Cheltenham Festival

How Has the Grand National Become a Sporting Institution?

Horse racing in the UK is popular, but it often doesn’t get as many column inches as football and cricket. Whether it’s the weekly Premier League fixtures or the Ashes summer clash, these sports are at the top of the tree in terms of demand. Audiences are desperate to see the likes of Man City and Liverpool go head-to-head.
In terms of competitors, there is only a single event that can compare – the Aintree Grand National. The National captures the public’s attention on a level that’s hard to comprehend. How did it do it? Let’s find out.

Leveraging Uncertainty

The Grand National is the most unpredictable event in the sport’s calendar, as the horse racing betting odds online highlight. Barely any other race, including the Cheltenham Gold Cup, will set odds of 14/1 for the favourite. The fact that the next three contenders are joint-second favourites at 16/1 cements the point.  

The race is uncertain. So what? Essentially, the fact that people can tune in annually and watch a different version of the product is compelling. Firstly, it encourages viewers to keep an eye on the action just for the suspense alone as you never know what’s going to happen. Secondly, it makes it an ideal event for placing a bet.

Therefore, casual bettors who rarely gamble feel the need to stake money on the race. To put this into perspective, wagering revenues for the National exceeded £150 million eight years ago. Imagine how big they are now.

A True Test

Too many sporting contests are diluted. Take football matches as examples. As the players have learned to swing the scales in their favour by throwing themselves to the floor, the action is more sanitised. Supporters desperate to see the best of the best go toe to toe are often left underwhelmed.

The Grand National can’t be categorised in the same way. After all, the four-mile-plus journey is enough to make fans breathless, which is why it’s an achievement to finish. Then there are the huge fences that the horses must tackle. Finally, there is the jockey factor. As the pilot, they must work with their mount to swerve the obstacles and make it to the winning post.

It’s not only Britain where this test of athleticism and skill captures the attention. Although it’s a British institution, the Grand National is watched in around 150 nations by 600,000 million people. The National, it seems, is international.  

The History

Like football and cricket, horse racing has been around for centuries. The Grand National was one of the first major events to take place in the UK, meaning it has a long history that is referenced to this day. Who can forget Foinavon avoiding a melee to romp to an unlikely victory? What about Red Rum cementing his legacy with consecutive victories in 1973 and 74?

What occurs in the latest editions simply adds to the rich tapestry that started in 1839. Indeed, part of why the event grabs people’s attention is down to the original, and controversial, changes to the rules. Handicapping was introduced in the 19th-century, for example, giving horses with less quality more of a chance.  

Today, punters continue to bet on 50/1 and 100/1 shots in keeping with the uncertainty of the race. Whether it’s Cheltenham or Ascot, no other festival has a history that’s preserved and flourishing in the modern era.

The Grand National has been a sporting and cultural phenomenon since the mid-1800s. The good news is that this won’t change anytime soon. There’s too much history and uncertainty for people to stop watching every April.


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