Twenty years hence, when the producers of Reeling in the Years are choosing the sounds and sights to represent the stories of 2019 they shouldn’t face too arduous a task.
The sights should definitely include some rare footage of a Mayo football captain lifting silverware at Croke Park and the dominant soundbite will no doubt come from the House of Commons and Speaker John Bercow of the sore throat and stretched patience. The unfortunate man seems to be losing the will to live — refereeing interminable Brexit debates that end with him bellowing: “The noes have it. The noes have it.”
In 20 years hence the Aintree Grand National will reach its bicentennial and when documentary makers review 200 years of race history, they too won’t find it arduous either to find sights, sound and patterns that explain the events endurance and popularity.
One of the patterns is this: events of unusual interest tend to occur when the year ends in number nine. The 2019 edition unfolds this evening and as ever, the field, as usual, looks pregnant with stories about to be born.
The most prominent year nine in Grand National history is 1839, when the first official version of the race took place on farmlands near Liverpool. It was also the year that the most celebrated fence in steeplechasing found its name.
Seventeen runners took almost 15 minutes to negotiate a course which in those days went through ploughed fields, across stone walls and in the case of the Irish raider, Rust, past a gang of rogues who held him in a narrow lane to increase the victory chances of a rival they had backed.
Captain Martin Becher, whose ancestry was in North Cork, fancied his chances on his own mount, Conrad, but despite having survived the Battle of Waterloo, he came a cropper at the first ditch and took shelter where he fell as the rest of the field sailed over him. He lamented afterwards that he had never known that water tasted so badly without the addition of whiskey.
Becher’s name is immortalised at the 6th and 22nd fences, but these days the brook is safely dry. The nine-year-old gelding, Lottery, went on to win the inaugural race while a rival, poor old Dictator, became the first ever National fatality when he failed to rise from a fall at the fence now known as ’Valentines.’
1849, another milestone race, was won by Peter Simple, named for the hero of a contemporary novel recording the exploits of yet another Napoleonic war veteran. Peter was already 11, but remarkably won it again four years later, and is still both the first dual and the oldest ever winner of the National.
Fifty years later in 1899 Manifesto became another dual winner but that bare statistic tells only a little of his Aintree achievements. He ran in his last National at age sixteen – his eighth time in all, which is still a record. It should have been nine. Prior to the 1898 race his groom carelessly left his box door open, the horse escaped and damaged a fetlock trying to jump a gate to freedom. Whilst the horse eventually recovered, the poor stable-lad’s fate is unknown.
During World War One the race had a three-year excursion to lands since tarmacked for the runway at Gatwick Airport. ‘The Victory National’ in 1919 returned to Aintree and was won by Poethyln who jetted home at 11/4, the shortest priced winner ever. Poethyln was trained by one Ernest Piggott, whose feat was emulated by his son Keith with Ayala in 1963. A sacred place, ironically, is embedded in National Hunt legend for the grandfather and father of the planet’s greatest ever flat jockey.
The 1929 stands out too, but mostly for reasons that would send today’s animal welfare activists into therapy. ‘Just’ the 66 runners went to post that day and remarkably all made it over the first fence. The joy only survived as far as the third obstacle where ten horses fell and by the end of the first circuit only 22 contestants were left in the race. By the finish only nine of the record field remained, including Gregalach, who outstayed the favourite and dual Gold Cup winner, Easter Hero to win at 100/1. Despite the record-size field, only one animal, Stort, lost its life in 1929, which is a mercy given that the fences were higher, wider and harder than they’ll be today.
By 1989, the year of Little Polvier, the track dangers had been dampened down considerably but when Brown Trix and Seeandem both died in the race a growing opposition to the race that had been smouldering for years erupted and the force of public opinion prompted the Jockey Club to action. The ditch where Captain Becher has sheltered in filthy water was filled in, the metre drop eliminated and safety improvements at most of the 30 fences were implemented.
So, while the Aintree today is a milder and more sterile challenge then the one faced by Lottery, Manifesto and Gregalach it remains a contest of unique visual character and a place where legends are still made. This year has a terminal nine so expect history to be made again this evening. What will it be? Tiger Roll; first horse since Red Rum to achieve two in a row and the first favourite since Pythelon to start at less than 3/1? Rachel Blackmore: The first woman jockey to win the race? Champion jockey, Richard Johnson: can he win at last on his 23rd attempt?
By the time the bicentennial rolls around in 2039, the House of Commons could still be debating EU withdrawal agreements, although Speaker Bercow will have faded into peaceful retirement by then. That’s two more years ending in nine to look forward to before then. Two more opportunities to prove that ‘the nines have it, the nines have it.’ Unlock.