THE UNIQUE PART OF THE NATIONALS HISTORY
Ever since the very first running at Aintree in 1839, the fences have been the reason why this race stands out from the rest, when it was first started, their were no safety measures in place, the course itself was over farmland and fields and the fences themselves consisted of hedges, fallen trees but basically anything they could jump, unbelievably one of those jumps was a stone wall but inevitably it would be removed due to the alarming fatalities and replaced by what is more familiar to us now (THE CHAIR), as the years went by modifications were brought in especially to the fences like Beecher’s Brook, Valentines and the Chair itself, but despite the changes to the fences they still present one of the biggest tests determining the winner and the outcome of the race.
So lets look at these great fences in detail to see why these fences have their own piece of history.
Out of all the fences to be jumped in this race, falling at this fence has to be the most miserable experience in a jockey’s life knowing they would have to wait another 12 months for another crack. At only ft, inches, this fence always catches out horses and has no respect for reputation as it has shown in the past as 12 fell here in 1951 and 10 in 1982, former winners like Gay Trip 1970, Alderniti 1981 and Hallo Dandy 1984 have all fallen here when defending their crown when winning the previous year. In 1929 the first fence failed to claim a single victim but what’s all-remarkable about it is, it was jumped by 66 runners. In 1982 the weather obscured the vision of commentator John Hamner so Peter o’ Sullivan had to commentate over the first two fences before handing back to John at the third, 19 years later John himself had to intervene as Tony o’ Hare’s vision was obscured by bad weather which meant John had to not only commentate on his own part of the race from fence 1 to fence 3 but had to continue to commentate up until the 9th fence and had to repeat that process on the second circuit but as a true professional he carried it successfully off and under the other circumstances where the field had been depleted down to 16 runners at the canal turn due to a loose horse running across the fence it was truly a piece of remarkable commentary.
This fence comes very quickly after the first and seldom causes any problems, only two horses come to mind who made mistakes at this and then going on to win it, Alderniti in 1981 and Rubstic in 1979, at only ft and inches high is far the easiest fence to jump as the horses and jockeys begin to slow down by this fence unlike the first.
(THE BIG OPEN DITCH)
At ft and inches high with a guard rail and a big yawning ditch in front of it, this has to be the first biggest test the horse and jockey will come to, usually coming to it, the fence is very deceiving as it looks like just an ordinary fence but with the ditch in front of it the horse then thinks it’s jumping a colossal fence which will either make him refuse it, balk, fall or even in some cases end up in the ditch, as in past the truth in that is very evident as was the case in 1970 when 6 came to grief at this and where some of the jockeys after the race went to put a formal complaint to the stewards about the size of the fence, the decision to lower the fence was denied and the appeal never went any further. In previous years some of the fancies have fallen here including Davy Lad in 1977, Hard Case in 1988 and Party Politics in 1996.
The next fence the 4th comes very quickly, at only ft and inches is still a problem fence as the horse has to adjust quickly with the open ditch etched in its memory and is made more difficult by the big field around him so early on in the race, usually the amount of fallers at this fence are small indeed in this years race only two fell Niki Dee and the well backed Samuel Wilderspoon, you have to go back to 1980 to find the last facied runner to fall, the Yorkshire trained Jer.
Next is another small fence at only ft and inches, it’s very rare to see more than one faller here at anytime in this race, but can still trip the runner up if he gets to relaxed.
