The Grand National is the biggest, most important race in the world to many fans of horse racing. It doesn’t have the quality of a contest like the Cheltenham Gold Cup, nor the pace and class of the Derby, whilst it can’t get close to contests like the key Breeders’ Cup races or the Dubai World Cup in terms of prize money.
However, it attracts huge global TV audiences (estimated at more than 500m), makes both front page and back page news, offers over half a million pounds to winning connections and is steeped in history and tradition. It is a fiendishly difficult betting puzzle for punters to crack and offers horses, jockeys and trainers an equally tricky and thoroughly unique test.
The challenge of well over four miles, 30 still-brutal fences and a packed field of up to 40 runners is certainly tough; but is it one that a female jockey has been able to match? Well, up to and including the 2019 edition of this famous race, there has never been a winner ridden by a woman. But how have the ladies got on? Have there been any to go close? Might we see a female winning jockey in the near future? And what other key roles have women played in the history of this iconic test of riding?
Best Performances by Female Jockeys in the Grand National
In an era during gender equality is taken more seriously than ever and in which real progress is being made, albeit at glacial pace in some regards, it may seem strange that a woman has never won the Grand National. The 2020 race will be the 173rd running of this devilish steeplechase but it should be noted that from 1839 until 1977 not a single female jockey took part. We’ll return to the history of women jockeys shortly but the table below shows the best performances to date of female jockeys.
|1994||Rosemary Henderson||Fiddlers Pike||5th|
|2005||Carrie Ford||Forest Gunner||5th|
|2010||Nina Carberry||Character Building||7th|
There have been a number of other good performances too, although in truth many would say that escaping the race unhurt constitutes a decent show and finishing the race even more so. In 1982 Geraldine Rees became the first woman to complete the National, finishing a very credible eighth on Cheers. Other top 10 finishes include:
- Nina Carberry, 9th – in 2006 on Forest Gunner
- Rachael Blackmore, 10th – in 2019 on Valseur Lido
So, as we can see, it is Katie Walsh, part of the Walsh dynasty, who is the most successful woman in the Grand National’s history. She and her horse Seabass were well fancied in 2012, setting off as 8/1 joint-favourites, along with Shakalakaboomboom who finished ninth and whose odds were shortened by the popularity of his name as much as anything else.
Other Key Stats
It is fitting that Walsh’s third place is currently the best finish by a female jockey as the retired Irish jockey also holds a number of other records when it comes to this race. These can be seen below, along with some other relevant stats, facts and trivia.
- First to race – Charlotte Brew was the first woman to enter the race, along with steed Barony Fort, in 1977
- First to finish – Geraldine Rees on board Cheers in 1982 (8th)
- First multiple rides – in 1980 Jenny Hembrow became the first woman to ride in more than one National having also raced in 1979 (both times on Sandwilan)
- First to place – Katie Walsh on Seabass is the only woman to ever officially place, though most bookies now pay at least five places
- Most rides – Ruby’s sister, Ted’s daughter, Katie Walsh has competed six times in the Grand National, level with Nina Carberry (also retired)
- Most completed races – Walsh only once failed to finish (2016) so her five completed races are one better than Carberry’s four
- Most women in race – there were three female jockeys in both 1988 and 2018
- Oldest – in 1994 Rosemary Henderson guided 100/1 shot Fiddlers Pike to a fifth place finish at the age of 51 (Rosemary that is, although the horse was a highly experienced 13 years old too!)
- Outsiders – the first seven horses ridden by women in the National were priced between 66/1 and 500/1 with average odds of 166/1!
- Contenders – since 1994 the longest odds horse ridden by a woman was 50/1
- Favourite – Seabass was joint 8/1 favourite in 2012 when finishing third but returned as 11/2 favourite the following year, again with Walsh taking the ride, but could only manage 13th
- Totals – in total 18 different women have ridden in the Grand National on 32 different occasions, failing to finish 18 times
History of Women at the Grand National
As said, the first female jockey took part in the 1977 race and surprising as it may sound, prior to that women were not allowed to take part. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 meant that it was no longer legal to bar women from riding and Charlotte Brew made history just 18 months later. She guided 200/1 shot Barony Fort as far as the 26th fence before the horse refused but more women would soon follow in her footsteps.
