Blackmore expecting the unexpected ahead of Grand National debut
Jockey is not thinking about what it would mean to become first woman to win race
Rachael Blackmore: “The minute I was told I was riding, I was thinking what that would be like to win, the same as anyone.” Photograph: Inpho
Blackmore is anticipating the world’s most famous steeplechase with the fervour of someone whose very first memory of racing is bound up with Aintree.
“I used to go round to my best friend’s house and we would do the whole National draw thing, everyone getting five horses out of the paper,” she recalls.
“It’s my first memory of racing in general. It’s an iconic race, unique in so many ways. I’ve been watching re-runs of the National and it really is so unpredictable,” Blackmore adds.
Her excitement at the prospect of teaming up with the Michael O’Leary-owned Alpha Des Obeaux is palpable. Has she thought about what it might be like to win the National?
“Oh, the minute I was told I was riding, I was thinking what that would be like to win, the same as anyone,” she says.
And then the “f” bomb gets dropped – has she thought about what it might be like to become the first female jockey to win the National?
“I don’t think about that side of it at all. I’d just love to win the race. That doesn’t really come into it,” Blackmore says.
To be fair, from a media point of view, it’s the obvious question. Even for a race with a long history of throwing up storylines of operatic scale the prospect of a woman riding the winner for the first time is epic.
And it could happen. For the first time in 30 years, three women are set to ride in the National on Saturday.
As well as Blackmore, Katie Walsh, who came closest to history when finishing third in the great race in 2012, rides Baie Des Iles. The young English rider, Bryony Frost, is on Milansbar. Should one of them win the impact of the story will reverberate around the world.
Blackmore is too bright not to realise that. This is a woman who juggled an amateur riding career with securing an equine studies degree and a business studies diploma before turning professional just three years ago.
But she, Walsh, Frost and other women like Lizzie Kelly and Bridget Andrews are more than entitled to exasperation at their careers being continually projected through the prism of gender.
Blackmore achieved a genuine glass ceiling breakthrough last year when becoming the first woman to be crowned National Hunt racing’s champion conditional jockey in Ireland. She’s on course to have an even more successful campaign this season.
If it can be said that a desire to be just like men indicates a lack ambition then Blackmore’s achievement in blending seamlessly into the toughest sport of all is still hugely impressive.
Professionally her sex is irrelevant. She isn’t a female jockey. She’s a jockey. And is regarded as such both by her male colleagues in the inner sanctum of the weigh-room plus any punter with a working pair of eyes.
In Britain, Frost’s rapid ascent to Grade One winner has been one of the stories of the season and if Walsh remains technically an amateur, her Cheltenham festival victory on Relegate last month was just the latest reminder of how being a top amateur jockey in Ireland remains a full-time job.
All any of them want or expect is to be judged on their merits as riders. So the “f” prefix can be a specific pain. Except with the best will in the world there’s never getting away from context. And there’s no escaping how a woman riding the Grand National winner really would be a landmark moment.
Defiant gesture to sexism
It’s just 41 years since Charlotte Brew became the first woman to ride in the race, a defiant gesture to sexism and even the law which had only been changed in Britain a couple of years beforehand through the Sex Discrimination Act.
In 1979, Jenny Hembrow became just the second woman to ride in the National on board Sandwilan.
“We all tore off to the first fence and there was a big pile-up. Sandwilan stood off so far he over-jumped and just turned over.
“It was awful because there had been so much publicity and I had to swallow my pride. It was all in the papers and it was really hard, because other people had fallen but nobody noticed that; they only noticed me,” she later recalled.
Hembrow and Sandwilan returned a year later and enjoyed a much happier experience before exiting at the 19th. The first woman to finish the National was Geraldine Rees who came home eighth on Cheers in 1982.
It was a dozen years before a woman finished the race again when Rosemary Henderson was fifth on Fiddlers Pike in 1994. And it was another 11 before Carrie Ford filled the same position on Forest Gunner. A lot had changed. Some attitudes hadn’t.
“Horses do not win Grand Nationals ridden by women – that’s a fact,” Red Rum’s trainer Ginger McCain famously declared beforehand. “Carrie’s a grand lass but she’s a broodmare now and having kids does not get you fit to ride Grand Nationals.”
McCain’s liking for mischief, allied to a habit of letting his mouth run away with itself, meant Ford dismissed his comments as “Ginger being Ginger”. In the circumstances she had little choice but to be magnanimous. But only the wilful could dismiss such “banter” as entirely harmless.
It’s notable since then how Walsh and her sister-in-law, Nina Carberry, are the only women to have ridden in the National. For much of the race in 2012 it looked like Walsh and Seabass were going to pull off a victory as momentous as anything ever seen at Aintree.
“The second time we went past the Melling Road, when we were heading towards the second last, and we were out in front, then yeah, I’ll admit the idea [of winning] did enter my mind for a moment,” Walsh later recounted. “Yeah, I had the feeling we were going to win.”
Seabass’s stamina ultimately ran out and he finished third to Neptune Collonges who won by a nose in the closest National finish of all. But nearly as many eyes were on the third and the tantalising realisation of how close to history Walsh had got.
It’s surely only a matter of time before a woman rides a National winner. But until such a breakthrough happens every woman riding in the great race can probably expect to have to still put up with the “f” prefix to one extent or another.
Hopefully that be dispensed with sooner rather than later. And now would be best of all.
History Of Female Jockeys In Aintree Grand National
1977 Charlotte Brew - Barony Fort (Horse Refused)
1979 Jenny Hembrow - Sandwilan (Fell)
1980 Jenny Hembrow - Sandwilan (Fell)
1981 Linda Sheedy - Deiopea (Horse Refused)
1982 Geraldine Rees - Cheers (8th)
Charlotte Brew - Martinstown (Unseated Rider)
1983 Geraldine Rees - Midday Welcome (Fell)
Joy Carrier - King Spruce (Unseated Rider)
1984 Valarie Alder - Bush Guide (Fell)
1987 Jacqui Oliver - Eamon’s Owen (Unseated Rider)
1988 Penny Ffitch-Heyes - Hettinger (Fell)
Gee Armytage - Gee A (Pulled Up)
Venetia Williams - Marcolo (Fell)
1989 Tarnya Davis - Numerate (Pulled Up)
1994 Rosemary Henderson - Fiddlers Pike (5th)
2005 Carrie Ford - Forest Gunner (5th)
2006 Nina Carberry - Forest Gunner (9th)
2010 Nina Carberry - Character Building (7th)
2011 Nina Carberry - Character Building (15th)
2012 Katie Walsh -Seabass (3rd)
Nina Carberry - Organisedconfusioin (Unseated Rider)
2013 Katie Walsh - Seabass (13th)
2014 Katie Walsh - Vesper Bell (13th)
2015 Nina Carberry - First Lieutenant (16th)
2016 Nina Carberry - Sir Des Champs (Unseated Rider)
Katie Walsh - Ballycasey (Unseated Rider)
2017 Katie Walsh - Wonderful Charm (19th)