FACTS: Grand National Female jockeys

Female Grand National Jockeys:

Riding in the Aintree Grand National is daunting for any jockey but until relatively recently, the race’s fences were barely the most formidable obstacles to be encountered by female jockeys wishing to compete in the race.

First the law: women were actually prohibited from taking part until the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) made it possible for a female jockey to break down the barrier, opening the way for others to follow. 

Then, varying degrees of sexism prevented women from taking part (since jockeys are dependent on owners and trainers to let them ride a competing horse in the first place), for example, voiced by former jump jockey Steve Smith-Eccles back in the day: “Women jockeys are a pain. Jumping’s a man’s game. They are not built like us. Most of them are as strong as half a Disprin.”

But a handful of them battled through the red tape and narrow viewpoints to win a moral victory and a physical presence in the race – and in 2021 the ultimate breakthrough: the Aintree Grand National was finally won by a female jockey… she was riding in the hoofprints of the following lady jockeys:


Charlotte Brew: 1977, the year that Red Rum gained his momentous third victory, the Grand National witnessed another ‘record’ as Charlotte Brew, at the age of 21, became the first woman to compete in the Aintree spectacular. Charlotte had been placed in fourth on her own 12yr old Barony Fort in the 1976 Fox Hunters’ Chase over one circuit of the Aintree fences – a feat which, if achieved by a male professional, might have seen her edging favouritism on the big day, instead of which they set off an insulting 200/1 chance.

Charlotte ’s bid was serious and although she and Barony Fort – an eighteenth birthday gift from her parents – seemed tailed off setting out on the second circuit half way, the partnership kept going until he was hampered and refused four fences from home.

Charlotte attracted huge media attention, becoming a guest on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show and the Daily Mirror arranged a day-trip for her on Concorde to Washington. Charlotte Brew (by now Budd) tried again on Martinstown in 1982, but was unseated at the third. Since then she has had a busy twin career, running a catering business from her farm in Somerset whilst also successfully training point-to-pointers.

Jenny Hembrow: 1979, an experienced and former champion point-to-point rider, exited the race at the first fence on Sandwilan, the 11yr old bottom weight, on her first attempt over the fences.

Unperturbed she partnered the same horse again the following year and did better. Having been prominent early on, she pulled up the 100/1-shot at the 19th fence.

Read an interview with Jenny Hembrow here


Linda Sheedy: 1981 witnessed the legendary Grand National when the crocked horse Aldaniti stormed in ridden by an incredulous Bob Champion, the jockey who had just overcome cancer. Back in the field, Linda (who was a mother of twins) rode 100/1-shot Deiopea, who refused at the 19th fence when well behind.

Geraldine Rees was 26 when completing the course (albeit in last place) in 1982. She fell at the first a year later and went on to train for 12 years in Lancashire, retiring in 2010.

Geraldine Rees: 1982; on the fifth attempt by a female jockey, Geraldine Rees completed the course in eighth and last place on Cheers in 1982 at the age of 26, becoming the first woman to successfully ride round all four and half miles of the National. In the following year, riding Midday Welcome, she fell in the general stampede at the first fence.

An experienced competitive rider, Geraldine had moved up through the Pony Club ranks to be selected for the British Junior Three Day Event Team in 1973. The Team won the Junior European Championships in France that year. Later Geraldine won the Midland Bank Trophy at Tidworth, as well as completing Badminton several times and representing Great Britain as a Senior.

In 1976, Geraldine joined her father, racehorse trainer and breeder, Captain Jim Wilson, as Assistant Trainer. Later they reversed roles, Geraldine training point-to-pointers and hunter-chasers as GSR Thoroughbreds in Lancashire with her father as her Assistant. During this 22-year partnership they trained many well-known winners on the Flat and over Jumps including Twidale and Red Rosein (winner of the 1992 Wokingham Handicap at Royal Ascot). Whilst assisting her father, Geraldine was also twice Lady Amateur Champion besides completing in the Grand National.

