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banner Tuesday, 4 April, 2000, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
The Grand National 1839-1955
Becher's Brook, the most famous fence
Becher's Brook, the most famous fence
In 1839, 17 horses and their supposedly gentlemen riders lined up at Aintree for a race of "four miles across country" - the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.

The distance was actually more than that and most of the jockeys were professionals. The fences were generally small country banks with or without ditches, plus a couple of brooks and even a stone wall.

The winner was called Lottery. Some might view this as fitting, given the race's reputation in later years for shock results, though the horse was in fact the 5/1 favourite.

It was in this first running that one of the streams became known as Becher's Brook after Captain Martin Becher, rider of Conrad. When the horse ploughed into the sixth fence he catapaulted Becher over the top and into the brook where he sought refuge from the following animals.

Captain Becher, with true Victorian panache, is reputed to have said after his experience that he had not known how "dreadful water tastes without whisky in it".

The following year. the other brook acquired its nickname.

The Irish amateur Alan Power struck a bet that he and his horse, Valentine, would be ahead at the wall. He therefore set off at a terrific lick and approaching the second brook he was well clear.

The horse then came almost to a halt before rearing up and corkscrewing over in a style which astonished observers. Power managed to get his mount going again and ultimately won his bet.

Evolution and the Victorian Red Rum

As the century continued, the race gradually evolved. In 1843, it became a handicap - with the horses weighted according to their ability rather than all carrying the same amount.
Water jump
The water - once a stone wall
By 1847, the named had changed to its current form - the Grand National Handicap Steeplechase. Other changes involved the course, the wall being replaced first by a post and rails, then by a water jump.

The 19th century saw many great Nationals and many great stories such as the double victory (1850-51) of the tiny Abd-El-Kader and back-to-back wins by full sisters Emblem and Emblematic in 1863-64.

There were also scandals of the type which only horse racing seems to attract with Cloister, second in 1891-92 and winner in 1893, being withdrawn injured when a hot ante-post favourite in 1894 and 1895. On both occasions, the bookies knew well in advance of the public what was going on.

The new century even saw a royal winner, with Ambush II victorious in 1900 for the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII.

Second that year was Manifesto, the Red Rum of his day. He had won in 1897 and 1899 and went on to run a record eight times in the race. Only once did he fail to finish and on only one other occasion, when he was 16. did Manifesto fail to make the frame.

National debacles

The year 1927 saw the National brought more directly to the masses with the first radio broadcast by the BBC. The winner was Sprig, bred by Captain Richard Pennington in 1917 while on leave from the trenches in the hope of one day riding him in the National. Captain Pennington, however, was killed shortly before the war ended.

The following year saw one of the periodic Grand National debacles when Easter Hero fell at the Canal Turnm causing a pile-up which left just seven horses standing. By the last, there were only two - American champion Billy Barton and the unconsidered Tipperary Tim. The former fell, leaving his rival to come home alone.

A much classier animal, Golden Miller, won in 1934, but this five-rime winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was not happy at Aintree and never again completed the course.

The year 1938 saw the youngest jockey to win the National in Bruce Hobbs, who was just 17. He was aboard Battleship, a diminutive American owned and bred chaser sent over the Atlantic to be trained for the race by Hobbs's father, Reg.

The years after World War II saw a change in the management and ownership of the course when Lord Sefton sold it to the Topham family, who put it in the care of Mirabel Topham.

Those who remember the debacle of the void race in 1993 might be interested to learn about 1951, when starter Leslie Firth pressed the lever with half the field milling about. There was no recall and the jockeys tried desperately to get their mounts in the race.

Many of the field fell in the early stages as a result and the field was down to five by the end of the first circuit. The mare Nickel Coin eventually won a discredited race.

The rest of that decade seemed to belong to Ireland, or more particularly to Vincent O'Brien, who trained three consecutive winners in Early Mist (1953), Royal Tan (1954) and Quare Times (1955).

The following year was to see one of the most dramatic Grand Nationals in history.

Click here for National history 1956-99

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