If you’re new to betting on horse racing then the Grand National might be the race you know most about. But this is something of a freak race in many respects – most notably because of the 40 horses that compete over 30 fences.
There is no other horse race in the world like the Grand National. Its tradition has been maintained into the 21st century and these days millions of punters – whether they be hardened punters or family manners sticking a quid on a sweepstake – watch the race in awe.
But most horse races aren’t like the Grand National. For a start, very few feature so many runners. And the distance, number of jumps and sheer time taken to complete the race is bigger than practically any other event.
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History of Grand National horse numbers
The 1839 Grand National is considered the first ‘official’ race and featured 17 runners. Horse racing at Aintree was big business even back then, and the new railway installed in Liverpool meant fans from further afield than Merseyside could watch the action.
During the first 50 years of its existence the average number of horses in the Grand National was roughly 20. In some cases this meant very few horses actually finished the race, because many would fall at the high fences and often jockeys would slip out of their saddles.
The 1883 race saw only 10 horses run. This would be the smallest field in the history of the Grand National, and Zoedone was the first of just six horses to complete the course. It was considered a fairly meagre events, and a year later the number of runners was bumped up to 25.
That figure steadily grew until 1929, when a record 66 horses raced in the Grand National. As you might imagine, this caused something of an administration headache for the bookies!
Since 1984 there have been no more than 40 horses competing in each Grand National. And every year it’s practically guaranteed that all 40 places will be filled on race day, because there are hundreds of owners seeking to get their horse into the biggest race of the year.
Grand National most horses record
The 1929 Grand National was a special event and not something we are likely to witness ever again. The race featured a record 66 horses and was won by 100/1 shot Gregalach. The reason for this is that February had been such a bad month that only one day’s racing had been possible – and so everyone wanted to race in the National. In fact, 120 horses were pitched to run before that number was slashed to 66.
But it was not a classic sporting spectacle. That’s because 57 horses failed to complete the course, due to the saturation of runners going over the fences. It therefore proved a lesson to race organisers at Aintree that more doesn’t always mean better.
Indeed, one of the horses who fell was Tipperary Tim, the 100/1 outsider who had won the Grand National the year before. In 1928 Tipperary Tim was the only horse to complete the race following another run where multiple horses fell, dislodged their jockeys or were pulled up – famously at Canal Turn.
Still, organisers didn’t quite learn their lesson about reducing fence heights and restricting the number of horses for a good few years more.
What happens if a horse cannot race?
Grand National horses that cannot race are replaced by a reserve horse. There are usually three or four reserves on standby to substitute in, in the event one of the 40 pulls out.
However, reserves cannot simply be thrown into the action on the day of the race. Instead they must be included at some point during the week preceding Saturday’s run. This means that in some years, such as in 2018, fewer than 40 horses start.
Indeed, in 2018 both Regal Encore and Walk In The Mill withdrew on the morning of the race. It meant the Grand National ran with the smallest field since 1999. The 2022 Grand National featured 40 horses, of which 15 finished the race.
If you back a horse in the ante-post (futures) racing betting markets and it doesn’t run, then you lose your stake. However, if you wait for the official race card to be announced and wager on a horse, your stake will be refunded if it doesn’t start the race.