Into the history books: Captain Martin Becher and the early days of the Grand National


With its rich history, gruelling course and high prestige, it’s little wonder that the Grand National is so popular. Often referred to as “the world’s greatest steeplechase”, it’s that one race a year that garners attention from all corners of the globe. Even amongst those who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in betting on horse racing, the National is a must-follow – and it really is a thrilling and unpredictable spectacle.

The race was inaugurated in 1839 and since then, horses, jockeys and trainers alike have all entered the record books and become a part of that Aintree folklore. One such man was Martin Becher, who now lends his name to one of the fences on the circuit – Becher’s Brook, which is one of the most treacherous jumps the horses have to take.

But what was special about Becher and how did this fence come to be? We’ll trawl back through the Grand National archives to relive some famous Aintree history.

Who was Martin Becher?

Becher had been a soldier, who served during the Napoleonic wars and was stationed in Belgium. After being released from service, he was commissioned as a captain, and this allowed him to pursue one of his other interests – cross-country riding.

During the 1820s and ‘30s, he won every race going – including the Aylesbury Chase, Cheltenham Steeplechase, Leamington Chase. Becher was good friends with William Lynn, owner of Aintree and it was from his experience in steeplechases that Becher suggested a similar race at the Liverpool racecourse.

While the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase is often considered the predecessor to the Grand National, Becher not only took place in the 1836 race, but he also won it with The Duke. The horse also won in 1837, with a different jockey in the saddle.

Why Becher’s Brook?

As mentioned, the first recorded Grand National race was staged in 1839, and it wasn’t originally run with a handicap – the rules were changed ahead of the 1843 renewal – so all horses had previously been required to carry a weight of 12st.

Becher returned to the Aintree circuit for a third time, and rode Conrad, a 20/1 outside chance. The field was much smaller than we’d recognise today – with 18 entries declared, but one horse (Jerry) withdrawn before the start.

Becher and Conrad had been chasing the leader early on, but it was at the sixth fence – then known as the First Brook – that the duo failed to clear the rails and the jockey was unseated. He fell into the brook, and was forced to hide, as the other horses and jockeys jumped the fence. It’s reported that he remarked to spectators that:

“How filthy water tasted without the flavour of whisky.”

Becher was soon joined by fellow jockey William McDonough, who was riding Rust – both men were able to remount and carry on the race. Becher fell short again at the ninth fence, the Second Brook (now named after Valentine), and his race was over. At 42 years of age, Becher wouldn’t race again but his name and legacy lives on through Becher’s Brook.

Modifications to Becher’s Brook

Over the years, amendments have been made to the fence. During the inaugural race, the jump consisted of an eight-foot-wide brook, with the landing side three foot lower than the take-off side – making it a perilous drop. The following modifications have developed over the years:

  • 1989: the landing side was levelled off, while the brook was raised to allow only an inch of water, and outside rails were splayed out to allow more room for horses landing wide
  • 2005: the brook was rebuilt and included running water for the first time since the 1989 race
  • 2009: the course was widened, allowing runners to bypass fences if needed. This included Becher’s Brook and the rule was first introduced in the 2011 renewal
  • 2011: the landing side of Becher’s Brook was reduced from 10 inches to six inches. However, the height of the fence remains at 4ft 10 in.

Becher’s Brook is often a fence that is feared by riders, but loved by spectators – and it’s its legendary status that adds to the Aintree spectacle.


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