It’s a pretty safe bet that most people in Britain have heard of The Grand National, the world-famous National Hunt horse race held annually at Aintree Racecourse each April. But what are the odds on most of those same people never having heard of the American Grand National, and why haven’t they heard of it?
Well, for starters only one horse has ever won both the US and UK Grand National and that was a long time ago.
In 1938 the American bred Battleship, son of the famous Man of War, became the first and only horse to date to have won the British Grand National after winning the American Grand National some four years earlier in 1934. Maybe this contributes to the British public’s lack of awareness of the race.
To confuse us still further, the American race has gone by a variety of names over the years – The American Grand National, The Breeders’ Cup Grand National Steeplechase, and most simply of all The Grand National.
Our own Grand National on the other hand has always been called just that and, apart from four years during the First World War when it was held at Gatwick Racecourse, has always been run at Aintree. The American version by comparison has been run at a variety of venues – Morris Hill, Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course, Morris Park racetracks, as well as the steeplechase meets at Fair Hill, Far Hills, and Charlottesville.
So, perhaps the continually changing venue has also gone some way to blurring the race’s identity in the eyes of the British public.
Despite this the race is one of the oldest in steeplechase racing and one of the most important outside of Europe. It’s a historic race in its own right dating back to 1899, not quite as old as the UK Grand National which first took place in 1839, but old enough to have a colourful and interesting history.
Steeplechase racing first developed as a sport in the United States through the fox-hunting field, quickly grabbing the attention of the American populace and swiftly establishing itself. The sport’s first footholds were in Long Island, Maryland, Virginia, and eastern Pennsylvania, soon spreading to the Carolinas, Georgia, Massachusetts and then outwards to other states.
In 1894 The Maryland Hunt Cup had its first running and, to establish rules for the fast-growing sport, the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association was founded in 1895. The Maryland Hunt Cup was soon followed by two other popular Maryland timber-racing fixtures – the Grand National Point-to-Point (1898) and My Lady’s Manor (1909) with The American Grand National being first run at Morris Park in New York in 1899.
One of the early champions of the sport was Thomas Hitchcock Sr. Born in 1861. He was instrumental in the founding of Belmont Park and, whilst being a confident and competent rider, never raced on the flat preferring to concentrate on steeplechase
after introducing fox-hunting to South Carolina. He owned and trained Good and Plenty, the sport’s leading earner in 1904, 1905, and 1906 – the year in which Good and Plenty won the American Grand National at Belmont.
It was around this time that American horse racing entered a troubled period when the Hart-Agnew Act barred wagering at racetracks. The following year the Director’s Criminal Liability Act shut down the sport of flat racing in New York and it was steeplechase racing, which had never been wholly dependent upon betting, that came to the racing public’s rescue.
“When the governor put the ban on racing in 1911, the jump racing is what kept it going,” recalled trainer W. Burling ‘Burley’ Cocks, who rode during the early 1930s.
When Belmont Park reopened to flat racing in 1913 steeplechase remained a major part of the New York racing scene. This continued well into the 1970s and today steeplechase races continue to be a feature of the Saratoga Race Course meet in July and August, and at least one steeplechase race is staged at Belmont in the fall.
The 1970’s however saw a decline in the popularity of steeplechase racing in the United States and it was virtually exiled from the major tracks for a while. But a great sport will never be kept down and US steeplechase was no exception. Going back to its roots in the country, it emerged from the Eighties and Nineties renewed and with purses at record high levels.
In 2000 the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase was reinvigorated by a combined effort from Breeders’ Cup Ltd., the Far Hills Race Meeting Association, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the National Steeplechase Association.
The aim was to revitalise the race and showcase it to both a live and television audience. The Breeders’ Cup Grand National Steeplechase was an instant success with the world’s best steeplechasers attending and it was during this time that the most successful horse in the history of the race came to the forefront.
McDynamo’s steeplechase career began in 2001 and he was soon the leader in the field. Owned by Michael J. Moran, McDynamo won the Grand National at Far Hills five times and won the Colonial Cup in each of his championship seasons. He set course records in his first two Grand National victories and retired in 2007, the same year in which he won the Grand National by six lengths. One of the most outstanding horses in steeplechase racing history, McDynamo concluded his career with 15 wins over fences and record purses of $1,310,104.
Their may be a limited audience for the American Grand National in the UK, but on balance it has more similarities than differences with its UK cousin. Jockeys and horses flock from all over the world to take part and it’s a real test of both horse and rider. Just as in the UK National the stakes are high, the opportunities great, and it is without doubt a historic event that remains a vital part of the sporting life of a great nation.