The Grand National steeplechase is such an iconic part of British history that often we forget that it had to start somewhere.

So where, when and how did the Grand National come about?

The 1839 Grand Liverpool Steeplechase was the first official annual running of the race that later became known as the Grand National. Held at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool, England, on Tuesday, February 26, 1839, it attracted a field of 17 runners.

Although the press at the time recorded it as the fourth running of the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase, which was renamed the Grand National in 1847, the first three runnings were poorly organized events, possibly held at Maghull. In 1839, the race came under new management, and the arrival of the railway in Liverpool made it easier for people to travel to the course.

The race was not run as a handicap chase (the Grand National was converted to a handicap race in 1843), so all the runners carried twelve stone.

William Lynn

The Grand National at Aintree is all down to a man called William Lynn. Lynn was a Liverpool inn-keeper, who dreamed of having an event to rival Tom Coleman’s Great St Albans Steeplechase.

Lynn had administered Aintree’s flat racing since first leasing the racecourse in 1829, so it was a brave notion to consider introducing steeplechasing there, especially given that most of the nobility frowned on the new cross-country racing.

While he was a keen businessman, Lynn’s natural abilities lay in the promotion of sports events. Even though he knew that steeplechasing was not in favour, he held firm to his idea of bringing it to Liverpool as he was sure it would “enthral, delight and excite all who witnessed it”.

The First Grand National

Aintree’s first Grand Liverpool Steeplechase was held on the 26th of February 1839. The conditions for the race contained the following stipulations:

‘A sweepstake of twenty sovereigns each, five sovereigns forfeit, with one hundred sovereigns added; twelve stone each; gentlemen riders; four miles across country; the second horse to save his stake, and the winner to pay ten sovereigns towards expenses; no rider to open a gate or ride through a gateway; or more than one hundred yards along any road, footpath or driftway’.

The actual distance was a little more than four miles, and only five out of the seventeen riders could claim to be ‘gentlemen riders’ or as we know them today, true amateurs.

Even then, there was a lot of interest and plenty of money changed hands as bettors and fans picked their favourites. Of course today there is also the option of online betting which has had an even bigger impact.

First Winner

It was Lottery, a nine-year-old bay gelding, originally named Chance, who won the 1839 Liverpool Steeplechase that is regarded as the first-ever Aintree Grand National.

Lynn therefore laid the foundations of something he probably never imagined even in his wildest dreams.

Unfortunately, it was there that his involvement with the great race faded from the history books.

Edward Topham

Edward William Topham was chosen to handicap the race in 1843, due to the fact that he had experience in such a role and he was also very obviously dedicated to the future of the Aintree racecourse.

While the Grand National was the highlight of events at Aintree, as this was the reason why the racecourse was originally established, flat racing remained its principal function for many years afterwards.

The racecourse did not change hands until Mrs Mirabel Dorothy Topham succeeded her husband Ronald as head of Tophams Limited.

She purchased the racecourse from its owner Lord Sefton in 1949 for a sum that is said to have been in the region of £250,000.

She began a building programme in the 1950s which included construction of the Mildmay Steeplechase course and a Grand Prix motor race circuit.

By the mid-1960s however poor attendance and fund shortages made it impossible for Mrs Topham to continue so she decided to sell up.

Modern Era

In 1973, Mrs. Topham eventually sold to property developer Mr. Bill Davies for £3 million, ending the Tophams’ association with the Grand National, which had started way back in 1843.

Despite the challenges of the mid-20th century, the Grand National’s appeal persisted. In 1984, the Jockey Club took over the management of Aintree Racecourse.

Their stewardship marked the beginning of a new era of stability and modernisation for the Grand National. The Jockey Club implemented significant improvements to the course and facilities, enhancing the overall experience for competitors and spectators alike.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw the introduction of new technologies and safety measures. The course itself underwent modifications to improve safety, such as softening some of the most challenging fences.

In 2013, the course saw further enhancements with the introduction of plastic cores in the fences, replacing the traditional wooden cores. This change was made to reduce the risk of injury to both horses and jockeys. Animal welfare continued to be a top priority, with the implementation of more stringent veterinary checks and improved care facilities.

Prize Money

The Grand National’s prize money also saw substantial increases, attracting top-tier horses and jockeys from around the world. By 2024, the race offers one of the richest purses in the sport, making it a highly competitive and prestigious event.

The total prize fund for the 2024 Grand National is £1 million. This amount is distributed among the first 10 finishers, with the winner receiving more than half of the total.

In recent years, the Grand National has embraced digital technology to reach a wider audience. Social media has also played a significant role in promoting the race, connecting fans globally and adding to the excitement.

Today, the Grand National is more than just a horse race; it’s a cultural phenomenon. With over 600 million viewers worldwide, it continues to captivate audiences with its thrilling spectacle and rich history. As we look forward to 2025 and beyond, the Grand National remains a cornerstone of British sporting heritage, with its future looking as bright as ever.

Comparison of the Original Grand National and the Modern Race

Original Race:

  • Course Layout: The original Grand National, first held in 1839, began near what is now Melling Road. The course led runners into open countryside, navigating natural banks, a post and rails over a brook, and other obstacles.
  • Fences and Obstacles:
    • Natural Banks: The original fences included natural banks no more than 2 feet (0.61 m) high.
    • Post and Rails over a Brook: Early in the race, runners encountered a post and rails over a brook.
    • Leeds and Liverpool Canal Turn: Runners made a sharp turn along the canalside, mirroring today’s Canal Turn.
    • Second Brook: Known today as Valentine’s Brook, this was another key obstacle.
    • Racecourse Proper: Upon re-entering the main racecourse, runners faced a plain fence (today’s Chair) and a wall topped with gorse (today’s Water Jump).
    • Second Circuit: The field took a second lap of the course, bypassing the final two obstacles towards the finish line.
  • Terrain: The race featured varied terrain, including open countryside and canal-side paths, adding to the difficulty.
  • Conditions: The original race was a grueling test of skill and endurance, with natural and rugged obstacles. Riders had to navigate sharp turns and uneven footing.

Modern Race:

  • Course Layout: The current Grand National course at Aintree has been significantly modified to improve safety and maintain the thrill of the race.
  • Fences and Obstacles:
    • Modified Fences: The fences now include plastic cores instead of solid wood, reducing the risk of injury. Heights and designs have been adjusted for safety.
    • Canal Turn: The sharp turn along the canalside remains a challenging feature of the race.
    • Valentine’s Brook: This obstacle, still a part of the course, has been made safer with better design.
    • The Chair and Water Jump: These iconic fences remain but have been modified for safety while preserving their historical significance.
  • Terrain: The modern course is meticulously maintained to ensure consistent and safe footing, avoiding the uneven and potentially dangerous conditions of the past.
  • Conditions:
    • Safety Improvements: Advances in animal welfare, including rigorous veterinary checks and enhanced care facilities, prioritize the well-being of horses.
    • Technology: The race has embraced technology with high-definition cameras, photo finishes, and advanced timing systems to enhance the viewing experience for a global audience.
  • Prize Fund: The total prize fund for the 2024 Grand National is £1 million, distributed among the first 10 finishers, with the winner receiving more than half of the total.

The evolution of the Grand National from its origins to the modern day reflects a balance between maintaining the tradition and excitement of the race while implementing necessary safety measures and technological advancements.