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A dead cert Christmas book: Anne Holland celebrates The Grand National

Anne Holland at the White Horse Bookshop for the launch of her bookAnne Holland at the White Horse Bookshop for the launch of her bookHere's an ideal Christmas present for anyone interested in horses and racing: The Grand National - a Celebration of the World's Most Famous Horse Race by Anne Holland.

Anne Holland's book is a terrific read. She tells some of the great stories about this world famous race - it is a selection of record holders, record breakers and headline grabbers.  It is racing history told through many fascinating stories.


There have been 170 official renewals of the Grand National at Aintree.  It began in 1839.  The Aintree race skipped three years during the First World War and five during the Second World War (with an unofficial substitute race at Gatwick), and lost the voided race in 1993 when a false start was ignored by most of the jockeys.


The author presents a wealth of tales about the race's superlative men, women and horses:  the jockey who won it the most times (George Stevens - five times winner), the first grey to win - The Lamb in 1868 and again in 1871 (he may also claim another superlative as the smallest winner), the first ever winner - the rather aptly named Lottery, the youngest winning rider - Bruce Hobbs aged 17 won in 1938, the National's first woman jockey (Charlotte Brew - 1977), the first woman rider to be placed (Katie Walsh - 2012)...and many more.


Anne Holland lived in Wiltshire for many years, then moved to Ireland in 2002 and has been back in England for the past four years - living near Marlborough.  She was brought up in Kent and Sussex and early visits to local point-to-points caught her imagination and fed a fervent ambition: "I wanted to do nothing else than ride in a point-to-point."


Aged seven she learnt to ride.  Aged 13 she had her first horse. Aged 19 she rode in her first point-to-point race.  When the National Hunt racing rules changed in 1976, she was one of the first women to race under rules.  The following year, she became the first woman to win a hurdle race - at Stratford on Avon.


She knows racing from the inside - and from very detailed research as well.  She has written many books on horse racing from Steeplechasing: A Celebration of 250 Years to a biography of Arkle.


Now she has immersed herself in the long history of the Grand National and discovered a wealth of stories and intriguing detail about the connections of Grand National horses - and connections' connections too.  She tells it with an almost breathless verve - this is not just a canter through the race's history, but a worthy long distance gallop.


Apart from the figures from years past, Anne Holland introduces us to a cast list of more modern Grand National personalities that includes Ruby Walsh, AP McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, commentators supreme Peter O'Sullevan and Peter Bromley, Leighton Aspell, Dr Richard Newland and Oliver Sherwood - to name but a few.  She has shrewd insights into each of her book's many characters.


Perhaps the only thing this book lacks is a list of all the winners.  If you want to check who won in the year you lost your month's pocket money on an outsider with a quirky name - you will have to resort to Google.


Of course, the race has changed - the 1967 Grand National became famous for Foinavon's win at odds of 100-1.  The horse - and his young rider - was the only one to jump clear of the incredible melee at the twenty-third fence and take a 30-length lead.  There have also been more infamous races.


But what of the much safer Grand National that has evolved in recent years? Anne Holland quotes Oliver Sherwood (who rode in the 1983 National and trained 2015's winner Many Clouds): "Without the changes we would not have the Grand National now."


The Grand National - a Celebration of the World's Most Famous Horse Race by Anne Holland is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £20.


FOOTNOTE:  If you have more than one racing enthusiast in the family who is in need of a Christmas book, consider Duel by Paul Mathieu.  It tells the story of a tug-of-war between two wealthy young men - the Marquis of Hastings and Henry Chaplin - for the hand of the prettiest girl in mid-Victorian England.

The society scandal that followed and how the two men’s rivalry spilled onto the racecourse gives us an intriguing glimpse of Victorian wealth in action. They spent unheard-of sums in pursuit of a Derby winner.

We reviewed Duel when it was published last August.  And the Racing Post's  judgment - 'A brilliantly told tale by a master of his craft' - just about sums up our view too.

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