THE VERY FIRST FENCE HOW IT ALL BEGAN...
The Grand National is a British sporting institution and since the first running of the race in *1839 the race has provided some of the ‘Sport of Kings’ most dramatic moments. It is a race that has made household names of horses, jockeys, trainers and owners and every year the race is run it throws up its usual quota of mishaps, hard luck stories and glory for the winning horse, jockey, trainer, owner and all those associated with the successful stable. It creates legends of humans and horses alike and enthrals the watching millions – but how and when did the Grand National take its first steps, indeed fences, to becoming the world’s most famous horse race?
It was way back in 1829 that a gentleman named William Lynn began to arrange flat racing in the Aintree area of Lancashire. Lynn owned the Waterloo Hotel in Ranelagh Street, Liverpool, and was the first sponsor of the Waterloo Hare Coursing event. He leased sufficient land from Lord Sefton to create a racecourse, complete with a grandstand for spectators, and the first meeting at the new venue took place on 7th July 1829, partly thanks to the Liverpool Corporation, which donated 150 guineas towards helping him put on the event.
The first race at to be run at the track was a flat race, which was given the title ‘The Croxteth Stakes’ and it was won by a horse named Mufti. Lynn rapidly developed the new racecourse into a successful going concern and six years after that first meeting he introduced Hurdle Racing into his meetings, which were held three times a year. The hurdle races attracted some of the country’s best riders, including the renowned Captain Martin Becher.
It was Captain Becher waxing lyrical to Lynn about a race named the Great St. Alban’s Chase, organised by Becher’s friend Tom Coleman, that led to the Liverpool man deciding to arrange his own version of a steeplechase at Aintree. So it was that on the 29th February1836 a large crowd watched Captain Becher, rather fittingly, steer a horse called The Duke, owned by the proprietor of the George Inn, Great Crosby, to victory in a race that had not been given a name and was run as a Selling Race.
This inaugural and untitled race was run over two laps and mostly over the ploughed farmland and natural countryside surrounding Aintree. There were 42 obstacles, including hedges, gates and stone walls, to be negotiated and it was not for the fainthearted. The event proved to be a great success however and the following year Lynn joined forces with a gentleman named John Formby, who had his own racecourse in Maghull. The race was given the name the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase but was believed to have been held at the *Maghull venue and attracted only four runners, despite prize money of 100 guineas. The Duke, this time ridden by a Mr Potts, triumphed again and it was decided that the race would be run again in 1838 and remain at the Maghull course. The winning horse on that occasion was Sir William and the race was now set to become a permanent fixture in the racing calendar.
The Jockey Club were against the running of this steeplechase as they opposed ‘jump racing’ but the racing public and the riders and owners appeared to enjoy the contest, so Lynn was sure it would eventually prove to be a great success. He took the decision to return to Aintree for the 1839 race. His foresight and faith was to be rewarded when he was given the support of influential men such as the Earls of Derby, Sefton, Eglington and Wilton and the Lords Bentick, Stanley and Grosvenor.
Buoyed by this esteemed support, and a 100 guineas donation from the Aldermen of Liverpool, Lynn was able to gain a great deal of interest in the race from the general public. On the 26th February 1839, seventeen horses and jockeys took on the required series of obstacles and ploughed fields for the honour of winning the now newly named Liverpool and National Handicap Steeplechase. This race has been recorded in history as being won by the aptly named Lottery, ridden by Jem Mason and owned by John Elmore, therefore becoming the first horse to win what would, in 1847, be turned into a handicap and renamed by a new leaseholder of Aintree Racecourse, Mr Edward William Topham, as the Grand National Handicap Steeplechase, the name it still has today, though with the name of whoever is sponsoring it added of course.
The 1839 race saw Captain Becher come to grief after his horse Conrad fell and he ended up in the first of three brooks on the course. Legend has it that on scrambling out of the brook the renowned Captain uttered the words, “How dreadful the water tastes without the benefit of whisky.” It was to be the last time that he took part in the race but of course his name lives on today after the fence that is the 6th and 22nd in today’s Grand National was named Becher’s Brook in his honour.
For William Lynn, the 1839 race would also be the beginning of the end. Having been instrumental in creating a horse race that would develop into one of the world’s great sporting occasions he left the organising of future races to others. Although continuing to play a part in Aintree’s affairs for many more years he was to sadly pass away, penniless, in 1870.*The 1836, 1837 and 1838 races have been disregarded by most historians as counting towards the Grand National winning horses list because of the belief that they were run at Maghull and not Aintree. However, over the past 30 years or so several racing historians have claimed to have unearthed evidence that these races did actually take place at Aintree and were regarded as having been Grand Nationals until the mid-1860s. To date though, their calls for the nationals of 1836, 37 & 38 to be restored to the record books have been unsuccessful and Lottery remains in the record books as the race’s first winner – but should it really be ‘The Duke’ who holds that honour?