It’s the biggest horse race in the world and one of British sport’s greatest spectacles.

The 165th running of the breathtaking John Smith’s Grand National takes place tomorrow, with the race being broadcast live for the final time on BBC Television to an anticipated audience of more than 10 million viewers.

Aintree’s flagship race has produced a colourful array of stories throughout its illustrious past, and as BBC TV bids farewell to the Grand National after 52 years, Sport On The Box looks back at some of the race’s most iconic moments during that time.

From next year, the race and all of British racing’s marquee events will televised on Channel 4, ending the BBC’s long-established association with the sport.

Presenter Clare Balding will have the honour of winding down 53-years of unbroken television coverage of the race on the BBC on Saturday afternoon.

In her Grand National preview column for the BBC Sport website, Balding wrote: “Sadly, this will be the last Grand National for the foreseeable future to be broadcast on BBC TV.

“I have been honoured to follow a very select band of Grand National presenters and have achieved my ultimate ambition in fronting the biggest day’s jump racing in the world.

“We have always tried to tell the stories that give people a reason to care and allow the huge audience to get close to the horses.

“This year will be no different and I will certainly try my best to take the BBC coverage out in style.”

To mark the end of one of television sport’s longest running associations, SOTB looks back at the some of the Grand National’s most memorable moments over the past 50 years, and at how the BBC have covered the race through the decades:

Television history was made when the BBC broadcast its first Grand National on March 26, 1960.

Having covered the race on radio since 1929, Aintree officials finally opened up the course to television so they could bring drama and excitement of the race to a mass audience.

The National was one of the BBC’s largest and most complex outside broadcasts at the time. The corporation deployed 16 cameras in order to capturer every inch of the four-mile 856-yard steeplechase, which was won by favourite Merryman II, ridden by Gerry Scott.

Peter O’Sullevan and Peter Bromley provided the first live TV commentary of the race, with David Coleman anchoring the BBC’s live coverage from Aintree as part of Grandstand.

Coleman assured viewers at the end of the broadcast that they had witnessed a piece of television history.

Courtesy of British Pathe Sporting History

Without the doubt the greatest shock in the history of the race came in 1967, which was also the scene of one its most notorious pile-ups.

Foinavon had odds of 100/1 to win the race. Even his owner Cyril Watkins did not bother to attend Aintree because the chances of a win were nigh on impossible.

As expected, Foinavon did not play a part in the race until the runners hurtled towards the 23rd fence. A loose horse cut across the riders causing all the horses to either fall, unseat their riders or refuse to jump, all of which created one of the most iconic moments in televised sport.

Managing to bypass the chaos ahead of them as they were so far behind in the first place, Foinavon and his rider John Buckingham jumped the fence and went to secure a famous victory.

The clip above is from the British Pathe, but the BBC broadcast included the memorable commentary of the mass pile-up by Michael O’Hehir, which you can listen to here.

Courtesy of sidneyvic

There haven’t been many greater moments of pure sporting drama than the story of Red Rum’s first victory in the National back in 1973.

While Red Rum, trained by the great Ginger McCain, went on to become a national icon and the greatest horse in the race’s history, another horse was equally responsible for making the 1973 race such a memorable occasion.

With four fences to go, Crisp, the eventual runner-up ridden by Richard Pitman, looked unbeatable but as his stamina started to wane, and Red Rum came back to pip him by three-quarters of a length.

The race is considered as one of the greatest Grand Nationals of all-time, and the dramatic battle along the final-stretch between the two great horses is just spellbinding.

Courtesy of sidneyvic

Having won the National in 1973 and 1974, Red Rum suffered the frustration of finishing second in 1975 and 1976.

The horse finally won a historic Grand National treble in 1977, with Red Rum cruising to victory during a relatively uneventful race.

The only danger for Red Rum was a fall, and since he had already jumped around Aintree four times before without even touching a twig, that wasn’t too realistic either.

The win ensured Red Rum’s and his trainer Ginger McCain’s place in Grand National folklore.

Following the horse’s death in 1995 he was buried at Aintree’s winning post.

Courtesy of sigmondball

Bob Champion’s Grand National victory in 1981 so resembled a Hollywood movie script that it was made it into a film.

In 1979, aged just 31, Champion was told that he had testicular cancer and only have months to live.

After months of rigourous chemotherapy, Champion made an astonishing recovery and returned to racing, with the dream of winning the Grand National having kept him going through his darkest moments.

Though it wasn’t just the jockey who had to overcome the odds. The winning horse Aldaniti had recovered from three serious injuries, making the 1981 Grand National a true example of triumph in adversity.

Two years later the film Champions was released, with its theme music later being used by the BBC during its Grand National broadcasts.

In 2011, Champion was honoured for his remarkable achievements and received the Helen Rollason Award at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year ceremony.

Courtesy of DazTheBear

Corbiere’s victory in 1983 was landmark for the Grand National as trainer Jenny Pitman becoming the first women ever to train a winner in the race.

Ben de Haan’s virtually perfect round of jumping onboard the winner brought about this historic victory. From a field of 41 runners, only 10 completed the course.

Corbiere ran in four more Grand Nationals, finishing third twice, falling once and finishing 12th in his final appearance in 1987.

He was retired from racing but appeared in the show jumping ring and helped in tutoring a quartet of unbroken, and at the time unknown, Irish horses including Royal Athlete, Esha Ness (‘winner’ of the void National in 1993), Willsford and Garrison Savannah.  

… 

1993 Grand National Highlights | Courtesy of ziggazigaah

The most farcical Grand National of all-time took place in 1993.

