Until relatively recently, the race’s fences were barely the most formidable obstacles to be encountered by female jockeys wishing to ride in the Grand National.
Former jump jockey Steve Smith-Eccles observed a few years ago: “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.”
First the law, and 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) 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 – though first place in the race itself yet remains elusive.
Currently, the woman generally voted to be the most likely to become the first to win the Grand National is Nina Carberry (pictured top, courtesy of Aintree Racecourse). In 2011, Nina, born on 21 July, 1984, will be the latest of 14 women (who have had 18 rides between them) to go for John Smith’s Grand National glory.
She will be riding in the hoofprints of the following lady jockeys:
Charlotte Brew 1977
The 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 was 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
Jenny, 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.
Linda Sheedy 1981
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 1882
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 Joy Carrier 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’s still riding 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
Jacqui, 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 still rides out (for Michael Scudamore) and runs a livery yard.
Gee Armytage 1988
Gee was celebrated as possibly the best female rider of her generation, commanding the respect of the male Weighing Room. She had ridden 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 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 has been personal assistant to perennial Champion NH jockey Tony McCoy. Now married to jump jockey Mark Bradburne, and a mother, she no longer drives ‘AP’ to the races but still manages his diary and the day-to-day details of his working life.
Venetia Williams 1988
Venetia Williams, now only the second lady trainer to train the Grand National winner, 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 neverthess decided to end her riding career, turning instead to training.
Penny Ffitch-Heyes 1988
Penny’s 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 is now a jockeys’ agent based in Chicago.
Tarnya Davis 1989
Tarnya Davis 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 Numerate before pulling up. She married NH trainer Oliver Sherwood in 1993, and they live with their two children at Rhonehurst Stables in Upper Lambourn.
Tarya is 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.
Rosemary Henderson 1994
Rosemary Henderson, at the age of 51, finished fifth on her own Fiddlers Pike in 1994. 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 now lives in New Zealand where she runs a flying vet service, and has written a book about her experiences.
Carrie Ford 2005
Carrie’s mount Forest Gunner was attempting to follow-up two previous victories in 2004 at Aintree. Trained by her husband Richard, he won the Grand Sefton (ridden by Peter Buchanan), and at the April meeting itself Forest Gunner and Carrie had famously won the Fox Hunters’, only ten weeks after she had twins. A year later at the age of 33, after turning professional just before the race, Carrie became only the third woman to get around in the Grand National; and by finishing in fifth she equalled the highest-placed finish by a female rider, achieved by Rosemary Henderson.
The partnership set off as the only woman to have won over the fences, let alone on the same horse, and consequently threatened to set off as favourites as their price tumbled in the days before the race – no doubt carrying many female ‘punts’ as well as some shrewd money from the pros. The occasion therefore inevitably attracted a great deal of press interest, not least in the tabloids, fuelled by a mischievous Ginger McCain (trainer of Red Rum) claiming that: “Horses do not win Grand Nationals ridden by women; that’s a fact.” Indeed so sure was he that she couldn’t win, that he offered to bare his bum in the event she did, adding for good measure: “Carrie’s a grand lass, but she’s a broodmare now, and having kids does not get you fit to ride Grand Nationals.”
The Fords, familiar with Ginger’s style, took it all in good part. Her only riposte was to call the revered trainer a “cantankerous old dinosaur”. She observed: “It’s just Ginger being Ginger. But it would be nice to prove him wrong!”
As one journalist recounted, on Grand National day: “In a cameo that proved they were still on friendly terms, McCain presented Ford with a bunch of flowers when he bumped into her before the race. It was a typical Ginger joke: the bouquet was meant for Red Rum’s grave by the winning post and McCain quickly snatched them back to continue his annual ritual.”
Carrie meanwhile had the support of the redoubtable Clare Balding, racing presenter for the BBC who had herself ridden as an amateur. “Ginger’s a buffoon,” she declared. “When Charlotte Brew became the first woman to ride in the National in 1977, Ginger opposed it. He’s a man who can’t get out of bed in the morning without somebody putting his shoes out for him. He’s done a brilliant job at promoting the race, though. Friends of mine who know nothing about racing are now saying ‘Come on Carrie!’.”
Some time before the race, to escape the hype, Carrie retired to the solitude of the Ladies’ Weighing Room for some peace and a little mediation. The course delivered a fax from Jenny Pitman, first lady to train the winner, and a card from Charlotte Budd, first lady to ride in it, among hundreds to wish her luck.
Out on course, Carrie rode a brilliant race, going wide to avoid the kind of trouble that saw the champion jockey AP come down at Becher’s. With Forest Gunner yet in contention with only a couple of fences to go, another Grand National fairytale still seemed possible and Ginger was getting nervous. “Jesus, Fordy,” he admitted to Richard after the race. “I thought I was going to get a cold bum!”
Carrie recounted: “I didn’t have a totally clear run but, Jesus, it’s the Grand National isn’t it? He got to the last bend with them and didn’t quite get home. It’s all been a dream for the owners and the yard and for me as well.” She also had the satisfaction of beating Ginger’s runner Amberleigh House by five places.
After the race Carrie told the BBC’s Clare Balding the story of her race:
“I loved it – it’s the thrill of a lifetime. Generally he was brilliant – he has run here twice before. But he was never able to fiddle away – a couple of times he had to reach for a fence or two and was very long at the ditch after Valentines. He was little bit long at The Chair as well – he just scraped over. He was right up there – to be honest he was on vapours from the Melling Road – it was all down to his huge courage that he kept up with them and was still in contention at the last. But he was up and down on the spot from the last – he didn’t quite get home.”
After the race Carrie promised her relieved husband that she was now retired from race riding.
Nina Carberry 2006 and 2010
The leading Irish lady amateur Nina Carberry 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, which she hopes to partner again this April.
By Sara Waterson