martell backed race. Aintree racecourse now enjoys its most successful period ever.
There is much debate among historians regarding the first official Grand National race held and most who have trawled the newspaper libraries and archives of the United Kingdom now prefer the idea that the first was in 1836 and was won by The Duke. This same horse triumphed again in 1837 while Sir William was the winner in 1838.
These races have often been disregarded because of the belief that the 1837 & 1838 runnings took place at Maghull and not at Aintree. However, in the last twenty years several race historians have unearthed indisputable evidence that these three races were all run over the same course at Aintree and were regarded as having been Grand Nationals up until the mid 1860s. To date though, their calls for the Nationals of 1836-38 to be restored to the record books have been ignored.
For three years during World War I, while the Aintree racecourse was closed, an alternative race was run at Gatwick Racecourse on the site of the present Gatwick Airport. The first of these races, in 1916, was called the Racecourse Association Steeplechase and in the following two years the race was known as the War National Steeplechase. The races at Gatwick are not always recognized as “Grand Nationals” however, and their results are often omitted from winners’ lists.
In 1923, Sergeant Murphy became the first American-bred horse to win the Grand National.
In 1938 the American bred Battleship, son of the famous Man O’War, became the first (and so far only) horse to have won both the Grand National and the American Grand National (won four years earlier). Battleship’s jockey was Bruce Hobbs and at 17 years old was and still is the youngest ever winning jockey.
By far the most successful horse in Grand National history was Red Rum. The only horse to win three times in 1973, 1974, and in 1977. He also came in second in the two intervening years, 1975 and 1976.