The Grand National Festival, with the Grand National steeplechase as its crown jewel, opened on Thursday and continues through the centerpiece race on Saturday.
Although Aintree Racecourse has already seen its share of sadness this year, a sense of anticipation always surrounds the Grand National, one of the most spectacular celebrations of the horseracing. The grueling 4.5-mile triangular course is the longest National Hunt race in Britain. It includes 16 fences (most jumped twice) topped with spruce boughs, some with fanciful nicknames like “Becher’s Brook” and “the Chair.” About 70,000 people attend the event, with an estimated 600 million watching worldwide via TV and the Internet.
With its unique mix of pomp and populism, the 40-horse race is known partly for drawing fans who don’t normally care about horse racing. Like other high-profile racing events in the UK, it’s a chance to dress up and socialize as much as it is a chance to watch world-class racing action. Friday is “Ladies Day,” when women dress to the nines and even enter a style contest to see who put together the best look.
Racing weekend is packed with races of varying lengths, and the Grand National will be the third and last race on Saturday. On Friday, superstar horse Sprinter Sacre, with jockey Barry Geraghty, took first in the 2 1/2 mile Melling Chase. That makes Sprinter Sacre unbeaten in his last nine steeplechase races.
Saturday, Grand National Day, starts with the sounds of a military band, followed by the Parade of Grand National Champions, when visitors can take a look at previous winners. According to the race’s website, “Hollywood actors, moguls, pop stars, comedians, coiffeurs, celebrities of all hues, sporting heroes, politicians, aristocrats, business people of every variety, Kings, Queens and Princes have all tried for success; just a fortunate few have succeeded.” (Presumably this is talking about the horses’ owners, since no queen has ridden in the Grand National.)
The race is soaked in history. The first Grand National, sometimes called “the world’s greatest jump race,” was held in 1839. The Aintree Racecourse, near Liverpool on England's west coast, has been the site of jumping races since 1835. Since 1954, cars have raced on their own track encircling the horserace course.
The most renowned horse to race in the Grand National (and one of the most famous racehorses in British history, period) is Red Rum, who won it a record three times in the 1970s. He was so connected to the race that he was buried at the finishing post at Aintree, one of many spots at the source visitors can visit on a tour.
Film audiences got a taste of the race’s importance in the 1944 movie “National Velvet.” In it, a young Elizabeth Taylor plays a teen, Velvet, who wins a horse in a raffle and decides to train him for the Grand National with the help of a disenchanted hired hand and former jockey played by Mickey Rooney.
by Christy Karras
Photos: Dynaste ridden by Tom Scudamore clears the last fence alongside Third Intention ridden by Joe Tizzard on their way to victory in The John Smith's Mildmay Novices' Steeple Chase on April 5 at Aintree Racecourse. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Racegoers enjoy Ladies Day at Aintree in Liverpool, England. Friday is traditionally Ladies day at the three-day meeting of the world famous Grand National, where fashion (from fabulous to just fun) is as important as the racing (Photo by Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images)
Elizabeth Taylor photographed on the set of the 1944 film 'National Velvet.' (Photo by Anthony Cake/Photoshot/Getty Images)