Looking back at the Grand National, decade by decade

To mark 180 years since the first running of the Grand National, Kate Green charts the decade-by-decade history of the much-loved race by focusing on the years ending in '9', beginning with the inaugural staging in 1839.


Aptly, considering the famously random nature of the contest, the first race with ‘National’ status was won by a horse called Lottery, at 5–1, over a course that included a stone wall, a ploughed field and two hurdles to finish. Lottery was described by Turf correspondent Druid as ‘a very peculiarly made horse’ and his winning time of 14 minutes, 53 seconds is the slowest ever (Mr Frisk’s 8 minutes, 47 seconds in 1990 is the fastest), but he could also jump ‘as if from a springboard’.

The winning jockey, Jem Mason, was the inspiration for G. J. Whyte-Melville’s horse-dealer character Mr Varnish and another, Capt Martin Becher, was immortalised by the eponymous brook into which he slipped from his horse Conrad, afterwards declaring that water without whisky tasted foul.

First Grand National

The Grand National Steeplechase, Aintree, Liverpool, England, 26th February 1939. The 1839 Grand National in progress shows the scene at Becher’s Brook, now so named, because it was christened by Captain Martin Becher falling from his horse, Condor, into the brook. Photo by Popperfoto/Getty.


Animal-welfare campaigners were vociferous even then, as there were three equine fatalities, including at an innocuous 18in-high bank. There was also an unrecalled false start when the overexcited crowd drowned out the starter Lord Sefton’s instructions – the winner, Peter Simple, ridden by Tom Cunningham, was to the forefront of those that broke away – and some dodgy betting. Capt D’Arcy had placed heavy bets on himself to win on The Knight of Gwynne, but, in the race, it dawned on him that this was unlikely, so he tried to bribe Cunningham to take a pull.


Winning jockey Chris Green was a versatile horseman reared on treacherous fenland ditch country in Cambridgeshire, whipping in to his father’s pack of harriers. He farmed, ran a stud and not only rode and trained the National winner Half Caste, but also runners in the Derby and Oaks. An obituary said he was ‘equally at home on the puller as on the slug’.

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George Stevens, the most successful jockey in Grand National history, scored win number four on The Colonel. After three false starts, he avoided the mass carnage that ensued by staying at the back. He won for a record fifth time in 1870, on the same horse, but was later killed in a fall, ironically not on the racecourse, but when hacking home to his cottage on Cleeve Hill, above Cheltenham.

'Sharing a Joke at Aintree', Grand National 1937. From Coronation Souvenir Book 1937, edited by Gordon Beckles. [Daily Express, London, 1937]

‘Sharing a Joke at Aintree’, Grand National 1937. From Coronation Souvenir Book 1937, edited by Gordon Beckles. Daily Express, London, 1937.


Popular Irish amateur Garrett Moore on The Liberator, a horse held in great public affection and heavily backed, had an injunction taken out against his running by his fellow owner, Plunkett Taaffe, but it was overthrown by the Master of the Rolls in Dublin and the horse won easily, by 10 lengths.

Aintree Races

Decade Player ridden by D.Peters and Mr Moss ridden by J.Nailor clear The Chair during the Randox Health Foxhunters’ Open Hunters’ Steeple Chase at Aintree Racecourse on April 6, 2017 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images.


The victory of Frigate, under Tommy Beasley, received great acclamation as it was her sixth run in the race; she’s one of only 13 mares to have won, the last being the grey Nickel Coin in 1951.


Manifesto won despite a serious blunder; jockey George Williamson described looking back to see a hind leg pointing skywards. Manifesto ran in the race a record eight times, also winning in 1897. He was called ‘the most blood-like animal ever to put in an appearance’; the German equestrian artist Emil Adam was initially sniffy about painting him, but changed his tune when he saw him and exhibited the portrait in Paris.

Sport/Horse Racing. The Grand National Steeplechase. Aintree. A photograph from a 1930's Grand National shows how jockey and horse can end up at the mighty Becher's Brook fence.

The Grand National Steeplechase, Aintree, A photograph from a 1930’s Grand National shows how jockey and horse can end up at the mighty Becher’s Brook fence. Photo by Popperfoto/Getty.


Georges Parfrement, darling of the Parisian racing scene who later died of a broken neck, is the only Frenchman to have won. His mount, Lutteur III, only a five year old, was trained in West Sussex by Harry Escott and owned by James Hennessy, a scion of the brandy house.


