Generally regarded as the most watched and most bet-upon horse race in the world, the Grand National remains universally popular – no mean feat for a sporting spectacle that started in the 1800s.
But why has the race so captured the imagination of the public in the way that others, perhaps, haven’t?
You would argue that the Cheltenham Gold Cup is more prestigious, that the Derby is more valuable or that the Royal Ascot meeting is more of an eye-catching tradition.
But it’s the Grand National that has most crossed over into the mainstream’s consciousness – an astonishing 8.8 million people tuned into the TV coverage of the 2021 edition in the UK, and the global audience is thought to be somewhere closer to 600 million.
So why is the Grand National so popular?
Race of the People
There’s no getting away from horse racing’s roots – it was a sport of the aristocracy and the upper classes for decades, and one that at times during the 19th and early 20th centuries would not have been considered ‘inclusive’ for all.
But the Grand National is somewhat different in that it is one of the few major races to be held north of the Midlands at Aintree Racecourse in Merseyside. So, from the get-go it has attracted a different kind of racegoer – typically Northern, typically working class. It is the race of the people, in that those from all walks of life enjoy it.
That mainstream appeal also contributes to the enormous betting market for the Grand National each year – in many cases, this is the one time that many folks in the UK will have a bet each year. For context, one major bookmaker alone took 1.2 million bets on the race in 2022.
The unique race conditions also help to add more intrigue to the Grand National.
The 40-strong field is an anomaly in itself – few other races even get close to having that many horses competing in them, and so the National both looks striking and has the added drama of seeing how all of the horses will jump with so many distractions around them.
The nature of Aintree racecourse lends itself to high octane action as well. The four-mile distance, and the steeplechasing track, means that the race lasts longer than the average – it plays out almost like a TV drama rather than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sporting spectacle.
Are there any other racecourses where the fences have their own names? Not to our knowledge, and certainly none with the depth of history and amount of stories as The Chair, Becher’s Brook and Foinavon.
The length of the trip – and the complexity of the jumps – means that the lead can change hands many time during the race, and that even a clear leader is not safe until they have cleared the final obstacle….and successfully completed the gruelling run for the line.
Even after more than a century of National Hunt and flat racing in the UK, it’s still the Grand National that plays host to many of the sport’s most remarkable stories.
Last Horse Standing: Tipperary Tim
It was around a century ago that the most extraordinary Grand National perhaps ever took place – the 1928 edition, in which just one horse finished the Aintree course.
And that was Tipperary Tim, a 100/1 shot with the amateur jockey William Dutton on board, who scythed his way through the mud and evaded a number of pile-ups to be the last horse standing.
To this day, it’s the only time in history that the Grand National has had just a solitary finisher.
Red Rum: Hat-Trick Hero
Despite the long, long history of the Grand National, there’s still only one horse that has been able to win it on three separate occasions.
That’s why Red Rum is sometimes referred to as the ‘people’s horse’, given that he netted a hat-trick in the people’s race, made history and – no doubt – made plenty of punters happy along the way.
Of his three victories, it’s Red Rum’s first in 1973 that most captured the imagination – and confirmed why the Grand National is so beloved. The powerhouse overcame a huge 15-length deficit after the final fence, hauling in the leader Crisp with a show of immense staying power.
15th Time Lucky for AP McCoy
You suspect that even in 100 years’ time, AP McCoy will still be regarded as one of the best jockeys in racing history.
But a Grand National victory eluded him for so long – testament to the race’s unpredictability, and there must have been fears in the McCoy household that the 20-time champion jockey would never have his moment in the sun at Aintree.
In 2010 he was paired with Don’t Push It, an otherwise unspectacular horse but one that McCoy was able to get a tune out of. He came home in first place much to the joy of the jockey, his family and friends and punters, who had backed the horse in from 20/1 to 10/1 joint favouritism on the morning of the race.
Tiger’s On a Roll
In recent memory, no horse has captured the public’s imagination quite like Tiger Roll.
Despite specialising in long distance races with taller-than-average fences, the Gigginstown House Stud horse was relatively tiny compared to his rivals – so much so that owner Michael O’Leary once described him as a ‘little rat of a thing’.
So Tiger Roll shouldn’t have been successful in the Grand National by all accounts, but he won the assignment not once but twice in consecutive years – an extraordinary achievement.
Sadly, the cancellation of the race in 2020 prevented him from attempting the hat-trick that would have equalled Red Rum’s record….we’ll now never know what might have been.
Blackmore Smashes the Glass Ceiling
Given how many stellar female jockeys horse racing has seen in the modern era, it was only a matter of time before a woman prevailed in the Grand National.
And there should have been no surprise that it was Rachael Blackmore who smashed the ceiling in 2021. Just weeks prior, she had been crowned top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, and she carried that form on to Aintree aboard Minella Times.
In another major gambling success for narrative-loving casual punters, Blackmore skilfully navigated the course to come home in first place – sending the Aintree hordes into raptures in the process.
Hers was one of so many extraordinary stories at the Grand National….and that’s why we love it.