History of the Grand National - The Worlds Greatest Jump Race
The first official races at Aintree were organised by a syndicate, headed by the owner of Liverpool’s Waterloo Hotel, Mr William Lynn. He leased the land from Lord Sefton, set out a course and built a grandstand. Lord Molyneux laid the foundation stone on February 7, 1829 and placed a bottle full of sovereigns in the footings. The first Flat fixture was held five months later on July 7. A horse called Mufti won the opening race, the one and a quarter mile Croxteth Stakes. Crowds of up to 40,000 people attended Aintree’s three meetings a year.
The course staged its initial jump fixture in 1835. On Tuesday, February 26, 1839, Lottery became the first winner of the Grand National. In those days the horses had to jump a stone wall, cross a stretch of ploughed land and finish over two hurdles. The race was then known as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase. Mr Edward William Topham had been a prominent member of Lynn’s original syndicate. But in the 1840s, Lynn’s ill health blunted his enthusiasm for Aintree. Topham, a respected handicapper, began to exert greater influence over the National.
He was responsible for turning the National into a handicap in 1843 after it had been a weight-for-age race for the first four years. Topham took over the lease of Aintree in 1848 and became Clerk of the Course. The Topham family owned substantial tracts of land around Aintree and in 1949 they bought the course outright from Lord Sefton.
The person charged with bringing the course into modern times was Tophams’ chairman, Mrs Mirabel Topham. Before joining the board in 1934, she had been an actress of some repute. A forward thinker, Mrs Topham built a new course within the established Grand National course. She named it after Lord Mildmay, a fine amateur jockey and great supporter of the Grand National. The Mildmay Course, which stages races over conventional fences and hurdles, opened in 1953.
The construction of the motor-racing circuit, which still circles the Grand National track, began in 1954. The circuit was another of Mrs Topham’s innovations. It hosted a European Grand Prix and five British Grand Prix. Stirling Moss won his first Grand Prix there in 1955 and was also victorious in both 1957 and 1959. The 1961 British Grand Prix went to Wolfgang von Trips and Jim Clark took the final one to be staged at Aintree in 1962.
Aintree suffered lean times in the post-war years. In 1965, it was announced that the course would be sold to a property developer. This started one of the longest periods of uncertainty in the history of British sport, with endless speculation about the future.
Every year brought solemn warnings of ‘the last Grand National’. In 1973, Aintree racecourse was finally sold to property developer Bill Davies. He vowed to keep the race going but his heart never quite seemed in it. The attendance at the 1975 Grand National, won by L’Escargot, was the smallest in living memory after Davies tripled the admission prices. The great race had reached its lowest ebb.
Late in 1975, Ladbrokes the bookmakers stepped in. They signed an agreement with Davies allowing them to manage the Grand National. Cynics condemned the move as bookies protecting their own interests, but, although the race attracts the largest betting turnover of the year, the result seldom brings a windfall for bookmakers. Ladbrokes, like all true racing professionals, had a genuine love for the National and were determined to keep it alive. Their task stretched over the next seven years and Ladbrokes set about the role admirably. But Davies was reluctant to renew their contract. He was determined to sell Aintree. Racing and the public in general finally realised that after so many years of ‘crying wolf’ the threat was serious.
On Grittar’s day of glory in 1982, the Grand National Appeal was launched to rescue the race once and for all. Having recruited a firm of professional fundraisers, the Jockey Club presented Davies with their assessment. No more than £4 million could be raised by public subscription. A new contract was drawn up and the fundraising began again. With the help of countless initiatives, money was generated towards the purchase of the course.
However, donations were not enough to buy the racecourse in time for the 1983 Grand National. It was run under the auspices of the Jockey Club after an extension had been agreed with Davies.
In 1984, Seagram Distillers stepped in as sponsors of the Grand National. They provided the solid foundation on which Aintree’s revival has been built. This enabled the course to be finally purchased from Bill Davies and to be run and managed by Jockey Club Racecourses (then known as Racecourse Holdings Trust). The Jockey Club subsidiary now consists of 14 of Britain’s 60 courses.
Ivan Straker, the Seagram UK chairman, started the ball rolling after reading a passionate newspaper article by journalist Lord Oaksey. In his riding days, Oaksey had come within three quarters of a length of winning the 1963 Grand National on Carrickbeg. The last Seagram-sponsored Grand National was in 1991. Victory went to the aptly-named Seagram whom Straker had twice had the opportunity to buy. Martell Cognac, then a Seagram subsidiary, took over sponsorship of the Grand National and the rest of the meeting in 1992. The seven-year contract was worth over £4 million.
A year later Jenny Pitman was denied a second training success in the Grand National when the race was voided due to a false start after her Esha Ness had ‘won’. Esha Ness was among a number of horses whose riders failed to notice the starter had called a false start and continued to race. Mrs Pitman’s historic first victory came with Corbiere in 1983 and she gained a second Grand National win with Royal Athlete in 1995.
Lord Gyllene won the 150th Grand National at Aintree in 1997. He was not inconvenienced by the Monday running, two days after the big race was postponed following an IRA bomb scare. The bomb alert caused the biggest evacuation in the history of the sport but, thanks to determined efforts from the Aintree management and board of directors, the Grand National took place at the unusual time of 5pm on a Monday. Full details of what happened over that eventful weekend are brilliantly captured in the book ‘Everyone Must Leave - The Day They Stopped The National’, written by Aintree’s then press officer Nigel Payne and Dominic Hart.
The 2005 National saw the start of another significant era in the Liverpool course’s history. John Smith’s, a subsidiary of Scottish & Newcastle, sponsored the Grand National and many of the other races at the three-day meeting for the first time. The impact of John Smith’s sponsorship was immediately felt and continued for nine years after an early extension of the contract.
Despite the two incidents, Martell Cognac announced a new six year sponsorship contract in the September of 1997. This started with the 1999 Grand National and extended the association with Aintree until 2004. The deal was worth a minimum of £4.5 million to Aintree over the six-year term. It was the biggest sponsorship deal in British racing history.
Bobbyjo’s victory in 1999 started an excellent run of success by Irish-trained horses in the Grand National. Martell Cognac announced in October, 2003, that it would not be continuing the long association after 2004. The cognac maker had been bought by Pernod Ricard in 2001 and the parent company had other priorities.
Suggested further reading on The Grand National
- Green, Reg The History of the Grand National
- Cottrell, John & Armytage, Marcus The Official A-Z of the Grand National
- Rimmer, Joan Aintree’s Queen Bee