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Place your bets: getting geed up for the Grand National

The only time I’ve ever been in a betting shop was more than twenty years ago, on National day. Though not a betting man by nature, like much of the British population my dad would have a flutter on the Grand National. He took me with him one year, and I remember the small, close room, with its TV screens and hanging smoke, the regulars regarding the once-a-year punters with unmasked disdain. Later that day I’d watch the race on the television, willing each horse safely over the treacherous fences with their near-mythical names: The Chair, Canal Turn, and Becher’s Brook.

With its potent combination of danger, controversy, and tradition, the National is the horse race which never fails to grab the attention of the whole country. Half of the population risk a wager, taking a tentative dip into the often mysterious world of racing. It’s a world that can be intimidating to outsiders, with its own lore, legends, and – of course – language.

Chasing steeples

The first official Grand National took place in 1839 – a race in which jockey Captain Martin Becher fell at the first of the two brooks on the course, taking cover in the water until all of the other racers had thundered over his head. Sodden and cursing, he remounted, only to fall again at the next water jump. Rather unsurprisingly, he never entered another Grand National, but this double soaking sealed his immortality, with his name forever associated with the first brook – the sixth and twenty-second fence of the modern race (each fence is jumped twice), and the scourge of many future riders.

The National is a steeplechase – a form of racing that was already well-established by 1839, tracing its origins to Ireland in the mid-18th century. These early races resembled modern cross-country events, with horses and riders racing from church steeple to church steeple, scrabbling across fences, ditches, rivers, and any other obstacles that happened to be in the way. The National brought this rural spectacle to a large urban audience, though much of the early race was still run in open countryside, with just the start and the finish taking place on the established Aintree racecourse. That countryside has now been consumed by the modern course, though commentators can still be heard referring to it as ‘the country’, harking back to those less structured days.

The sport of kings and vagabonds

As everyone knows, horse racing is ‘the sport of kings’. But that’s not always been true. The phrase was first recorded around 1668, when the ‘sport of kings’ was considered to be the more serious business of war. In 1735 William Somerville stretched the meaning by stating that hunting was ‘the Sport of Kings, Image of War, without its Guilt’. The extension from hunting to horse racing was a natural one, and is first recorded in this sense by sporting writer Henry Hall Dixon in his novel of 1859, Silk and Scarlet. On a slightly bizarre side note, ‘the sport of kings’ has also been used to refer to surfing, due to the Hawaiian royal family’s traditional involvement in that activity – though it seems unlikely that Britain’s current monarch will be swapping her race-day hat for a board and baggies any time soon.

Despite consistent Royal patronage since the 16th century, racing has always maintained something of a murky reputation. This is evident in the origin of the word jockey, which has a remarkably unflattering and negative history. Emerging as a diminutive of the name Jock or John, it was first used in the early 16th century as a contemptuous term for any common man, and then to refer to a vagabond. From the mid-17th century it was used specifically for a horse dealer. The reputation of such fellows being rather shady, ‘jockey’ soon became a title for a crafty or fraudulent bargainer or a cheat. At around the same time, the term started to be applied to a mounted courier, making way in the latter part of the 17th century for the extension to a professional rider in horse races – which is, of course, the chief meaning today.

Some negative associations are still clear in the verb sense of ‘jockey’. While the main sense of ‘struggle by every available means to gain or achieve something’ probably quite straightforwardly relates to the behaviour of jockeys jostling each other for an advantageous position during a race, the secondary sense of ‘handle or manipulate (someone or something) in a skilful manner’ harks back to the word’s earlier reference to unscrupulous, manipulative dealers in horseflesh. That could be worth remembering if you’re tempted to venture onto the turf and chance your arm on a supposed dead cert

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