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Nicola Macdonald examines the horse racing phenomenon that is the Grand National. 

Despite a forecast for rain, the final day of the 2016 Grand National festival opened with glorious sunshine. Horse racing fanatics and novices alike descended on Aintree Racecourse in all their finery for a day of high-energy competition leading up to the big race. Hoarse revellers cheered on their favourite equine combatants in seven close races, hoping and praying that they didn’t fall at the first hurdle.

The Grand National is one of the oldest events on the British sporting calendar, first running at Aintree in 1839 and predating professional football in the UK by more than 20 years. It is staged by The Jockey Club, the commercial group that reinvests its profits into a wide range of racing projects and courses throughout the year.

The Jockey Club Catering team is the result of a venture partnership between The Jockey Club racecourses and food provider Compass Group. The team for the 2016 Grand National consisted of around 2,500 people, including 200 chefs and 100 catering outlets.

The diverse audience that the event attracts is reflected in the variety of culinary options available to attendees, which ranges from cheap and cheerful hotdogs to canapés and five course dinners.

“The hype and excitement that surrounds the Grand National is huge, and the hospitality we deliver has to live up to those same expectations,” says Stephen Reed, Jockey Club Catering general manager for the northwest region.

New innovations this year included a Grand National Fast Track app, which gave attendees 20 per cent off pre-ordered champagne during the event and was one of a number of new technologies designed to reduce queue times.

Racegoers could buy drinks in advance using their mobile phones and collect them from bars placed around Aintree, gaining an advantage over those buying their drinks on the hoof.

Photo Credit: Paul Greenwood/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock Grand National fashion

Photo Credit: Paul Greenwood/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock
Grand National fashion

Investment in the future

This year also saw an effort to reduce waste and energy consumption, including accommodating owners of electric vehicles with charging points in the Aintree carpark and printing racecards on recycled paper.

The Jockey Club has continued its ‘Going Green’ internal engagement programme, which inspires employees to act on sustainability and environmental management initiatives. As part of its reinvestment in the event, The Jockey Club has made a number of modifications to the course itself, including lowering fences and changing the materials used for the core of the fence from wood to plastic.

After three years as headline sponsor, Crabbie’s alcoholic ginger beer is heading for pastures new, to be replaced by private healthcare service Randox Health for a five-year stint.

“It has gone in the blink of an eye,” Peter Eaton, Crabbie’s deputy chairman, told the Liverpool Echo. “It has gone far quicker than anybody could have imagined. I had no idea how much effort and man hours and commitment it would take to get where we are today.”

Randox Health has the distinction of being the first non-alcoholic sponsor of the event for more than 25 years.

“The Grand National offers us a major public platform to raise awareness of preventative healthcare and to encourage people to take control of their health and wellbeing,” Randox CEO Dr Peter Fitzgerald CBE stated.

“We see this partnership as a natural fit, as both organisations invest heavily in the future and we aim to use our partnership to promote a positive lifestyle and to bring enjoyment to millions of people.”

Photo credit: Dan Abraham/ Crabbie's grand National winner Rules the World with jockey David Mullins

Photo credit: Dan Abraham/
Crabbie’s Grand National winner Rules the World with jockey David Mullins

International coverage

There were no long faces amongst the organisers as the Grand National enjoyed an impressive television audience, with 10m watching the race live on Channel 4.

The Jockey Club’s North West regional director John Baker told Racing UK:

“We’re thrilled more than 10m people in the UK watched the world’s greatest steeplechase. That is one of the largest viewing audiences in British sport.”

Around 30,000 overseas British troops watched live across 16 time zones thanks to an arrangement between the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS), Racecourse Media Group and Channel 4.

Next year marks a significant change for the event, which will move to ITV as part of a deal made between the broadcaster and British Racing. In 2013 the race achieved the impressive feat of switching from the BBC to commercial station Channel 4 without losing its audience.

ITV will show a minimum of 94 days of horse racing throughout the year, including significant coverage for the Grand National.

Baker stated that the deal would be “the most terrestrial TV coverage of any sport in the UK, and a tremendous shop window to attract new fans and partners.”

“Everyone up and down the country knows the Grand National – it’s a race of pure excitement that grips the British public,” adds Reed.

The Grand National stands apart from other horse races, both in the UK and internationally. The Jockey Club estimates that more than 600m people watch the race around the world, which is a testament to the narrative that has been built around the event’s long history.

Ex-jockey Brough Scott partly attributes the event’s popularity to this sense of what has come before: “The beauty of the Grand National is that there is history at every turn. No matter what happens today, someone will ride into history. And I can tell you whoever does, they would have earned it.”

The Grand National website does nothing to dispel this sense of drama, already marketing the 2017 event as a “spectacular display of sporting endeavour”.

Despite protests from animal rights groups the Grand National continues to grow in popularity, with a total of 152,665 people attending the three- day event this year.

This year’s event was won by 19 year-old David Mullins (pictured above) on his horse Rule the World (sadly not the horse Access chose in the office sweepstake), the youngest winner of the Grand National this century.

As the 2016 competition drew to a close the heavens finally opened. Revellers with stamina decided it was time to hit the pub while others, along with many of the horses, decided they’d rather hit the hay.