Each year on the 27th December, Chepstow hosts the biggest day of racing in Wales when they hold their Welsh Grand National Meeting.
This single day of racing is headlined by the big race itself, the Welsh Grand National, a Grade 3 chase over a marathon distance of three miles and six and a half furlongs. Coral bookmakers have supported this race 1973 in what is now the longest running sponsorship deal in National Hunt racing.
The day itself features a total of seven races and incudes one of the top juvenile hurdles in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle. This is run at the opposite end of the distance spectrum to the Welsh Grand National, taking place over the minimum trip of two miles.
Welsh Grand National Day Races
|11:45||Maiden Hurdle||Class 4||2m 3½f|
|12:17||Handicap Chase||Class 2||2m 3½f|
|12:50||Handicap Hurdle||Class 2||2m 7½f|
|13:25||Finale Juvenile Hurdle||Grade 1||2m|
|13:58||Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase||Class 3||2m 7½f|
|14:30||Novices’ Hurdle||Class 4||2m|
|15:10||Welsh Grand National Handicap Chase||Grade 3||3m 6½f|
|15:50||Mares’ Handicap Hurdle||Class 4||2m|
A Complete History of the Welsh Grand National
As you will see from its history, there is very little easy and straightforward about the Welsh Grand National, much like the race itself. Always one to make headlines on and off the track, there are few events quite like this marathon test.
Today the Welsh National stands as Chepstow’s most prized event but it has not always taken place in Monmouthshire. Steeped in over a century of history, let us take a closer look at all the major talking points of this brilliant contest.
1895 – National makes its debut
A huge crowd of around 40,000 keen racegoers flocked to Cardiff’s Ely Racecourse to see the first ever running of the Welsh Grand National in 1895. So big and eager was the crowd that they broke down the entrance gate, with the police unable to stop many people entering for free. Those in attendance witnessed former Flat racing jockey George Mawson ride Tom Cannon’s Deerstalker to victory.
1896 – Public comes back for more
After winning over the public on the first attempt, Ely Racecourse again welcomed around 40,000 punters through their doors for the second edition of the Welsh National. Levels of anticipation were especially high for the gruelling battle as two Aintree Grand National winners, Father O’Flynn (1892) and Cloister (1893) were involved. It was the latter who prevailed, rather easily on the day, with Welshman Gwyn Saunders Davies in the saddle.
1901 – A four horse contest
Just four of the 28 entries for the 1901 Grand National went to post. One of them was Kirkland, who later became the only Welsh-trained winner of the Aintree Grand National, although he could only manage second at Ely.
1914 – Re-run order to settle dead heat
The Welsh Grand National may be a long race but after nearly four miles of tireless effort, there was absolutely nothing to separate Succubus and Dick Dunn. The pair crossed the line at the same moment, forcing the race stewards to call the contest as a dead heat. Not content with two horses sharing the spoils, a re-run was scheduled after the final race of the day.
No doubt already exhausted by this point, the two horses battled it out again with Succubus, initially a rank outsider, coming out on top.
1926 – Miss Balscadden gifted the win
Local jockey David Thomas enjoyed a large slice of luck during the 1926 running of the Welsh National. Only 11 horses were competing in the race and six of them were involved in something of a ‘Foinavon’ incident. The major incident at the open ditch hampered or wiped out more than half the field, handing Thomas and Miss Balscadden a much easier win than it would have been.
1928 – Balscadden back for more
It would be wrong to think Miss Balscadden won purely as a result of luck though. She showed off her jumping ability and stamina two years later when winning the 1928 Welsh National. George Bowden found himself in the saddle that day, the only jockey who has won this race before and after World War II.
1938 – Golden Miller appearance
A huge crowed showed up to witness the 1938 running of the Welsh Grand National, by far the biggest in years, thanks to the appearance of the legendary Golden Miller. By this point, the star horse had already won the Cheltenham Gold Cup five times and also the Aintree Grand National. Many hoped he would scoop another prestigious title but the gelding had to settle for third place when weighed down by his top weight of 12st 7lbs.
