Grand National: Liverpool race is the great survivor

Grand National horses
Image caption The 2010 Grand National meeting was worth £8m to the Merseyside economy

While the racing world concentrates on the four-day Cheltenham Festival, staff at Aintree Racecourse are continuing with preparations for the Grand National.

The three-day Grand National meeting, from 7 to 9 April, will attract more than 150,000 people for an event that draws in racegoers from around the world, around the country, and around the corner.

Its importance to Merseyside's local economy should not be underestimated. The 2010 National meeting was worth £8 million.

Hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and all kinds of businesses across the service sector benefit from the festival, that is by some considerable margin, the red letter day on the Merseyside social calendar.

Close to extinction

Clearly the downturn in the economy on a local, national and global scale would be expected to have a real impact.

Yet, pre-event ticket sales are up on last year. So what is it about the Grand National that gives it the capacity to apparently ride out the economic storm?

The answer is that much of the buoyancy that surrounds this fantastic and wonderfully exhilarating occasion is at least in some part down to the fact that in the early 1970s, the Grand National and Aintree racecourse came very close to extinction.

The Walton Group had purchased the course from Mirabel Topham and were threatening to sell it for property development. In those days the meeting attracted tiny attendances by comparison with today's gigantic turn outs.

The grandstand was a ramshackle building at best and the whole Aintree landscape was notable only for a sense of decay and dilapidation.

Two things happened to give a shot in the arm for "The Greatest Show on Turf". Red Rum appeared on the Grand National horizon and emerged not just as a wonderful horse, but as the winner of the race in 1973 and 1974. He became a national treasure.

'Style stakes'

Then in 1975, Ladbrokes the bookmakers came up with a sponsorship deal and agreed to manage and market the race.

Under the guidance of their chairman Cyril Stein, who died in February 2011, the event began to grow in popularity again and the seeds were being sown for a full scale revival that was almost beyond the bounds of belief.

After coming second in the race in 1975 and 1976, Red Rum really wrote his name in sporting history with an incredible third Grand National victory in 1977.

The greatest horse of Aintree was now hot property as a celebrity. He and his trainer, the redoubtable Ginger McCain, were asked to open shops and bars. Red Rum actually appeared live in the studio at the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.

Image caption Red Rum winner of three Grand Nationals in the 1970s did much to raise the race's profile

Attendances began to increase year on year. In 1984, 46,083 people attended the meeting and 20 years later it was 147,439.

Lucrative sponsorship deals with blue chip companies such as Seagram and Martell followed. The latest agreement with brewers John Smith's will possibly see the prize money for the race top the million pounds mark before too long.

The racecourse has improved its facilities dramatically. The County Stand was joined by the imposing facade of Queen Mother Stand. Quickly followed by the Princess Royal stand.

The Aintree visage was further modernised by two new additions four years ago, the Earl of Derby and the Lord Sefton stands. The parade ring and the weighing room were relocated and upgraded.

The first day of the 2011 festival meeting on Thursday 7 April now bears the moniker of Liverpool Day.

The sporting, cultural and entertainment heritage of the city is celebrated as the big names from music, sport and the arts play their part in enhancing the day. This year, Liverpool band The Farm are playing after racing.

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