If you listen to any commentary on the Grand National at Aintree, you’ll invariably hear some reference to heading out into the country. “The country” has, of course, long been incorporated into the modern racecourse, but the phrase harks back to the early days of the world-famous steeplechase, first run as Grand Liverpool Steeplechase in 1839. At that time, the race started and finished on the racecourse proper, but the majority of it took place in the adjoining countryside. The runners jumped obstacles including two small, natural streams, or brooks, marked with post and rail fences, banks, with or without ditches, gates, hedges and even a stone wall, all of which were suitably flagged.
It was on this original, cross-country course that 40-year-old Captain Martin Becher lined up on 20/1 chance Conrad in the inaugural running of the Grand National in 1839. At the first of the major obstacles, now known as Becher’s Brook, Conrad propped sharply, stiff-legged, and catapulted Captain Becher over his head into the icy, filthy water of the brook below. Sensibly, Becher took shelter in the Brook until the last of his 16 rivals had galloped by, before remounting and setting off in vain pursuit. Ironically, he parted company from Conrad again at the second brook, now known as Valentine’s Brook, but it was his first mishap that made him a key character in Grand National folklore.
As for the fence that bears his name, Becher’s Brook, which is jumped twice during the Grand National, has been substantially modified for safety purposes in recent years. The fence remains a controversial obstacle, but is a far cry from its original form; the height of the fence remains unchanged a 4 feet 10 inches, but the Brook itself has been narrowed and raised, and the landing side, which was originally three feet lower than the take-off side, has been levelled to create a maximum drop of between six and ten inches. In common with most of the National fences, the traditional natural timber core of the fence has been replaced with artificial, plastic ‘birch’. The course has also been widened to allows runners to bypass the fence altogether, if necessary.