All Images Credit The Jockey Club
With a hint of condescension, they refer to them as flat races. The British are horse racing zealots who consider traditional flat races to be somewhat dull, less challenging, and far less impressive than their beloved jump races. When you take these horses of prodigious stamina and strength, mounted by highly skilled jockeys, and then add in the long-distances on emerald color turf interrupted by daunting steeples, it is hard to compare these two forms of horse racing. This is an entirely different level of excitement, endurance, and yes, danger and no place on Earth does it bigger and better than each spring in Liverpool at the Aintree Racecourse. This is the world’s greatest steeplechase and one of the most prestigious horse races in the world. This is The Grand National.
The Randox Grand National is held each spring over three days with 40 races that culminate with the Grand National Day and the finals. Thursday is Liverpool Day and kicks off the festival and although the crowds are smaller, the action is just as intense. Friday is Ladies Day and awash with fashionistas there to see and be seen. Saturday climaxes with the Grand National Finals where the entire race grounds bulge at the seams with fans there to glimpse the action in person.
This is a betting man’s game and the wagering there is an Olympic sport with lines of happy winners there to collect after each race and even more sullen faces lamenting what could have been. Passionate racegoers pack the grandstands and hundreds of millions more tune in to watch this unmissable spectacle from around the world. There’s a sport of another kind that takes place as well with a fashion parade of festooned hats and fancy attire concluding in a competition of its own. This is the UK’s big to-do and a magnificent exhibition of British tradition, culture, and sport.
The Grand National is a beloved British tradition that began in 1836. Its roots are based on the fox hunt captured in those classic British paintings with gentlemen in top hats and red coats on the hunt, riding through the countryside behind their dogs and jumping over rock wall fences. Almost 200 years ago, those chases sans the dogs and appreciative foxes were brought to the track at Aintree. The races have certainly evolved since those early years with much more forgiving steeples and prize money for the winning race teams of over $1,000,000.
The track covers miles of emerald green turf with 30 jumps along the way at a maximum height of five feet and water pits to add to the drama. Forty horses participate in the thrill-a-minute race with every jump offering risk and danger where the rider can be thrown if not perfectly handled. Typically only about half will finish the race.
It’s been said that the Grand National is the ultimate test of horse and rider and it would be hard to dispute that position. The horse and rider sprint for ten minutes and cover 4 miles 514 yards. After each race, the grit, grime, and determination on each jockey’s face and the panting horses foaming with sweat tell the story.
500 million viewers in 140 countries tune in to watch the race, many of whom have placed a wager themselves. In attendance over the three days of the race are 150,000 race fans there to witness one of the sporting highlights on the annual calendar. And the Aintree Racecourse pulls out all the hospitality stops to cater to racegoers.
The racetrack grounds are spread out with countless places to take in the action from trackside to viewing monitors spread around the venue. From large, covered halls, to posh gardens, to the packed stands, there are plenty of ways to watch in person.
The most prestigious venues are the sponsored hospitality pavilions and executive suites. Here privileged guests watch in high style, treated to a four-course luncheon, and afternoon tea. Gin and tonics are at-the-ready, wines are matched, and an endless flow of champagne is at hand; enough to take the sting out of a losing bet. For the brand sponsors, it’s more than means to watch the races; it is a chance for some power networking, to entertain their clients, and a sophisticated way to enjoy the equine extravaganza. The live racing action is not far away as many of these venues offer exclusive elevated terraces to take in the race.
2022 Winning Jockey Sam Waley-Cohen on Noble Yeats
After the races, fans can descend to the Winner’s Circle to see the horses that placed along with the proud winners – jockeys, trainers, and owners there to savor their wins. The prizes trophies and winning purses add to the jubilant moment for the champions.
Although the stars of the three days are clearly the races, the action away from the track offers a supporting cast of characters of epic proportions as well. This is a high society soiree where the pomp and pageantry are in a league of their own. Throughout the race, the grounds are places to watch the races or the spectacle of racegoers themselves. Garden parties with live music and top DJs are where you’ll see racegoers literally let their hair down, even when it’s tightly coiffed under those swanky hats. The party scene there is of legend with hall after hall and stage after stage filled with crowds dressed to the nines and ready to party until it hurts. Throughout there are food trucks and cocktail bars as well as an odd sight of vendors walking around with backpack dispensers of wine and beer.
Race fashion is a serious matter at the Grand Nationals. There is a sea of color as women don their best spring fashions full of bright hues, floral prints, and the most ornate hats. The UK’s milliners are as revered as rock stars and by the looks of it, it’s a wonder that there is still a bird left in England with a feather.
The men are typically less expressive in their attire, mainly in business suites ranging to the more distinguished gents donning bespoke tweeds with the occasional camel hair overcoats and felt fedora. On occasion, one will spot men in their bombastic and cartoonish prints surely donned to make fun of oneself. The who’s who of the day fashion are spotted and invited to participate in the hotly contested Ladies Day Style Award with winners walking away with a bounty of cash and prizes.
The title sponsor of the Grand National is one of the UK’s most prestigious health brands, Randox. This company is at the forefront of health technology with a focus on testing. Not only one of the world’s leaders in testing for COVID they are also the vanguard of overall wellness with an emphasis on understanding health issues when there is time for prevention and before they require treatment.
They boast that the Grand National is the race that the world stops to watch. With legions of fans on site and hundreds of millions tuning in from around the world, that claim is apparently not far from the truth. There’s nothing like being there in person and taking in the electricity, drama, and competition that unfolds with each race. The stylistocrats on parade as well as the garden soirees make these three days in April the quintessential high-society affair. The Grand Nationals is clearly the UK’s unmissable equine extravaganza that wins by a nose.