Up until the modifications came in at the turn of the decade in 1990, this fence was considered the most dangerous of all the fences to be jumped in the national, owing to the enormous ditch on the other side and the deceptive part on the take off side, there was no telling apart from being the spectator or the television viewer who had a birds eye view of everything, usually there are spectacular falls but in 1988 a horse called Rhyme ‘n’ Reason turned tragedy into triumph, what looked like a spectacular fall turned out to be an unbelievable recovery, unfortunately when the jockey Brendan Powell and his mount recovered they found themselves out of contention and at the back of the field, but fortunately for both jockey and horse the mistake came early and they were able to claw themselves back in the race to eventually win the race. But for both jockey and horse there is no way of knowing what is waiting on the other side, they would either (1) land on a fallen horse, (2) over jump leading to a spectacular fall, (3) a horse’s neck would get broken or finally (4) and as in a case of the 1989 Grand-national, a horse called Brown Trix ridden by his 52 year old owner David Pitcher who had the heartache of trying to save his horse from drowning after rolling back into the ditch and if that wasn’t bad enough Seeamdem another faller at that fence who was also a fatality had to be covered over by a blanket, as there wasn’t enough time to move him, the images that were shown on television that day were horrific and the race itself was brought into question, "is this sport or is it a carnage" as one paper put it, the public out cry led to a political debate in parliament, should it be banned! The jockey club acted swiftly before events over took them, announcing there would be new modifications made in time for next years race, one of those changes would be on this fence by announcing that the brooks ditch would be filled in on the landing side and the railings would be moved further back so the crowd wouldn’t be able to distract the horse when jumping it, eventually the crowds would no longer be allowed near the fence due to the new modifications. In the past this fence would take out at least 2-6 runners but with the changes in place the average is about 0-2 runners, the last time there were fatalities at beecher’s on the first circuit was Brown Trix and Seamdeem in 1989, the last big amount of fallers jumping this fence on the first circuit was 6 in 1989 which included the favorite Dixton House.
Another of the small fences to be jumped at ft and inches but with a difference it has an angle to it which makes the horse tend to drift to the inside where unseated riders are more likely to occur than fallers as in the case of Merry People 2001 and Manx Magic in this years race but usually is hamper free.
(THE CANAL TURN)
This fence is a real tester as both horse and jockey must negotiate at a 90 degree turn otherwise you will end up on the deck or worse still the canal itself, like so many races in the past this fence jumped for the second and final time usually has a say in the outcome because vital lengths and ground can be won or lost, but it was the first circuit in the 2001 race that the race was decided early on when a loose horse called Paddy’s Return decided at that particular time to run across the fence instead of jumping it, within seconds the race was reduced to a calamity, not since the 1930s when a horse called Easter Hero virtually took out half the field and Popham Over in the famous Foinavon national in 67 had witnessed another debacle, to avoid another repartition of this happening again the jockey club and the clerk of the course decided to create an escape route for any loose horses so they could go round it instead of over it.
This is known as beecher’s brook sister fence Valentines, at ft and inches, it also has a massive ditch to negotiate maybe not as daunting as beecher’s but can still take out runners who get a bit complexed with their jumping. In the 1930s a grandstand was built overlooking Valentines as the fence got more popular with spectators, the fence was named after a horse made an unrecoverable recovery when he managed to stay on his feet and amazingly finnished, the horse in question (Valentine).
This fence usually claims the odd victim especially when their in front like Carrow Boy in 81, Stearsby 89, Young Hustler 94 and Superior Finnish 95, but the last 8 nationals have seen refusals and fallers come at the back of the field.
(THE BIG DITCH)
This is the last of the big ditches but not when its jumped the first time around because fence 15 the chair is another big ditch and is only jumped on the first circuit, anyway this fence plays its part on the second circuit when the remaining runners begin to tire.
This would be the final fence before they cross the Belling road and turn towards the grandstand, at this stage the runners start to sort themselves out but only occasionally the odd refusal happens when Esprit de’Cot decided he had enough and refused at the back in the 2001 race.
This fence is jumped as they all turn towards the grandstand, in the past this fence has usually taken some good fancies out of the race, Master Oates and Double Silk in 94 and Lord Noble in 2001 when they were all travelling well, this fence seldom causes trouble and usually is negotiated like the 2002 race.
