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Each November, Australia’s Melbourne Cup makes instant pundits of the most clueless horse-fanciers, and this weekend’s Grand National has a similar effect on otherwise disinterested Brits.

At Aintree racetrack, just outside Liverpool, 40 horses thunder around the four-mile track, jumping 30 fences as they race to the finish, competing for an increasingly lucrative prize pool, which, this year is only slightly shy of £1m.

Like any great horse race, the National has its own peculiar folklore, its own esoteric litany of legends and intractable controversies. One need not be familiar with all the details to enjoy the race’s spectacle, but it might be nice to at least pretend you know all about it.


There is dispute over when the first Grand National was actually run – it moved to Aintree in 1839, but there was a race over the same distance run for three years at nearby Maghull. There is no dispute, though, over the man who founded it. William Lynn, the head of a syndicate and pub owner, set out a course at Aintree and built the grandstand. Like any savvy publican, he probably knew that a massive horse race could only be good for business.

Aintree has hosted the Nationals ever since, except for three years during the First World War, when it was relocated to Gatwick Racecourse, which is now occupied by Gatwick airport. Again proving their puritanical snootiness, some National experts refuse to recognise these three races, often leaving them off their list of winners.


The Grand National’s fences make it an unusually dangerous race for the horses involved. On average, three horses die each year during the three-day meeting, of which the Grand National is the centrepiece, and 76 have died during the race itself – including two, Ornais and Dooneys Gate, last year. These fatalities have made the race a target for animal welfare protests. Although they haven’t managed to have the race completely shut down, they have succeeded in improving the standard of trackside veterinary care and having some of the more dangerous obstacles modified.

One obstacle, Beecher’s Brook, an 8ft-wide brook with a fence set a yard in front of the water, has developed a reputation as the course’s most dangerous. It’s named after Captain Martin Beecher, who fell there from his horse during the first official Grand National in 1839, and hid in the brook to avoid injury.

Victory from the jaws of defeat and vice versa

Back in 1928, William Dutton, the jockey of a horse called Tipperary Tim, heard a heckler call out: “Billy boy, you’ll only win if the rest of them fall over.” The sledge proved prophetic as 41 of the 42 runners fell. On a heavy track, a major pile-up reduced the field to seven before the field was culled to three by the second-last fence. Then, remarkably, the saddle slipped off the leading horse, the second fell and Tipperary Tim romped home to unlikeliest of victories.

The reverse occurred in 1956 when Devon Loch had pulled away to lead by five lengths with the finish line in sight. But then, 40 yards from the post, the horse belly-flopped on to the turf and would not be coaxed into finishing the race.


Over here the Grand National stops a nation, down under it's the Melbourne Cup
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