Heroes of The Grand National

Neptune Collonges

by MACIEJ KUREK THERE aren’t many races in the horse racing calendar as well known as The Grand National. Throughout the year, there are some top events, such as Royal Ascot, but it’s The Grand National that appeals to all. This annual event sees everyone, not just horse racing fans, on the edge of their seats and cheering on the winner. People from all over the world make their bets and see if they can cash in on the win. From professionals who know their trade to the newbies that need to get hold of the best horse racing tips, this is a race that plays to the masses.

The History of the Grand National

The race was originally founded back in 1829 by William Lynn – a proprietor and syndicate head of the Waterloo Hotel who happened to be leasing land in Aintree. He set out the course, built a grandstand and on 7th February 1829, the foundation stone was laid. However, although nothing is completely confirmed, it appears that the first official Grand National wasn’t run until 1836.

What started off as a small local race was given a boost between 1838 and 1839; firstly the Great St Alban’s Chase, which clashed with the race, was cancelled; then the railway arrived in Liverpool; finally a committee was set up to improve its organisation.  The race was run through all of World War 1, despite being moved to Gatwick Racecourse; however, despite it running as normal in 1940, it had to be cancelled between 1941-1945 as Aintree Racecourse was being used for defence.

Since then, the race has been run every year, apart from 1993 which was dubbed “the greatest disaster in the history of the Grand National”. This was the year of the race that never was. Whilst the jockeys were under starters orders, one of the jockeys became tangled up in the starting tape which never rose correctly. It was declared a false start, but because of bad communication, 30 out of 39 horses didn’t realise and started the race. Officials ran after them waving flags, but many continued racing, believing simply that these were protesters. Seven horses ended up finishing the race, which was then declared void. However, since that time everything has been pretty straightforward and despite controversy and protests, the race continues to thrive.

The Horses

Throughout the history of the race, it’s not been the jockeys that have been the main stars of the show, but the horses themselves. Every year one amazing horse comes out victorious, so here are some of the most famous Grand National winners of all time:

Neptune Collonges

This beautiful Grand National winner was sired by Dom Alco. He was owned by John Hales, trained by Paul Nicholls and usually ridden by Ruby Walsh. He started racing at the age of three, back in 2004 and in his first race, the Prix Raymond de Bouillon, he finished first out of sixteen runners. His first win of any note, however, came just the next year when he was victorious in the Winters Novices’ Hurdles. He started winning Grade 1 races in March 2007 and won three in total.

Unfortunately for Neptune Collonges he was injured during 2009’s Cheltenham Gold Cup and was out of action for over a season. Up until this point, he had managed 14 wins, 2 second and 3 third places, having earned almost £700,000.

He made a victorious return in 2010, however, and in the beginning of 2011 he won the Argento Chase at the Cheltenham Festival Trials. However, it was in 2012 when he soared to fame, winning the Grand National. He beat Sunnyhillboy by a nose in the closest ever win. He would bow out in glory, as that was to be his last ever race.

Auroras Encore

This magnificent animal was bred in Ireland and trained in Britain. He was put up for sale in 2003 at the Tattersalls Ireland Sale and was bought by Frank Barry for €7,000. He was sold on two years later for 9,500 guineas to Harvey Smith and his wife, trainer Sue Smith.

His career started in 2007. In that season he ran ten races, with his first win being in December, in a Novice Hurdle at Sedgefield. His first major win came in April 2008 when he won a handicap hurdle at the Grand National meeting in Aintree.

Auroras Encore had a standard run until November 2010, when after suffering 2 defeats, he took more than one year off. He returned in 2012 and got off to a mediocre start, never placing higher than 4th. However, in April 2013, at odds of 66/1, this rank outsider won the Grand National by nine lengths. He was retired in 2014 after having sustained a fracture.

Lord Gyllene

Lord Gyllene won the Grand National back in 1997. The reason Lord Gyllene and his victory are so famous is more to do with the circumstances that surrounded his win. This was the year that there were bomb threats and the possibility of needing to restage the race.

However, the horse was popular in his own right. He was owned by Sir Stanley Clarke CBE, trained by Steve Brookshaw and ridden by Tony Dobbin. In his racing lifetime he recorded 4 wins, 5 seconds and 1 third in the UK alongside 2 wins in New Zealand. After making just under a quarter of a million, he was retired in 2001.


Foinavon won the Grand National in 1967. However, this was no ordinary race with no ordinary horse. Foinavon wasn’t a winning horse. In fact, on entering the Grand National in 1967, he went in with odds of 100/1 – one of the rank outsiders. This feisty fellow was ridden by John Buckingham and owned by Cyril Watkins – who believed that the horse’s chances of winning were so slight that he didn’t even bother to go and watch the race.

At the beginning of the race, no one noticed Foinavon as he was trailing in a field of 28 horses who had managed to make it past the 22nd fence. However, this is where it all changed. At the 23rd fence, Popham Down, a loose horse who had unseated his rider at the first fence, veered suddenly to the right. He slammed into Rutherfords and unseated his jockey – Johnny Leech. This caused mayhem. A pile-up followed. Many horses hit the ground, some ran up and down the fence, stopping others from jumping, and some started running back the way they had come.

Because Foinavon had been so far behind by this point, John Buckingham had time to steer his horse around the mayhem and make the jump wide – before any others could remount or try again. This gave him an incredible 30 length lead and just six fences left.  Seventeen horses managed to restart and give chase, but it was too late. The favourite, Honey End, managed to close the gap to twenty lengths but it was victory for Foinavon, the underdog.

Red Rum

There is no other horse as famous in history as Red Rum. This horse is known for making history, having won the Grand National an incredible three times and having come second a further two times.

He was foaled in 1965 and initially bred to win one-mile races. However, Red Rum won his Nationals over long distance of four miles and four furlongs. He dead-heated in his first race at Aintree and ran a further seven times at just 2 years-old. He was ridden twice by top jockey, Lester Piggott and comedian Lee Mack was a stable boy and had his first riding lesson on this legendary horse.

His name was really made in the 1973 Grand National. The race went down in history as one of the most exciting ever as Crisp led the whole way, and with just one fence to go, was 15 lengths ahead of Red Rum. However, from nowhere Red Rum, ridden by Brian Fletcher, made up the distance and at just two strides from the finishing line, he pipped him to the post, winning by three-quarters. A year later, Red Rum won the race yet again and followed that by a win at the Scottish Grand National – becoming the only horse to ever have won both in the same season. In 1975 and 1976 Red Rum managed second place at the Grand National, and he won yet again in 1977. He was due to try again in 1978, but unfortunately suffered a hairline fracture the day before the race and was then retired.

As a result of his phenomenal success, he became a national celebrity, opening supermarkets and leading the Grand National parade for many years. Books were written about him, he was there to switch on Blackpool Illuminations and he made a guest appearance at the 1977 Sports Personality of the Year.  He died in 1995 and his death made the front pages of all the national newspapers. He was buried at the winning post of the Aintree Racecourse under the epitaph:

“Respect this place

This hallowed ground

A legend here

His rest has found

His feet would fly

Our spirits soar

He earned our love for evermore.”

Years after his death, he is still the best-known and most beloved of all race horses in the UK. He is even more famous than the fictional Black Beauty from the beloved children’s novel. It may have been many years ago, but this is a horse that has captivated the nation and helped to shape the history of the Grand National.



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