It had long been argued that the Grand National was simply too tough for women. To modern ears that sounds strange, although it should be remembered that women were deemed too delicate to run marathons until 1967 and were not allowed to run that distance at the Olympics until 1984! Moreover, even today, women play fewer sets in some tennis tournaments, and in track and field participate in the heptathlon (seven events) rather than the 10-discipline decathlon.
Back in the 1970s the physical demands of the National and indeed the danger of it were deemed unsuitable to women. Reporting on the 1977 race, won by the legendary Red Rum, the BBC noted that “(the) race also featured the first woman rider. In spite of dire warnings from male jockeys and trainers, Charlotte Brew, 21, almost completed the course though she was a long way behind the leaders.”
The times were changing though and Brew would pave the way for the many women who have followed. Whilst some still hold similar attitudes about women jockeys, they are increasingly being given more top rides and delivering the goods when they are given the tools to do so.
Will a Female Jockey Ever Win?
It seems highly likely that a female jockey will be first past the post in Aintree’s showpiece sooner rather than later. The stats of the race alone show more women riding, the horses they are trusted with being more fancied by the market than in years gone by, and more and more female jockeys making it to the finishing line.
In addition to that, looking beyond the narrow confines of this race we see a similar picture in terms of female riders overall. Brilliant jockeys such as Lizzie Kelly and Bryony Frost are at the vanguard of a new wave of riders landing some seriously big races.
The charismatic and likeable Frost became the first woman to win a Grade 1 race at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019, and not just any Grade 1, the Ryanair Chase, unofficially the fifth feature of the meeting. Prior to that, Kelly made her own piece of history in 2017 when she became the first female jockey to win the Betway Bowl (a Grade 1 held during the National meeting) aboard Tea For Two.
Analysis such as this can never be perfect but a study at the University of Liverpool over a 14 year period claims to prove that “once the quality of the horses they are riding is factored in, the performance of female jockeys is essentially no better or worse than male jockeys.”
Kelly and Frost are sure to inspire other women jockeys and as people become more educated and accepting of the merit of female riders we are sure to see more and more being given the sort of horses that stand a real chance in the Grand National. Will a woman ever win the Grand National? It is not a matter of if… but when.
Other Female Successes at the National
A jockey is just one part of the key triumvirate that lands any Grand National, with the trainer and horse arguably both more important. A jockey hasn’t delivered glory for the girls as yet but women have already taken the honours in terms of trainers and horses.
Indeed, once again up to and including 2019, 13 mares have come home in front of the rest of the field. Charity was the first way back in 1841 but in truth these stats are perhaps a little misleading. Whilst female jockeys have gained in recent times, their equine counterparts have retreated from Grand National contention somewhat, with the last mare to win being Nickel Coin back in 1951.
Magic Of Light was actually second in 2019 but she was the only mare in the race. The Grand National is increasingly the domain of male horses, with Dubacilla the last mare to place prior to the 2019 race, way back in 1995.
When it comes to trainers things are a little brighter in terms of the modern picture, perhaps unsurprising given how few horses were trained by women in the early days of the race. Four women have trained a horse to National glory: Jenny Pitman, Venetia Williams, Sue Smith and Lucinda Russell.
Female Trainers Who Have Won the Grand National
|2017||Lucinda Russell||One For Arthur||Derek Fox|
|2013||Sue Smith||Auroras Encore||Ryan Mania|
|2009||Venetia Williams||Mon Mome||Liam Treadwell|
|1995||Jenny Pitman||Royal Athlete||Jason Titley|
|1983||Jenny Pitman||Corbiere||Ben de Haan|
Indeed, Pitman has trained two winners; Corbiere was her first in 1983, with Royal Athlete following in 1995. Williams trained 2009 winner Mon Mome, whilst Smith was the brains behind Auroras Encore’s 2013 success. 2017 winner, One For Arthur, was trained by Lucinda Russell and this was a double victory for women because the owners were Deborah Thomson and Belinda McClung.