In his recent book Farewell to the Horse: the Final Century of our Relationship, the German writer Ulrich Raulff charts what he sees as “the exodus of the horse from human history”. The “separation of man and horse”, Raulff says, “is not only a done deal, it is also a finished process”, and on 364 days of the year, it is hard to argue. There is still a day in April, though, when a horse race in the north-west of England halts the exodus for a few hours at least, and the horse is briefly reinstated in our national consciousness.
When the Grand National was founded in the middle of the 19th century, there were 300,000 horses in London alone, to provide transport and heavy labour for a city of three million. The horse was a constant thread in the fabric of daily life for city-dwellers and country folk alike, keeping the country working, eating and moving, so when a Liverpool hotelier called William Lynn decided to stage an event that would pull in a crowd – and hopefully shift a few rooms – a horse race was a natural choice.
Two centuries later, Lynn would probably be amazed to find his race still alive and thriving but then, he would doubtless be astonished by jumbo jets, mobile phones and a female prime minister. His world, the world into which the National was born, is long gone, and the internal combustion engine has long since made most working horses redundant. The vast majority of Britons do not encounter a horse from one year to the next. And yet, the Grand National remains as popular as ever.
It is an ancient relic which refuses to crumble, or show any sign at all of wear and tear, though inevitably, it has had to adapt to survive.
From the Grand National’s earliest days, when the obstacles included a stone wall, and the stream and ditch where Conrad dumped Captain Becher in 1839, it has attracted criticism – rightly, from a 21st-century perspective – for being too severe.
The stone wall survived for just a few years but there was still a brook, of sorts, at Becher’s until 1989, when two horses died in the ditch on the landing side of the obstacle. Almost overnight, Becher’s was seen to have failed the test of what spectators would accept as a fair challenge for a horse. The brook was filled in, the landing side was levelled and the race moved on.
The National underwent a major change again in 2013, when the solid cores of the fences were replaced with more forgiving plastic. In the last five Nationals, there has been an average of only four fallers per year, and not a single fatal injury to a runner – and this after a miserable run of several years when it did not seem to be a case of whether a horse would be killed in the race but how many. To the National’s millions of once-a-year viewers, the race looks exactly the same, yet once again the challenge has become more attuned to the changing sensibilities of its audience.
It is a clever trick – shape-shifting in the cause of self-preservation – but the National also more than pays its way. The 19th century horse race that was conceived to fill rooms at a Liverpool hotel is now a vast and global money-spinner, beyond the wildest fantasies of its founder.
The National is one of the biggest draws for television viewers in any sport, and the majority of those tuning in will have placed a bet on the outcome which will in turn feed back into the sport’s funding. Off-course betting in cash was illegal in Britain from 1853 until 1961 but that made no difference. This has always been the one race of the year that could persuade the average, law-abiding citizen to track down a bookmaker.
But the National’s greatest strength, the happy gift that has kept it relevant for nearly two centuries, is its unerring ability to deliver on that original promise of spectacle and high drama.
Every runner brings a story to Liverpool, often a tale of lifetimes spent working with horses, with just a chance to line up for the National as the ultimate dream. The race takes 40 stories and plays out the final episodes all at once, and the result is the most intensely dramatic and unpredictable 10 minutes of sporting action all year.
No algorithm will ever predict the National winner with any certainty, because pure chance takes over when the starter sends them on their way. How could mere maths ever foresee a result like Foinavon’s 100-1 win in 1967 after a pile-up at the smallest fence? And there is also the uncanny way that the National seems to know when it needs the “right” result, an unforgettable story that will remind the once-a-year punters why they fell in love with the race in the first place.
But whatever the result, and whether or not you even have a bet, if you join millions in Britain and around the world on Saturday in giving the National 10 minutes of your time, it is unlikely to disappoint. And for as long as the National can maintain its venerable significance in the British sporting calendar, the separation between man and horse will not be entirely complete.