1939 – Lacatoi scores third win
In 1939, Lacatoi managed something that no horse had ever managed before, three Welsh Grand National victories. To date he remains the only horse to have managed the feat and it is a record that may never be bettered. First successful in 1935, the Gwynne Evans-trained horse then won again in 1937 before his final triumph two years later.
1948 – Newport named host
For one year and one year only, Newport hosted the Welsh Grand National at Caerleon Racecourse. It was the first running of the event following World War II but by this point its former home of Ely (Cardiff) had shut down. This rather special edition of the steeplechase was won by Captain Ryan Price’s Bora’s Cottage at odds of 100-8. This ended up being one of the last races hosted at Newport as the final meeting took place shortly after on 17th May 1948.
1949 – Moved to Chepstow
With Newport now closed, the Welsh Grand National needed a new home and up stepped Chepstow Racecourse. It is here that the race has taken place ever since bar the 1994 running which we will discuss later in the article. The first Chepstow running was claimed by Fighting Line ridden by jockey, and later author, Dick Francis.
1956 – Yet another victory for Crudwell
Over the course of his career, Crudwell amassed an outstanding 50 wins, the highest number of any horse recorded in the 20th century. One of these, and perhaps the best of the lot, came in the Welsh National in 1956 during one of his 108 competitive starts.
1969 – First post WW2 abandonment
Taking into the account the often-gruelling weather conditions Chepstow faces around the festive period, you may be surprised that the Welsh National enjoyed such a long uninterrupted run. This is only because the contest was historically run on Easter Tuesday however. In 1969, organisers brought the race forward to February, a decision that immediately backfired as conditions were too poor for the race to run. Despite the early setback, the February date remained as there was a belief it would attract a higher calibre of horse.
1972 – Fan favourite wins
Charlie H, who was jointly owned by Chepstow steward former Glamorgan cricketer Johnny Clay put many smiles on faces by winning the National. A bumper crowd came to watch the Charlie H in action and he did not fail to deliver.
1973 – Coral sponsorship begins
Bookmaker Coral began their sponsorship of the Welsh Grand National this year. The partnership has survived the test of time ever since, making it the longest Graded race sponsorship in British jump racing. In 2018, Ladbrokes Coral announced the deal would be extended further to 2022, which would allow them to celebrate a 50 year anniversary.
1979 – Race moved to December
The Welsh National only spent a decade running in February as organisers again opted to move the date. To an extent, it was a forced change as the snow had forced the cancellation of the February 1979 renewal. This was the fourth abandonment in just five years so moving the date was a decision that received little opposition. Late December was selected as the new permanent spot in the calendar. Later this became specifically the day after Boxing Day.
1981 – Amateur takes it to the pros
Many an experienced jockey has taken part in the Welsh National. Take a look at the honours list and you will see such names as Terry Biddlecombe, John Francome and Peter Scudamore. There would be no big name jockeys scooping the title in 1981 renewal though as amateur rider, Thomas George Dun, or rather Geordie Dun, guided Peaty Sandy to first place. Four months later Dun turned pro and later he reunited with Peaty Sandy to finish sixth in the 1983 Aintree Grand National.
1989 – Bonanza Boy secures historic double
Prior to 1989, the Welsh Grand National had seen three dual winners, Razorbill (1908, 1911), Miss Balscadden (1926, 1928) and Limonali (1959, 1961). There was also one triple-time champion, Lacatoi, whose sublime achievement we have already noted. One thing all these horses share in common though is that their wins never came in successive years.
So, for 100 years, no horse won two Welsh Nationals back-to-back but this changed in 1989 thanks to Martin Pipe’s Bonanza Boy. Victorious as the 9/4 favourite in 1988, he returned to Chepstow 12 months later with a considerably larger handicap. Despite weighing a full 16 pounds more than the next heaviest contender, Martin Pipe’s horse stormed to a 15-length victory, more than justifying his 15/8 price tag.
1991 – Carvill carves up the field
Seventeen horses lined up for this renewal of the Welsh National but Carvill’s Hill was head and shoulders above the rest. The bookies were aware of his talent but a 9/4 price did not reflect how much better he was on the day. Leading from start to finish, Martin Pipe’s horse won completely unchallenged, ending up 20 lengths clear by the end of the race. It is possibly the easiest win ever witnessed since the race moved to Chepstow. One can only imagine how much further he could have won by too had he not shouldered a hefty weight of 11st 12lbs.
