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 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 National 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 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.
In 1973 Mrs Topham eventually sold to property developer Mr Bill Davies for £3 million, ending the Topham’s association with the Grand National which had started way back in 1843.
So while the first 130 years of the race was filled with ups and downs, today it’s all onwards and upwards. It is still one of the biggest races of the year and with over 600 million viewers worldwide, its future is as bright as ever.