The Grand National: The Demolition Derby of Horse Racing

Just this week I watched a video of the Aintree Grand National Steeplechase, run in Liverpool, England. This amazing race has been run since 1839 and it is both incredibly awe inspiring and terrible to watch. The carnage of this race is unbelievable with horse and jockeys falling at every fence. And yet there are some tremendous success stories, too. Red Rum won this race three times and came in second twice! Jockey George Stevens rode five winners. It’s been won four times by horses that started at odds of 100/1. Jockey and mystery writer Dick Francis rode in the race eight times, nearly winning it in 1956.

Here’s the 2008 Grand National:

Then, after reading a bit about the history of this race I watched one of the most famous modern runs which took place in 2001 (part 1 and part 2). In the 2001 race 44 horses started and four finished. The horses that came in third and fourth actually fell earlier in the race and were remounted by their jockeys who rode to the finish.

I also watched the famous race that Dick Francis almost won in 1956.

Although I’d heard about the Grand National, I’d never known the specifics. It’s like no race that I’ve ever seen before. The race comprises 30 jumping efforts over 4 miles and 4 furlongs. It is run at about 800 meters per minute and it is truly the demolition derby of horse racing. In any given year, approximately 40 horses start the race and some years, only a handful finish. Horses and jockeys fall at literally every fence with many loose horses continuing to run — and jump — on their own (to all of those people who think that riders force their horses to jump, it’s fascinating to watch the horses that jump alongside those still mounted).

The fences are huge — the largest stands 5’2″– and with one exception, a water jump, all are covered with brush. Many of the jumps are so well known that they have nicknames.

The most famous fence is Becher’s Brook (fence 6 & 22). It stands a mere 4’10” on the take off side, but there is a drop on the landing side of nearly 2′. The drop used to be even more extreme, but the jump caused so many injuries that the landing was leveled off. In addition, while there used to be a brook, the landing is now in a nominal amount of water (about an inch). Becher’s Brook is named after Captain Martin Becher who rode in the first Grand National in 1839. His horse, Conrad, plowed through the fence catapulting Becher into the brook.

Fence 7 & 23 is named Foinavon after a 100-to-one long shot who won the Grand National in 1967 after avoiding a huge pile up at this fence. A loose horse veered across the fence and kept every horse from successfully negotiating the fence except for Foinavon, who was too far behind. Foinavon avoided the pile up and went on to win by 15 lengths!

Fences 8 & 24 is the Canal Turn. This 5′ tall fence is positioned at a 90 degree turn to the left. If a horse jumps the fence straight, it causes them to lose ground so jockeys try to jump the fence at an angle.

Valentine’s Brook, jumped as fence 9 & 25, is similar to Becher’s Brook but not as severe. The fence got its name from one of the more bizarre events in Grand National history. In 1840, the Irish amateur jockey Alan Power laid a wager that he would be leading at the halfway mark on his mount Valentine. Determined to win the bet, Power was a furlong clear of the field at the Canal Turn but as he approached the next fence the horse slowed almost to a walk as if to pull up. At the last moment the horse changed his mind producing a spectacular corkscrew-type leap clearing both the fence and brook – which from then on became known as Valentine’s Brook.

The Chair is a fence that’s only jumped once on the course. It is 5ft 2in high, 3ft wide and has a 6ft ditch on the take-off side. The name comes from a seat positioned alongside which was once used by one of the judges. In modern times, the biggest problem posed by the Chair came in 1979 when loose horses caused nine of the runners to fall or be brought down.

Certainly, the Grand National is a test of endurance, talent and luck. It is hard to imagine a race like this in the US. It takes horse racing to an extreme that is both exhilarating and annihilating.

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