Relinquishing her trainer’s licence last year, Geraldine now concentrates on breeding (they bred Champion Hurdle winner Punjabi whom she trained in his early days) and various supportive services to racing under the banner of GSR Thoroughbreds.

Joy Carrier: 1983, the American jockey cleared only five fences before being unseated by King Spruce, owned by her husband Rusty and the winner of the previous year’s Irish Grand National. The Carriers were based in Pennsylvania.

Valerie Alder: 1984, Valerie Alder’s father John had partnered Tant Pis to finish ninth in 1965 and it was his daughter’s ambition to emulate him. Then 24 and riding her own horse Bush Guide (trained by John and a 21st birthday present from him to Val) she sadly fell at the Canal Turn on the first circuit. She continued her riding career in her married name Valerie Jackson – and finished fifth in the 2009 Fox Hunters’ Chase at Cheltenham on Robbers Glen.

Valerie remembers her Grand National ride for Eclipse Magazine:

“I always wanted to ride in the Grand National because my Dad had, but I never tried to find a horse to ride. I was just lucky enough the one I had was good enough!

“There was just a Portakabin as a changing room for the ladies when I rode. I always felt the girls missed out a bit on the build-up, as you were generally on your own much of the time. But I always found everyone involved with the media very supportive, and the professional jockeys were always very helpful and encouraging.

“It was a fantastic experience and I will never forget the noise made by the crowds of people around the start and on the way round the course. The fences have been modified greatly since I rode, but perhaps that only encourages everyone to go faster – and that’s perhaps why it hasn’t stopped horses falling.”

Jacqui Oliver: 1987, riding Eamons Owen owned by her father Henry and trained by her mother Sally, was in contention before being unseated at The Chair.

A professional jockey, she had just won the Aintree Hurdle, the race before the Grand National, on Anoch who was also family owned and trained. In all she partnered around 80 winners during a successful riding career. She continued to rides out (for Michael Scudamore) and ran a livery yard.

Read an interview with Jacqui Oliver here

Gee Armytage: 1988, was celebrated as possibly the best female rider of her generation, commanding the respect of the male Weighing Room. She had won a double at the 1987 Cheltenham Festival when only 21, before partnering the aptly named Gee-A in the 1988 Grand National. Gee-A, who belonged to a friend of the family, was still going well on the second circuit before he tired in the ground and was pulled up before the 26th fence, his jockey having also sprained a muscle in her back making further progress dangerous.

Grand National winning amateur jockey Marcus Armytage, who triumphed on Mr Frisk in 1990 and is now a respected racing journalist, writing in The Telegraph on his sister Gee:

“Armytage family life revolved round an obsession with trying to land the National and I was not our prime suspect to win it. My father, Roddy, trained a succession of National type horses and spring in East Ilsley was announced not by the arrival of daffodils but by the preparation of another horse for another National. Without a runner spring didn’t happen.

“The next most likely candidate in the family was my younger sister Gee. She had become jump racing’s pin-up after riding a double at the 1987 Cheltenham Festival. She was a very different rider to me. I was cautious, she was fearless.”

Since retiring from the saddle, Gee became personal assistant to (then) perennial Champion NH jockey Tony McCoy. Now married to jump jockey Mark Bradburne, and a mother.

Read an interview with Gee Armytage here

Venetia Williams: 1988, is the only female trainer to have saddled a Grand National winner who has also ridden in the race. She tried her luck as an amateur rider in 1988 on Marcolo, but fell at the infamous Becher’s Brook knocking herself unconscious. Then aged 27 she broke her neck in a fall at Worcester only two weeks later on her first ride back. She had broken the ‘hangman’s bone’ which luckily didn’t snap inwards, but she nevertheless decided to end her riding career, turning instead to training. This proved to be a successful move and she trained 100/1 shot Mon Mome to score in the Grand National in 2009.

