When The Grand National Went To War

During the Second World War, or at least from 1941 onwards racing was abandoned at Aintree. However, during the First World War the Aintree Grand National was held in Liverpool in 1915 but then moved to the now defunct Gatwick until 1919. The strategic importance of Aintree resulted in the racecourse being handed over to the War Office for the remaining duration of the conflict.

In 1916 the only flights one would have seen at Gatwick were those that horses jumped over! Opened in 1891, the course was popular because of its position just off the main railway line twenty eight miles south of central London and a similar distance north of Brighton. It had a dedicated station with stables and the stands were connected to the platforms by covered walkways. It was described in “The English Turf” as a model racecourse.

The first replacement Grand National was run there in 1916. The same distance – four miles and eight hundred and fifty six yards – was marked out and twenty nine fences rebuilt to copy Aintree’s, so those looking for Grand National betting tips wouldn’t have found things too different except for the fact that the Gatwick course was right handed as opposed to left handed, which was the only fundamental difference between the two.

Twenty one runners started and Vermouth beat twelve finishers home at odds of 100/8. Ballymacad won the 1917 version and Poethlyn the 1918, piloted by a certain Ernie Piggott – yes, Lester’s Grandfather. A year later the same horse won the authentic version back at Aintree. Two horses from the 1918 race, Shaun Spadah and Sergeant Murphy went on to win the 1921 and 1923 versions respectively. The land next to the course was requisitioned by Air Ministry on the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 and Gatwick hosted its last race meeting in March, 1940.

So next time you are you are checking in at Gatwick, look down. You may be at the site of one of the fences of a Grand National!