Poethlyn, ridden by Lester Piggott’s grandfather Ernie, was, at 11–4, the shortest-priced winner in history. In 1918, the pair won the ‘War National’, which was held at Gatwick, Aintree having been commandeered by the War Office. Only seven favourites have won in the past 50 years – the shortest priced this century are Hedgehunter (2005) and Comply Or Die (2008) at 7–1.

Grand National Winner

21st March 1937: Stable lads feeding and making a fuss of ‘Royal Mail’ the 1937 Grand National winner, owned by Mr H Lloyd at Ivor Antony’s stables at Wroughton, Wiltshire. Photo by H. Allen/Topical Press Agency/Getty.


After a frustratingly frosty February, when there was only one day’s racing, Country Life expressed consternation at an ‘unwieldy’ entry of 120, which was whittled down to a record 66 (January 12, 1929). The writer mooted the idea of a forfeit to discourage owners of hopeless horses, who were perhaps encouraged by the triumph in 1928 of the 100–1 shot Tipperary Tim – he was the sole finisher after Easter Hero caused a traffic jam at the Canal Turn, which had a ditch in front of it at the time.

However, the 1929 winner, Gregalach, will have done nothing to put off owners: he was also 100–1. Our correspondent GHPE missed most of the excitement – he was knocked unconscious when the rail he’d been leaning on broke.

Grand National steeplechase, Cork Park horse races

The Grand National steeplechase, Cork Park horse races, United Kingdom, illustration from the magazine The Illustrated London News, volume LIV, May 29, 1869.


Workman, Irish-bred, owned and trained and ridden by Tim Hyde, whose son Timmy is a successful bloodstock agent, was the first all-Ireland winner, but he hadn’t been tipped: instead, money piled on for Blue Shirt, a horse that had been mysteriously cited in a message in a bottle that washed up on the Irish coast.


Russian Hero’s victory at 66–1 proved immensely popular with members of the Communist Party. It’s suggested that, following a tip in the Daily Worker, the payout was the largest ever, collectively, to members of a political party.


When Michael Scudamore won on Oxo, he achieved a feat that eluded his champion jockey son, Peter, in 13 attempts and, so far, his grandson Tom. The Pathé newsreel commentator said Oxo had ‘put beef into his backers’.

Aintree Races

5th April 1975: Barry Ellison, the head stable lad for Red Rum praying during the 1975 Grand National. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty.


Highland Wedding, trained by Toby Balding, who bought the horse after seeing him on TV, was a chance ride for Irish jockey Eddie Harty after regular pilot Owen McNally fractured his elbow. The horse was jointly owned by a Canadian and an American, whose turn it was for the horse to wear his colours.


This decade was dominated by the feats of triple winner Red Rum, but even he wasn’t saluted by bagpipes in the manner of Rubstic, given a hero’s return to trainer John Leadbetter’s yard in Roxburghshire as the first Scottish-trained winner. Nicky Henderson’s charge Zongalero was second – still, remarkably, the veteran champion trainer’s best-ever result in the race.


Toby Balding was successful again, with Little Polveir, ridden by Jimmy Frost, whose daughter Bryony finished fifth last year on Milansbar. The topic of horse welfare was raised in Parliament after two fatalities at Becher’s Brook, a sorry episode that prompted the modification of fence landings and of jockey and horse qualifications.

Society at Grand National Meeting at Aintree. Image shot 1930. Exact date unknown.

Society at Grand National Meeting at Aintree, 1930.


The 1990s were blighted by the false start and void race in 1993 and the IRA bomb scare in 1997, but the decade ended with a brilliant family first when Ireland’s Paul Carberry rode to victory on Bobbyjo, trained by his father, Tommy, who had won 24 years earlier on L’Escargot.


Venetia Williams is the only woman to have both ridden in the race (she injured her neck in a fall at the sixth in 1988) and trained a winner, Mon Mome, at 100–1, the biggest price since 1967, when Foinavon negotiated the legendary pile-up. The jockey, Liam Treadwell, was making his National debut and, on the blunt advice of BBC presenter Clare Balding, famously spent some of his prize money on getting his teeth fixed.

See the Jockey Club’s official Grand National page at www.thejockeyclub.co.uk has all the latest official information about the world’s most famous horse race. 

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