Grand National – Girls on Top!

With the Aintree Grand National just around the corner (10th April) I’m sure we’re all starting to put thought into our selections. It’s a race that grabs everyone’s attention and whether you’re picking through skill or gut feeling, we’re all in with a shot of our selections winning over such a challenging and unpredictable course. Despite there being a 7/2 favourite this year (Cloth Cap) there are no guarantees in the Grand National.

There’s often so much more to a race than the event itself though. Katie Walsh in partnership with Betway, offers an illuminating take on the challenges faced by female jockeys over the years. We all like to think (naively perhaps) that people are recognised solely by their merits, but that is often not the case and sometimes even getting a foot in the door to begin with is a major hurdle. Considering the long history of the Grand National it’s actually rather shocking that it took the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 before a female even took the reigns in the event.

The very first women jockey in the Grand National was Charlotte Brew in 1977, with Geraldine Rees becoming the first woman to actually complete the race (in 1982). Visibility in the sport eventually led to greater achievements. Success followed for both Rosemary Henderson and Carrie Ford in the 90’s and 00’s, both placing fifth. Indeed it was Walsh herself who took these achievements to the next level in 2012 by finishing third on Seabass.

Three women jockeys are taking part in the 2021 Grand National, demonstrating that there is no turning back the tide now. Perhaps not this year, but it is surely now only a matter of time before we have our first female Grand National winner, in this, the ‘sport of kings’.



The Grand National That Never Was 1993

The Grand National That Never Was 1993 Justifiably described by commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan as ‘the most sensational occurrence during the long history of the world’s most famous steeplechase’, the ‘race that wasn’t’ was run, albeit not officially, at Aintree on April 3, 1993. After a second false start, starter Keith Brown raised, but did not unfurl, his red recall flag, such that it could not be seen by recall man Ken Evans, stationed further down the course, and the majority of the field set off towards the first fence, oblivious to the recall.

Before the false starts, caused by a faulty catch on the starting gate, the start of the Grand National had already been delayed by the presence of animal rights protesters on the course near the first fence. Consequently, many of the thirty jockeys who sent off steadfastly resisted attempts by officials, and by the crowd, to stop the race; some of them pulled up at the end of the first circuit, but others went out into the country for a second time and seven completed the course.

‘Victory’ went to Esha Ness, trained by Jenny Pitman and ridden by John White, who beat Cahervillahow, Romany King and The Committee in what would have been the second fastest time in Grand National history. However, even as he was calling the runners home, O’Sullevan referred to ‘the race that surely never was’. He was right because, following a lengthy enquiry, the stewards had little choice but to declare the race void and it was never re-run.

Dancing Brave Defeated in Derby 1986

Dancing Brave Defeated in Derby 1986 The 80s gambling and sportings scene seems like another world now, light years away from online entertainment like Having won the Craven Stakes and the 2,000 Guineas with a minimum of fuss, despite stamina doubts over a mile-and-a-half, Dancing Brave was sent off well-backed 2/1 favourite for the Derby at Epsom in 1986. In the early stages, off a steady gallop, Dancing Brave was settled towards the rear of the 16-runner field by jockey Greville Starkey.

Approaching halfway, on the downhill run into Tattenham Corner, he was angled towards the outside and ridden along but, turning into the straight, Dancing Brave still only had two horses behind him. As the pace finally quickened, approaching the three-furlong marker, Dancing Brave started to make progress on the extreme outside. He continued to pick off rivals all the way up the straight, but inside the final furlong it soon became that the ‘bird’ – in the shape of second favourite, Shahrastani, who had struck for home under Walter Swinburn a furlong-and-a-half from home and wasn’t stopping – had flown.

Despite making up ground hand-over-fist in the closing stages, Dancing Brave had been set an insurmountable task and was still half a length behind at the line.Starkey had made the mistake – as later borne out by sectional timing – of lying too far out of his ground in a steadily-run race. He was widely pilloried for the defeat, which dogged him until the end of his career, so much so that, eventually, he refused to talk about the episode. Such a gesture seems rather tame in the context of today’s world. Nowadays we’d be too distracted with casinos online or angry tweets!

Jenny Pitman Wins Grand National 1983

Jenny Pitman Wins Grand National 1983 Still hailed as ‘First Lady of Aintree’, Jenny Pitman will always be remembered as the first woman to train the winner of the Grand National. She did so in 1983 with the eight-year-old Corbiere, owned by Bryan Burrough and ridden by Ben de Haan, who repelled the fast-finishing Greasepaint to win by three-quarters of a length. Of course more recently in 2021 another woman, Rachael Blackmore, confounded the latest Racing Odds by becoming the first female jockey ever to win the Grand National.

A bright chestnut with a big white blaze, Corbiere, or ‘Corky’ as he was known at home, was apparently name after La Corbière Lighthouse on the island of Jersey. Although still in his first season over fences, Corbiere had demonstrated his Aintree credentials when winning the Coral Welsh National, over 3 miles 6 furlongs on soft going, at Chepstow the previous December. Consequently, despite shouldering st 4lb, he was sent off 13/1 fifth favourite, behind Grittar, Bonum Omen, Spartan Missile and Peaty Sandy, for his first attempt at the Grand National.

Once underway, Corbiere raced prominently throughout, jumping impeccably, and took the lead at the twenty-third fence, or ‘Foinavon’, as it is now known. He led again at the third-last fence and turning for home was one four horses still in serious contention. He jumped the final fence with a three-length lead over his nearest pursuer, Greasepaint, but in the end was all out to hold his rallying rival. Winning jockey Ben de Haan later said, ‘I knew there was another horse closing on the run-in, but I wasn’t worried; Corky picked up in the last couple of strides.’