1993 – Pipe period of domination
Martin Pipe scored yet another win in this race, taking his record up to five victories from the previous six renewals. No trainer has ever seen such an intense period of success in the Welsh National, or even come close to it. The only taste of defeat in this period come when having to settle for seventh place in the 1990 renewal. Despite many efforts after this point, he never ended up winning the race again before his retirement in 2006.
1994 – Non-Welsh Grand National
This renewal of the Welsh Grand National was a rather unique one. For starters, it was the one and only edition of the race to take place outside of Wales. Due to waterlogging at Chepstow, organisers rushed to find a new home for the contest. Finding space at Newbury’s New Year Eve meeting, the race was able to take place just four days later than initially scheduled.
The fortunate crowd at Newbury were treated to quite the one-off event too. It was not a well-attended Welsh Grand National field but it featured some high-quality names such as Master Oats, Party Politics and future Grand National winner Earth Summit. Despite the talent involved though, Master Oats swept his rivals to one side, strolling to an emphatic 20-length win.
1996 – Back to back abonnements
Sadly, the 1996 renewal of the Welsh National suffered the same fate as the 1995 edition. Both were abandoned due to frosty conditions at Chepstow and were not rescheduled later in the year. This marks the last time the race has failed to take place at all.
2010 – Snow and Frost causes a delay
After a decent run of weather, freezing temperatures finally led to a major disruption at Chepstow ahead of the 2010 Welsh Grand National. With the snow and frost not sticking around for too long, the race was able to take place two weeks later. AP McCoy rode Synchronised to victory in the slightly delayed event, and in doing so completed the full set of Grand National victories.
2012 – Rainfall forces postponement
On Christmas Eve, officials at Chepstow branded the course ‘unfit for racing’ due to standing water across the track. The Welsh Grand National was called off as a result, putting under doubt if the BBC could still have their big send-off. This is because the BBC’s deal to host 13 days of live racing expired in 2012 with Channel 4 taking over the rights.
2015 – Waterlogged Chepstow forced to wait
A waterlogged Chepstow forced the postponement of the 2015 running of the Welsh Grand National. Standing water had been spotted down the back straight due to some flooded dykes and with more rain forecast on the day of the race, there was no other choice. The rearranged race took place on 9th January with Mountainous recording a second win in the event.
2017 – Age records broken
Approximately 60mm of rain and snow over a two-day period saw knee-deep waters in parts of Chepstow’s course. Under such conditions, organisers simply had to postpone the race. A delay is not what an aging Raz De Maree would have wanted but he was able to roll back the years when the race took place the following month. At 13 years of age he became the oldest horse of the modern era to scoop a Welsh National title, breaking the previous record set in 1950 by a 12 year old runner named Gallery.
Raz De Maree’s jockey that day was James Bowen, at the time only a few years older than the horse he was riding. The then 16 year old Welsh rider showed maturity beyond his years over the 18 fences (reduced from the usual 22), never panicking in the face of talented competition.
2019 – Long-awaited home-grown winner
The Welsh have a rich horse racing history but for decades, a win in their most famous had deserted them. Norther (1965), trained by Denzil Jenkins in Cowbridge, was the last Welsh champion this race had seen prior to Potters Corner’s success. Ending a 54-year wait, Potters Corner, part owned by Welsh rugby player Jonathan Davies and ridden by Welsh jockey Jack Tudor, flew the red dragon high.
It was a particularly sweet win for any patriotic Welsh spectators as the Rebecca Curtis-trained Teaforthree had gone agonizingly close seven years earlier. Well-fancied as the 11/4 favourite, the Welsh-trained horse lost out by a mere half-length to Monbeg Dude.
2019 – Race upped in distance
There was an even greater focus on stamina when Potters’ Corner scored his historic win in 2019. Previously run over a distance of three miles, five furlongs and 110 yards, the Chepstow contest increased to three miles and six and a half furlongs. To allow a longer run into the first bend, this also meant increasing the number of fences from 22 to 23.