26.03.2020 - The Grand National is arguably the most popular handicap steeplechase race on the planet. Established in 1839, for more than one-and-three-quarters of a century the people of Great Britain have been enchanted by this 4-mile 2.5-furlong race. More than 600 million people tune in worldwide to watch a race that carries a purse of £1 million for the winner, making it the most lucrative jump race in European horse racing.
We have seen some truly inspirational thoroughbreds lining up at Aintree through the decades. This article is designed to act as a homage to the most famous Grand National performers that have embarked upon the ultimate test of horse and rider.
The British public has always longed for a “people’s champion” in the Grand National and in 1973 they got just that when Noel le Mare-owned Red Rum fought back from 30 lengths behind to prevail in what many consider to be one of the finest Grand Nationals in the history of the race. Better was to come 12 months later when, despite carrying 12 stone, Red Rum romped to back-to-back Grand National victories. He would go on to finish runner-up in the next two years, before finally achieving the hat-trick in 1977 before a well-earned retirement.
In the modern-day era of the Grand National, no-one has come close to eclipsing Red Rum’s achievements until Irish-owned Tiger Roll arrived on the scene. Owned by Ryanair airline owner Michael O’Leary, Tiger Roll was the first to achieve back-to-back Grand National triumphs in 2018 and 2019 respectively, ridden by Davy Russell. Tiger Roll, who has also won four times at the Cheltenham Festival, was aiming to bag an historic hat-trick of Grand National wins in 2020 prior to the race’s cancellation due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. However, in the build-up to this year’s race, Native River was the horse that most punters were backing – at least until the Colin Tizzard-trained gelding had to pull out through injury.
Racehorse Mr Frisk still finds himself in the Grand National record books having recorded the fastest race time in the history of the event back in 1990. He completed the Aintree course in just eight minutes and 47.8 seconds, with jockey Marcus Armytage on board. The fact this record still stands today is a testament to his achievement. Only a few weeks after winning the Grand National, Armytage and Mr Frisk teamed up to win the Whitbread Gold Cup to cement his name in British horse racing folklore.
Devon Loch was a thoroughbred horse owned by Queen Elizabeth I and had a solid chance of winning the 1956 Grand National. Earlier in the season, Devon Loch had warmed up by winning two races and finishing a close third at Cheltenham Festival’s National Hunt Handicap Chase. Devon Loch looked to have wrapped up victory at Aintree, having taken a commanding lead on the home straight. However, a mere 40-50 yards from the finishing post, the horse inexplicably jumped in the air and landed on its chest, unable to finish the race. Some pundits wondered whether cramp had hindered him late on, while others claim a shadow on the track may have tricked Devon Loch into thinking there was one final fence before the end. Either way, it was a tragic end to what looked like a very promising race for the Queen Mother.
Aldaniti was another thoroughbred to deliver one of the UK’s finest sporting moments in history. The horse himself entered the 1981 Grand National having only recently recovered from an injury that threatened his long-term career. Furthermore, jockey Bob Champion had also been given the all-clear in his fight against cancer. It seemed almost poetic that Aldaniti and Champion would team up to prevail around Aintree and deliver a genuine tear-jerker for racing fans nationwide.
Hopefully more thoroughbreds and jockeys can take the mantle and be inspired by the likes of Red Rum, Tiger Roll et al and create more precious Grand National moments to live long in the memory.