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Horse Racing before the Grand National

Horse racing is known as the "sport of kings" in the UK, with the famous Grand National being the highlight of the annual calendar. Statistics show horse racing is the UK's second most popular sport, behind only football.

According to research by the Deloitte Sports Business Group, in terms of attendances, horse racing beats most other sports, such as rugby, motor racing, cricket and golf.

The best-attended race meetings include the Aintree Grand National (which attracts an average 139,000 spectators), Royal Ascot, the Cheltenham Festival and the Epsom Derby.

Horse Racing

© zuchero / Alamy Stock Photo


Horse racing origins

Long before horse racing became popular in Britain in the modern era, it was enjoyed all over the world. In fact, the earliest recorded races date from the times of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

The basic concept of the sport has remained largely unchanged. It began as a contest of stamina and speed for horses and riders, and it remains pretty much the same today, although it's now a spectacle involving a large field of runners and electronic equipment to monitor the races.

Large amounts of money are also involved, in terms of the price of the top thoroughbred horses and the betting shops.

The first recorded horses were chariot and bareback mounted races, which were part of the Olympic Games held in Greece between 700BC and 40BC. Similar races were staged for public entertainment during the times of the Roman Empire from 27BC to 476AD.

Organised racing also took place in the Middle East, in countries such as China, Arabia and Persia and in North Africa. The Barb, Turk and Arabian horses took part in early European racing during the Crusades from the 11th to the 13th centuries.


Medieval times

At medieval England horse sales, professional riders would race the horses to demonstrate their speed to potential buyers. The first known prize money for a horse race was offered during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, from 1189 to 1199.

A race for knights was run over a three-mile course, with a £40 prize offered for the winner. In modern terms, taking inflation into account, the purse was worth £80,000 - a life-changing sum for the victor.

Henry VIII imported horses from Spain and Italy and established studs in the 16th century, when horse racing first became known as the "sport of kings". James I sponsored race meetings in England in the 17th century.

Charles II, who was king from 1660 to 1685, was nicknamed “the father of the English turf” after launching the King’s Plates horse races, which were governed by the earliest national racing rules. They were for six-year-old horses who carried a weight of 168 lbs. The race was run over a four-mile course. Charles II also established Newmarket as the headquarters of horse racing in England.


Match races

Early races were known as match races, when there were two or three horses taking part. The owners provided the prize money and it was a simple wager with a third party, known as the keeper of the matchbook, recording the agreements.

In 1729, one match bookkeeper at Newmarket, John Cheny, published a historical list of all the races that had been run, consolidating the matchbooks from other racing centres. It was updated annually until 1773, when James Weatherby turned it into the Racing Calendar.

The Jockey Club of Britain was founded at Newmarket in around 1750.

The modern era of racing in England is generally considered to have begun with the English classic races: the St Leger in 1776, the Oaks in 1779 and the Derby the following year. They were all races for three-year-olds. The Two Thousand Guineas was launched in 1809 and the One Thousand Guineas began in 1814.

Initially, only the winners' names were recorded in the Racing Calendar, but by the mid-19th century, a record was kept of all the runners and riders.


Grand National

Britain's most famous horse race, the Grand National, began in 1839. It has become a national institution at Aintree and is one of the most famous horse races in the world.

The first Grand National, known as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase, was won by a horse called Lottery, while Captain Becher fell at a now world-famous brook that was later named in his honour.

In the early days, the horses had to jump a solid stone wall, race across a ploughed field and finished by jumping over two hurdles.

The course as we know it today was founded by William Lynn, owner of the Waterloo Hotel. He leased the land at Aintree from the 2nd Earl of Sefton, William Molyneux. Lynn built a grandstand and set out the course.



Over the years, the Grand National has made history on many occasions. Its most famous fences, such as Becher’s Brook and The Chair, are familiar to everyone.

The milestones include the remarkable endurance of Manifesto, who competed in more Grand Nationals than any other horse - eight in total, between 1895 and 1904. He won in 1897 and 1899 and was third in three of the races.

The youngest winner was jockey Bruce Hobbs, aged 17, who won in 1939 on the smallest horse ever to win the race, Battleship. The oldest winner was Dick Saunders, who rode Grittar in 1982, at the age of 48. He retired afterwards.

The first woman to train a Grand National winner was Jenny Pitman, whose horse, Corbiere, won in 1983. In 2009, Venetia Williams was only the second woman to train a National winner, Mon Mome.

The lowest number of horses to finish the National was two in 1928, Billy Barton and Tipperary Tim. Only four out of 40 horses completed the race in 2001, when Red Marauder beat Smarty.


Red Rum

The most famous horse associated with the Grand National is Red Rum. He is the only horse to have won three Grand Nationals - in 1973, 1974 and 1977. He finished second in two further contests.

His remarkable victories were achieved after he recovered from the bone disease, pedal osteitis, which could have ended his racing career. Instead, his trainer Donald "Ginger" McCain took Red Rum on the beach to train.

Letting the horse run through the sea water helped to cure his bone disease and he was transformed from a horse which was barely able to hobble, into the champion of champions.


This year's race

The 2019 Grand National takes place on Saturday 6th April at 5.15pm at Aintree. The current bookies' favourite to win is the nine-year-old winner of the 2018 National, Tiger Roll, at odds of 10/1. The second favourite is 11-year-old Rathvinden - a winner at the Cheltenham Festival.

As well as race-goers attending the track, millions of people around the world will be glued to their TV screens.

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