What Katie does next – it could be a Grand National win
Mount of top Irish woman jockey Katie Walsh shortening in the betting for Aintree showpiece
Katie Walsh celebrates with Relegate after winning at this year’s Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Katie Walsh will have more pressing concerns than the weight of expectation on her shoulders at 5.15pm on Saturday. In particular, the 30 daunting fences, the 4¼ miles of Aintree turf, and 39 rivals that separate the 33-year-old Irish jockey from Grand National history.
Every year the National provides a human interest story. This year it revolves around Walsh, whose horse Baie Des Iles is trained by her husband Ross O’Sullivan. Following a collapse in betting odds, Walsh has moved from an outsider to close to favourite for the world’s most famous race.
“It’s something that particularly happens in the English National, which is the one time in the year that people who don’t normally have a bet take an interest in racing,” said Walsh’s father Ted.
“They have noticed that the horse is grey, and that she’s ridden by a woman, it’s a husband and wife team, and there has been a huge weight of money for her. It’s the sort of thing that just gathers momentum.
“Really, 16-1 is not now an impression of her true chance. The horse was a 50-1 shot, and then 33s and that was more accurate – she’s not a 16-1 shot.
“People like a story, and I think they’d love it to be like National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor. ”
Walsh snr has already played his part in the fabled event, training Papillon to success in 2000 ridden by his son Ruby. Nonetheless he is caught up in the excitement, hence his reference to the 1944 film where Taylor wins a horse in a raffle and steers him to glory at Aintree.
“It would be very much like a real-life National Velvet,” he said. “The first woman to win the National in more than 170 years, and it would also be the first mare since Nickel Coin in 1951, the first grey mare ever I think, and the first seven-year-old since 1940.
“She’s [Katie] too switched on to be the type to believe in fairy stories,” he added. “She’s used to the pressure – it was a similar story when she rode Seabass for me to finish third in 2012, people latched on to her, and she ended up being one of the joint favourites.”
Katie Walsh has long been a high achiever and was named March’s Irish Times Sportswoman of the Month after adding another Cheltenham Festival winner to her CV. Off the track she overcame a severe stammer as a teenager and now speaks eloquently on television.
Walsh has tasted some success in the National before, finishing prominently on Seabass, her first and highest placing in five attempts. “I’m competitive, it was great to be third, but I didn’t win. It could be over in a flash, and that’s the reality of it, so we’ll see what happens.”
Walsh is one of a growing number of leading female jockeys. This year she will be joined by rising star Rachael Blackmore (Alpha Des Obeaux), a graduate in equine science from Limerick University, and the sparky Bryony Frost (Milansbar), who has become British racing’s poster girl.
“I never expected it,” said Walsh’s father. “It was the same with Ruby – I thought he would go on to make a career in riding, but I didn’t think he would go and have the success that he has had. It’s down to a lot of things and Katie was the same. She’s had a great career already, she has ridden winners in Australia, in England, and at the Cheltenham Festival – far more than you would have ever imagined.”
Ruby Walsh, who also won aboard Hedgehunter in 2005, will have to watch from the sidelines after breaking his leg again in a fall at Cheltenham. He believes his sister is taking the right approach.
“The mare travelled over well, and she’s really looking forward to it,” he said. “That’s a great way to be – you should be looking forward to it when you’re riding a horse like that with a chance in a race as big as this. You shouldn’t be afraid of it, or nervous about it.”