The up and down history of the American Grand National

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

October 12th, 2022

While England’s Grand National Steeplechase is widely considered the world’s most watched and wagered-on horse race, the conditions under which it is run prevents it from rising to the level of a true championship race by National Hunt standards. The same cannot be said for its younger American cousin, the 2022 edition of which will be held at Far Hills, New Jersey, on Saturday.

The American Grand National, which carries a purse of $250,000 and is contested over 2 5/8 miles, is the richest and most prestigious jumping event in the U.S. Like most of the division’s premier races, the Grand National long ago transitioned from being an actual steeplechase into a hurdle event with less menacing obstacles. After surviving some lean years and competition from other races several decades ago, the Grand National is firmly back in its position as the signature race of its kind in the country.

The Grand National dates to 1899, and for its first seven decades was a staple of the New York racing calendar. Primarily held over the vast infield at Belmont Park during that period, the race also called Aqueduct home, when Belmont was being refurbished in the 1960s, and even once at Saratoga. The distance of the event ranged from 2 1/2 miles to 3 1/8 miles.

While an official year-end poll for champion steeplechaser was not instituted until 1936, the Grand National in its first several decades was won by several horses that wound up enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The first of these was Good and Plenty, the 1906 winner. Two decades later, Jolly Roger prevailed twice over fellow Hall of Fame rival Fairmount in 1927 and 1928. Battleship, a son of Man o’ War, owns the distinction of being the only horse to win both the American Grand National (1934) and England’s original version at Aintree (1938).

Bushranger, recognized as the first official champion jumper in 1936, won that year’s Grand National. Others that parlayed wins in Grand Nationals held in New York into division titles include Hall of Famers Elkridge, Oedipus, Neji (three times), and Bon Nouvel.

Steeplechasing in the U.S. suffered a serious setback after the 1971 season when the New York Racing Association announced it would discontinue carding jump races on a routine basis at both Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Although the Grand National immediately found a new home at Fair Hill, Maryland, without the New York betting public’s largesse, the race plummeted in value. Other races like the Colonial Cup, inaugurated in 1970 at Camden, South Carolina, usurped the Grand National in value and prestige.

Despite the advent of leaner times, and a subsequent location change from Fair Hill to the Foxfield hunt in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Grand National continued to produce the occasional Eclipse Award champion. Among these were Hall of Famers Café Prince, Zaccio, and Flatterer. The latter two dominated the sport for much of the 1980s, winning a collective seven division titles, but their routine absence from the Grand National underscored how much the race had fallen out of favor.

The advent of the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase at Fair Hill in 1986 as the sport’s most lucrative jump race proved another body blow for the underfunded Grand National, which was on the verge of becoming a complete afterthought, if not there already. However, its revival was soon in coming.

The Grand National found a new home in 1988 at Far Hills and its purse boosted to $75,000. Although it was not well positioned, one week before the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase, it was a step in the right direction. The two races continued to be raced in close proximity to one another through 1993, which by then the Grand National was worth $100,000. In 1994, the two races were essentially merged. In the ensuing years it would be generally run as the Breeders’ Cup Grand National, but ultimately reverted to its traditional name of the Grand National.

Since the merger, and following the demise of the Colonial Cup, the Grand National has once again become the final major jump race of the season and the division’s championship decider. Noteworthy winners over the past three decades include Warm Spell, dual champion Flat Top, and the Hall of Famer Good Night Shirt.

The Grand National’s most accomplished modern legend by far is McDynamo, who incredibly won five consecutive editions of the race from 2003 through 2007. A three-time champion, McDynamo was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.

Although the Grand National of 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic, it came back with a flourish last season when it was captured by The Mean Queen. She was only the fourth female winner of the Grand National, and the first in 98 years.