Read about Venetia Williams’ Grand National career as a trainer here

Penny Ffitch-Heyes: 1988; her mount Hettinger, purchased by her trainer father John just before the race, fell at the first fence. Penny, 24 when she rode in the race, had trained as a show jumper before becoming a jockey. She moved to the USA in 1993, and became a jockeys’ agent based in Chicago.

Tarnya Davis: 1989, was a respected professional jockey when she rode in the National, and would have had several rides in her ten-year career but for untimely injury. In 1989 she reached Becher’s on the second circuit on 100/1 chance Numerate before pulling up before the 21st fence. She subsequently married NH trainer Oliver Sherwood in 1993, and they live with their two children at Rhonehurst Stables in Upper Lambourn.  Oliver Sherwood finished eighth in the National on Venture To Cognac in 1983. 

Tarnya remained fully involved in the racing scene: riding out most days, posting news of the yard on Facebook, and fulfilling all the numerous social and professional duties of a busy trainer’s wife with charm and humour. In 2015, Oliver and Tarnya Sherwood were responsible for training the Grand National winner Many Clouds.

Read an interview with Tarnya Davis here

1990s onwards: 

Rosemary Henderson: 1994, at the age of 51, finished fifth on her own 100/1 shot Fiddlers Pike. She became the highest-placed female rider in the Grand National as well as only the second to complete the course, winning herself a £50 bet at 12/1 as a result. She moved to New Zealand where she ran a flying vet service, and wrote a book, ‘Road To The National’, about her experiences.

Carrie Ford: 2005, saw huge media interest when she finished fifth in 2005 on Forest Gunner, trained by husband Richard. Ford, then 33, had given birth to her daughter Hannah 10 weeks earlier.

Read more about Carrie Ford here

Nina Carberry: 2006, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, is jointly with Katie Walsh (see below) the most experienced Grand National female rider, with six starts. The leading Irish lady amateur took over from Carrie Ford on Forest Gunner in 2006 and the partnership got round in ninth and last place. In 2010 Nina rode the well-backed grey Character Building, for her best finish, coming seventh. Carberry’s father Tommy rode the 1975 winner L’Escargot and saddled the 1999 hero Bobbyjo, ridden by her brother Paul. Their brother Philip has also twice taken part in the Grand National. Amateur rider Nina Carberry is married to Ruby Walsh’s brother Ted junior. Nina and Paul Carberry became the first brother and sister to ride in the same Grand National in 2012 and Katie and Ruby Walsh did the same in 2013.

Read more about Nina Carberry here

Katie Walsh: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, also with six starts had, until 2021, recorded the best position by a female rider in the Grand National, riding Seabass, trained by father Ted, to finish third in 2012. She finished 13th on the same horse in 2013 and filled the same position in 2014 on Vesper Bell. She led up Papillon, when trained by her father and ridden by Ruby to win in 2000. A photograph of a mud-splattered Walsh in Seabass’s colours, taken by Spencer Murphy, won the 2013 Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize.

Read more about Katie Walsh here

Bryony Frost: 2018, 2021; aboard Milansbar took 5th place in the 2018 National but was missed the 2019 renewal due to injury. She was back aboard Yala Enki for the 2021 renewal but was unseated.

Read more about Bryony Frost here

Lizzie Kelly: 2019, started in the race but pulled up, riding Tea For Two.

Read more about Lizzie Kelly here

Tabitha Worsley: 2021, daughter of trainer Georgie Howell, made her Grand National debut aboard Sub Lieutenant (trained by Howell). She also won the Aintree Fox Hunters on Top Wood in 2019 and was Champion Amateur Jockey in 2018/19.

Rachael Blackmore: 2019, 2021; she came 10th aboard Valseur Lido in 2019 but made history in 2021 by WINNING the Aintree Grand National aboard Minella Times – the first woman jockey ever to do so. 

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