This fence is also academic as its one of the smallest fences in the race at ft and inches, it rarely claims a victim, the last horse to have fallen here was
At ft and inches high is one of the biggest monster jumps that any horse and jockey will have to face in this race, one time this fence was considered dangerous because when jumped the horse not only had to negotiate the fence but the monster ditch in front of it and if that wasn’t bad enough the landing side is higher than the take off side, in the 2001 race Edmund one of the fancies was joint leader with Beau up to that point and found out to his cost for a faint heart, as they approached the chair fence Edmund, started to slow down on his approach, he hesitated took off early at the fence and ended up on the fence itself and his jockey ended up on the other side without his horse, others that followed were. But in the1979 national 9 runners failed to get over this fence due to two loose horses running a muck across the fence because the loose horses had no where left to go which meant they either refused it or jumped it, this was an accident waiting to happen, the jockey club decided to act and remove the railings around the chair fence so avoiding any mayhem at this fence in the future.
(THE WATER JUMP)
This fence when jumped signals they have completed the first circuit and to the screaming spectators in the grandstand and the excited crowds cheering on the surviving horses the hunting is over and now they have to do it all again but this time the race begins, usually this fence is seen as a non problem fence as it’s the only water jump to be jumped in the race, only the stragglers at the back tend to refuse. Mind you, Listen Timmy had to be pulled up at this fence in the 2001 race due to a bad error at the 15th where he lost his stirrups.
THE SECOND AND FINAL CIRCUIT
By this time the runners have sorted themselves out and are pacing themselves unlike the mad cavalry charge at this fence on the first circuit, the winner is usually in the first 6 at this stage. Usually it’s the tired horses at the back like for instance Merts Man who was always trailing at the back and had to be pulled up in this years race. But there are instances where loose horses can sometimes interfere and bring down the runner in front like for instance Doubleuagain in 86 and Garrison Savannah in 94 But in 1977 a horse called Boomdocker ridden by John Williams was at least 20 lengths in front going out on to the second circuit, but this amazing lead he built up came to a sudden end at the 17th when Boomdocker came to a complete stand still as he refuse to jump the fence due to exhaustion.
This fence doesn’t usually cause any problems to the main players in this race, though if the ground is heavy as it was in 1994 as in the case of front runner Riverside Boy who just cleared the 17th but approaching the 18th he couldn’t get the run up he needed due to the ground being so boggy and eventually unseating his rider at this fence.
( THE BIG OPEN DITCH )
Since the modification of beepers in 1990, this fence has taken over that role especially in 2001 when 4 horses were brought to a complete standstill by the loose horses running all over the place, Blowing Wind looked every inch the winner when he went up to join Beau in front in an already depleted field and as he was about to jump a loose horse ran right across him taking him out of the race and also interfered with Papillion who was right behind him at that moment and the other two Lance Armstrong and Brave Highlander both refused, horses tend to be cautious before jumping it and some will try to get a big leap to gain themselves extra lengths but usually the middle to outside is more suited because the inner can get more congestive.
This fence can also cause problems, after jumping the big ditch the runner’s approach it with caution. The grandnational winners start to make their move around this time like Bindaree in this years race, Papillion in 2000, Earth Summit in 1998, Royal Athlete in 1995 and Seagram in 1991 to name but a few others, there is a very high percentage that do. But sadly there has been a couple of fatalities as well including Smith’s Band 97 and Manx Magic this year but thankfully it’s very rare.
The remaining field start to sought themselves out and get good positioning and good ground as they clear this fence head on to beecher’s, the fence is not known for fallers in this race but can trip up a tired horse.
