The greatest steeplechase of them all, the Grand National is held annually at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool. It is the race the world stops to watch.
Each year more than 500 million people in more than 140 countries tune in to watch 40 competitors take on Aintree’s unique and world famous fences.
For many, it is where their love affair with racing started – and, according to former top jockey Katie Walsh, it is where big aspirations for riders also begin:
“Any child who was lucky enough to have a pony growing up has ridden the Grand National 1,000 times in their head hoping that one day it might happen in real life,” says Katie as she introduces an animated history of female jockeys in the race, which she has narrated for Betway in the build up to the Grand National 2021 – see below:
The unique race, a marathon test of four and a quarter miles which tests the skill, determination and stamina of a racehorse like no other, is the race of dreams and creator of legends.
Winning the race etches your name into racing and sporting folklore, with three-time winner Red Rum still as famous today as any sportsman or woman past or present.
WOMEN AND THE GRAND NATIONAL
“When it comes to women actually riding in the race my first recollection is the movie National Velvet where Elizabeth Taylor had to cut her own hair short and pretend she was a boy – and it wasn’t even real,” Katie Walsh recalls.
“I’d never heard of Charlotte Brew who was the first female to take part in 1977. She was a 200/1 shot that day and got as far as the four last.
“But more importantly she opened the door.”
Since the inaugural running at Aintree Racecourse way back in 1839, when Lottery became the first horse to have his name etched on the now-legendary roll of honour, victory in the Grand National has been the pinnacle of Jump racing ambition for owners, trainers and jockeys.
It is one of the biggest tests for racehorse and rider who have to complete two circuits of the iconic course – with 30 fences to be jumped over four miles, two furlongs and about 74 yards.
Charlotte Brew attracted huge media attention when she rode her own horse Barony Fort in the Grand National in 1977. Though he refused four out, she appeared as a guest on BBC Sports Personality of the Year and the Daily Mirror arranged a day trip on Concorde to Washington. She again took part in the 1982 race but was unseated.
Geraldine Rees, aged 26, became the first woman jockey to complete the course (albeit in last place) in 1982. She fell at the first a year later and went on to become a racehorse trainer for the next 12 years, retiring in 2010.
Venetia Williams is the only female trainer to have saddled a Grand National winner who has also ridden in the race. In 1988 she fell at Becher’s Brook on the first lap when riding 200/1 chance Marcolo, but in 2009 her work as a trainer paid off when 100/1 shot Mon Mome raced to victory.
Gee Armytage competed against Venetia Williams in 1988, but had to pull up her aptly-named mount, Gee-A. A dual Cheltenham Festival-winning rider, she is the sister of Marcus Armytage – amateur rider of the 1990 winner Mr Frisk.
Tarnya Davis partnered 100/1 chance Numerate in 1989 and pulled him up at before the 21st fence. She subsequently married amateur rider Oliver Sherwood, who finished eighth on Venture To Cognac in 1983. In 2015, Oliver and Tarnya Sherwood were responsible for training the Grand National winner Many Clouds.
Rosemary Henderson finished fifth when aged 51 on her own 100/1 shot Fiddlers Pike in 1994. She subsequently wrote a book, Road to the National, about her exploits.
Carrie Ford also finished fifth, in 2005 on Forest Gunner, trained by her then husband Richard. Ford, 33 at the time had given birth to her daughter Hannah just 10 weeks earlier.
Nina Carberry, who retired in April, 2018, rode in the Grand National a record-equalling six times between 2006 and 2016, doing best when seventh on Character Building in 2010.
Although she never won the National, in 2015 she became the first woman ever to win the ‘amateur Grand National’ – the Fox Hunters’ Chase which is run over the Grand National fences.
Then, in 2012 came Katie Walsh:
“In 2012 it was my turn… Imagine this: your first ride in the National and you go off as a favourite on a horse trained by your dad [Ted Walsh].”
Katie Walsh gained the best position by a female rider in the Grand National, finishing third on Seabass. A photograph of a mud- splattered Walsh in Seabass’s colours, taken by Spencer Murphy, won the 2013 Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize.
“I thought that Seabass was in with a squeak when we turned for home but to finish third was just humbling. I hadn’t a clue that it was the highest finish for a female until somebody told me afterwards. I was just delighted that it all worked out.”
She also led up Papillon, when trained by her father and ridden by her brother Ruby Walsh to win in 2000.
“Nina [Carberry] and I became sisters-in-law in 2012 and between us we carried the female flag in the National for more than a decade – though we never saw it like that, we were just doing something that we absolutely loved and happened to be good enough to keep getting the opportunities.”
Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh jointly hold the female record of six rides each in the Grand National, and as Katie Walsh remarks:
“Nine finished out of 12 ain’t bad.” (See table below for the results.)
However, Katie Walsh holds a further record in the Grand National, when in 2018 there were a record-equalling three women among the riders for the race – the other year with three was 1988.
Two professionals had their first Grand National rides in 1988: Bryony Frost, who finished fifth on Milansbar, and Rachael Blackmore, a faller at the Chair (15th) from Alpha Des Obeaux. Experienced amateur Katie Walsh had her final Aintree experience aboard Baie Des Iles, 12th and last, who was trained by her husband Ross O’Sullivan.
Walsh announced her retirement from race riding in April 2018.
“By the time I retired in 2018 there was a new generation coming through, a generation who have already started writing their own history.
In 2019 Rachel Blackmore finished 10th on 66/1 shot Valseur Lido, and Lizzie Kelly pulled up at the 29th fence on Tea For Two, meaning that to date Katie Walsh still holds the best finishing position for a female jockey in the Grand National, with her third place aboard Seabass.
In 2020 the Grand National was shockingly cancelled due to the COVID-19 epidemic, but on Saturday 10th April 2021 it is due to be run for the 173rd time. Could this be the year to see the race’s first ever female winner?
“One day a woman will cross the line in front, it’s only a matter of time,” says Katie Walsh.
“But you need more than just talent to win the National, it’s a lottery alright – but when you’ve got a ticket, you’ve got a chance!”
KATIE’S GRAND NATIONAL LEGACY
- Best position gained by a female rider in the Grand National, finishing third on Seabass, 2012.
- With Ruby Walsh, only brother and sister to have ridden in the same Grand National twice, in 2013 and 2017.
- One of record-equalling three women among the riders for the race, 2018.
- Record-equalling holder of six rides for a female in the Grand National, 2012–2018, see table below for the results:
MS NINA CARBERRY – 6
MS KATIE WALSH – 6
2006 Forest Gunner finished 9th
2010 Character Building finished 7th
2011 Character Building finished 15th
2012 Organisedconfusion UR (unseated jockey) at 8th fence
2012 Seabass finished 3rd
2013 Seabass finished 13th
2014 Vesper Bell finished 13th
2015 First Lieutenant finished 16th
2016 Sir Des Champs FELL at 15th fence
2016 Ballycasey UR (unseated jockey) at 29th fence
2017 Wonderful Charm finished 19th
2018 Baie Des Iles finished 12th
For more articles in our Grand National Ladies series please see our Guide to the Grand National.
For tickets to Aintree Racecourse click here.
Karen can usually be found glued to her computer or at the stables. Having edited several national magazines she co-founded Eclipse Magazine in 2008 after realising that many of her friends were nervous about going racing due to lack of information – what to wear, how to bet etc.
She absolutely loves her job (how many people can say that?!) and is truly grateful to all supporters of and contributors to Eclipse Magazine.
If you are reading this she would like to say THANK YOU! (And please spread the word about Eclipse…!!)