Following a series of unfortunate incidents and cock-ups, the race was declared void for the first time in its history, denying the 50/1 shot Esha Ness and jockey John White a famous victory.

The start of the National itself was delayed when a group of animal rights protestors got onto the track near the first fence.

Then a false start occured when the horses got caught in the starting tape. The same problem caused a second false start, but as the recall flag was not waved, 30 of the 39 riders set off without returning to the start line, not realising that the race had been recalled.

1993 Grand National – Post-race reaction
As broadcast on Grandstand | Courtesy of sachahuista

Seven horses finished the race, despite the attempts to halt the racers by officials.

The jockeys claimed that they thought that it was animal protesters trying to stop them, as Esha Ness won the race that never was with the second fastest time in Grand National history.

BBC News – 1993 Grand National report
Courtesy of philipareed

It was really the drama of the situation that unfolded that Saturday afternoon in 1993 that made it so memorable. 

But no one who watched will ever forget the look on the ‘winning’ jockey John White’s face as he crossed the line, coupled with the sombre and regretful tones of BBC commentator Peter O’Sullevan.

1997 Grand National – O’Sullevan tribute / bomb scare coverage
As broadcast during Grandstand | Courtesy of RandomRadioJottings

The 150th running of the Grand National in 1997 should have been a day of celebration.

It was to be Peter O’Sullevan’s last commentary on the world’s most famous race for BBC Television, bringing his 50-year association with the race to end.

But it turned into one of despair when an IRA bomb warning an hour before the race was due to start caused the evacuation of 60,000 people from the Aintree racecourse.

1997 Grand National – Full race
Courtesy of Katabatic77

In a determined act of defiance against the terrorists, the police and racing authorities organised for the race to be run on the following Monday, 49 hours late.

A crowd of 20,000, including Prime Minister John Major and the Princess Royal (who had also been at the abandoned Saturday meeting), turned up to see Tony Dobbin steer Lord Gyllene to victory.

Having called 37 Grand Nationals for BBC Television, the 150th running of the world’s most famous race also signified the final time that the unique tones of Peter O’Sullevan would accompany the race.

Despite the horror of the events that had unfolded just two days before, the running of the 1997 Grand National on Monday teatime pulled in a huge audience with approximately 12 million tuning in.

1998 Grand National – BBC Grandstand opening
Courtesy of willibaldcornfed

After the drama of the year before, the Grand National was thankfully a less eventful affair in 1998.

It was the first Grand National covered by the BBC without the involvement of Peter O’Sullevan, with Australian commentator Jim McGrath taking over the lead commentary duty, a role which he continues to fulfil.

This was also the first Grand National that future anchor Clare Balding was involved prominently in the BBC’s coverage. 

An innovation in this year’s coverage was the use of a camera set inside the cap of rider Richard Johnson, called ‘Jockey Cam’.

It became a regular feature in the BBC’s coverage in subsequent years, but hopes of unique pictures of the 1998 race were dashed when Johnson fell from his horse at the very first fence.

Courtesy of willibaldcornfed

A feature of the BBC’s coverage during this period was presenter Des Lynam’s regular conversations with trainer Jenny Pitman.

Her televised chats with the popular host on Grandstand, described by one racing journalist as ‘bordering on flirtatious’, became as much a part of the Aintree tradition as the statue of Red Rum near the paddock.

Lynam anchored his last Grand National for the BBC the following year, after his surprise defection to ITV in the summer of 1999.

1998 Grand National – Full race
Courtesy of sigmondball

Courtesy of sigmondball

The build-up to the 2001 race was dominated by the threat of foot-and-mouth disease, which had already claimed the Cheltenham Festival.

But the source of controversy came from racing’s perennial enemy, that being the Aintree weather.

Many felt strongly the race should not go ahead at all after two days of torrential rain drenched the Aintree course and left the field to battle it out in atrocious conditions.

Several newspapers and pundits criticised the decision to race, but many trainers and jockeys leapt to the defence of the organisers and insisted it was right to go ahead, citing that the horse Paddy’s Return was the cause of the melee at the Canal Turn.

The race’s the eventual winner, Red Marauder, was one of only four horses to finish, with two of those having been remounted.

Courtesy of sigmondball

Amberleigh House won the 2004 Grand National to give Red Rum trainer Ginger McCain a fairytale fourth victory in the world’s most famous steeplechase.

Jockey Graham Lee, who rode Amberleigh House to finish third in the previous year, timed his run to perfection to snatch victory in the 4m 4f marathon.

The 12-year-old struck on the run-in to deny 10-1 co-favourite Clan Royal by three lengths.

The 16/1 shot gave trainer Ginger McCain his fourth National winner, 27 years after Red Rum’s last victory.

McCain, who was 73 at the time, had few runners in the Aintree showpiece since the Red Rum days, but had always been confident about Amberleigh House’s chances in the big race.

More than 10 million viewers tuned in to witness McCain’s fourth Grand National triumph, the race’s highest audience for six years.

The Grand National was alaways a race that seemed to elude the great AP McCoy.

He  had ridden in 14 Nationals without victory, but he finally landed the big prize in 2010, winning by five lengths in a thrilling race.

McCoy later went on to become the first jockey to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

The 2010 Grand National was also the first to be broadcast by the BBC in high-definition.

Watch a full re-run of the 2010 Grand National and post-race interviews – CLICK HERE

2012 GRAND NATIONAL

LIVE on BBC One & BBC One HD

Saturday 14th April – Coverage from 1pm | Race-start: 4.15pm

Details: CLICK HERE

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