In the past, Grandnational’s were either won or lost at this vital stage and racing down to beechers brook for the second time would have no respect for reputations as it proved in the past with such horses like Beau Bob in 72, Golden Wrapper in 76, Andy Pandy in 77, Alverton in79, West Tip in 85 and Strands of Gold in 88. Now with the modifications in 1990 thankfully the days are over when tragedy and mishap would occur at this fence anymore or play any part in the outcome of the race, if it does happen it would be very rare indeed and in fact the last time this fence had any say in the outcome was 12 years ago in 1990, when Uncle Merlin was travelling ever so well and disputed the lead with eventual winner Mr Frisk and made an error forcing the horse’s head to go down and unseating his jockey Hywel Davies. The last time any tragedy befell this fence was in 1999 when fancy Eudipe fell and had to be put down but these occasions are now very rare indeed thanks to the changes.
At this stage the stronger horses make their move, usually the winner is either in front or the top 6 places at this stage with the exception of the 1967 race when everything fell, brought down, balked and unseated except the one at the back who avoided the mayhem and jumped the fence clear and winning at astonishing odds of 100/1 his name Foinavon.
(THE CANAL TURN)
This fence is crucial for gaining vital ground and lengths, even more so at this stage of the race. The 1980 winner Ben Nevis took this fence beautifully with his ears pricked and full of running in one of the worst ground conditions for years resembling a mud bath managed to time his running to the fence and jump it on the inside where there is less of the turn as you jump it, this enabled Ben Nevis and his 32 year old American jockey Charlie Fenwick to move even further ahead and clear of the only other two chasing him Rough and Tumble and The Pilgarlic. Others who have benefited by making ground at this fence and eventually went on to win are Rough Quest 98, Seagram 91, Maori Venture 87, Rubstic 79, L’escargot 75 and Red Rum in1973, they have all been behind the leaders and nearly out of contention. It has also put paid to the chances of runners who were going well at that stage including Buck Rogers(fell) 2000, Brave Highlander(unseated) 98, Wylde Hide and Son of War (both fell) 96, The Fellow(fell) 94, Classified(unseated) 87 and Sir Garnet(brought down) 77.
At this stage there are only about 6 horses with a chance, the statistics over the years have been proved to be right when you see the last 20 winners have come from that bunch with the exception of Maori Venture who was 8th at that stage, usually this fence claims refusals or pull ups very seldom do you see any fallers here.
Here is where over confidence becomes a false impostor, this fence has seen its fair share of fallers due to the fact that the horses like to take a big jump at this, causing them to over jump and fall or worse still injure themselves, the past have seen many of these cases such as Dalmorial 56 and Little Polvier 88.
With only four to jump the surviving runners start to get tired and this fence especially catches them out, due to the fact it’s the last of the big ditches to be jumped, in the past this fence tends to claim an unsuspecting runner whether he’s at the back or leading, it has no respect for reputations, like Coolishall(fell) in 79, Carrow Boy, St Fillians who both fell and Loving Words who was brought down but remounted again to finish third in 82, Last of the Brownies(b/d) in 88 and of course this years race where David’s Lad(fell), Ad Hoc(b/d) and Jeddah(fell).
Not as daunting as the fences they have been jumping, but with the horses beginning to tire it claims many refusals, in the past 20 years between 1982 and 2002 only twice has this fence been trouble free.
At this stage the horses and jockeys begin to choose their position of ground, usually the choice is to jump towards the middle outer so to avoid any loose horses and gain good ground, only two horses have ever fallen at this fence in 21 years when in contention Limeburner in 71 and Merry People in 99.
The final fence where both horse and jockey get ready to make their challenge, statistics say if your horse lands in front he will go on to win, in the last 20 years from 1982 that the statistic has proved to be true as 15 out of the last 20 grand nationals have been won with the horse jumping the last in front that is a very high strike rate of 75%, the last three winners ‘Papillion, Red Marauder and Bindaree’ have all won from the front after jumping the last, but with the exception of Esha Ness (the void race in 1993), the others have had to come from behind to win, which include Last Suspect in 85, Maori Venture in 87, Rhyme ‘n’ Reason in 88, Seagram in 91, Minniehoma in 94 and Bobby Jo in 99.