Horse racing is more than a sport in the UK, it is a way of life. The major festivals like Cheltenham and Royal Ascot are as famous for their pageantry and royal connections as they are for the racing. Her Majesty herself is a regular attendee and still enjoys horseback riding at the age of 94.
But the British racing calendar is not all about royalty and champagne cocktails. The Grand National is known as “the people’s race,” as it is one of those sporting events that everyone talks about, even those who usually have no interest in horse racing. This year’s Grand National takes place on April 10 – let’s find out more about it.
An illustrious history
The first Grand National was run in 1839. Since then, it has taken place every year, except for cancellations during the Second World War, a void race in 1993 due to a false start and, of course, the 2020 event being cancelled along with practically every other sporting event. It is run over a distance of four miles and 2.5 furlongs, during which the 40 runners must negotiate 30 fences. These are made from spruce and have names like The Chair and Beecher’s Brook – just those words can strike fear into even the best jockeys.
Everyone’s a punter on Grand National Day
There’s a festive atmosphere associated with the Grand National that can best be compared with Super Bowl Sunday or FA Cup Final day. It’s one of those events for which the world stands still for an afternoon, and it is by far the biggest horse racing betting event on the calendar. The large number of runners make the Grand National an ideal candidate for impromptu sweepstakes, and these are a common sight in pubs and even offices across the UK, with participants paying a pound or two and selecting the name of a horse at random.
This year’s tips
Last year, all the talk was about Tiger Roll. In 2019, he’d become the first horse in 45 years to win back-to-back Nationals, and there was a real buzz in the air that he could rewrite the history books by making it three in three. Sadly, he won’t be running in this year’s National, so it leaves the door open for a new winner. Entrants are still to be confirmed, but the early favorite among the bookmakers is Cloth Cap. The nine years old is in the form of his life and the latest odds have him way ahead of the rest at 4/1.
A little further down, Kimberlite Candy is an interesting choice at a generous 16/1 if you choose your bookmaker with care. The nine year old, trained by Tom Lacey has been talked up by veteran tipster Tony Calvin, who described the horse as an “irresistible punt” at 20/1. Those odds will just keep shortening, so grab them while you can. The horse pulled up earlier this year in the Irish Grand National, but since then, he’s looked raring to go, managing at strong second at Aintree before winning over a long distance at Warwick.
If you prefer a tempting outsider for an each-way bet, Potter’s Corner could be just the horse you are looking for. Don’t be put off by his 11 years, this is a race in which experience and maturity count for a lot. Wins in the Welsh Grand National and the Midlands Grand National show that this horse has what it takes in the big race atmosphere. His withdrawal from this year’s Cheltenham Festival caused some concern, but sources close to the stables say he’s back to full fitness.
Drama and controversy
The distance, the difficulty of the jumps and the number of runners in the Grand National add up to a high attrition rate. In fact, in 1928, 42 runners started and only one finished, a horse called Tipperary Tim. The Grand National has proved to be one of the most controversial races on the calendar, due to the risks to both runners and riders, and there have been tragedies.
Of the 53 equine fatalities over the years, 14 have taken place at Beecher’s Brook. The sixth and 22nd fence has been compared by some jockeys to “jumping off the end of the world.” Things came to a head in 1989, when six horses fell at Beecher’s, two of which had to be euthanized. This persuaded organizers to bow to pressure and make significant alterations to the jump.
In other safety improvements in recent years, the organizers have shortened the overall distance, restricted the number of entrants and altered the more dangerous fences in a bid to make the racer safer and to preserve its future. Nevertheless, the Grand National remains one of the world’s biggest horse racing challenges.