Few sports see men compete directly against women but horse racing is brilliant example of when this happens. Females go up against males, and are represented, in all areas of the sport, including the most important one: where the participants have four legs. Whilst there are lots and lots of top female jockeys in the game at present and plenty of women owners too, our focus here is the best female horse racing trainers.
Who are the best female handlers in the UK and Ireland right now? We’ll take a look at that, as well as their top achievements and also look back at some of the best female trainers of the past too. Note that we are looking at trainers who are from the UK or Ireland, or based there, and also that this list is in no particular order.
Following her victory in the Irish 1,000 Guineas with Alpha Centauri in 2018, Jessica Harrington moved up to third on the list of the world’s best female trainers. That success was her first Classic winner, Harrington being a dual-purpose handler who has enjoyed more success in the National Hunt realm.
Harrington was born in London in 1947 but grew up in Ireland, her father being from Kells in County Meath, famous for the Book of Kells. She took part in three day eventing and was a rider of international standard. She moved into training in 1989 and by the mid-1990s was beginning to train the winners in some really significant races.
In 1996, Dance Beat brought a first National Hunt Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival, landing the Champion Novice Hurdle. Shortly after this, she began a long association with probably her most famous horse, the legendary Moscow Flyer. Rated at 180 at his peak, Moscow Flyer and Harrington landed victories in a slew of top class jumps races, just some of which are shown in the table below:
|Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle||2000|
|Punchestown Champion Hurdle||2001|
|Arkle Trophy Chase||2002|
|Queen Mother Champion Chase||2003|
|Tingle Creek Chase||2003|
|Punchestown Champion Chase||2004|
|Tingle Creek Chase||2004|
|Queen Mother Champion Chase||2005|
Harrington has won a number of other huge races from her County Kildare base at Moone, including several more Grade 1 contests with Jezki. She added the biggest race of them all in 2017 when Sizing John came home in front in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Exactly a month later, Our Duke delivered the Irish Grand National and this helped her to be crowned Sportswoman of the Year in Ireland that year.
She is yet to land the Grand National at Aintree but saddled second place Magic of Light in 2019 and may yet fulfil her goal of taking landing that huge showpiece. Can she also add an English flat Classic before she calls it a day? She’s been going from strength to strength with her flat horses recently so we certainly wouldn’t bet against it!
Born in 1946, Jenny Pitman is a contemporary of Harrington, although she got into the training game earlier than the Irish handler. Indeed, just as Harrington was getting going, Pitman retired. In 1998, she decided her training days were behind her, although she remains involved in the sport. She is now a novelist but must surely have been a huge inspiration to the many great female trainers who have come since.
Pitman can boast not one but two Grand Nationals to her name, landing the iconic Aintree steeplechase with Corbiere in 1983 and again with Royal Athlete in 1995. Her success with Corbiere was the first time a woman had trained the winner of Aintree’s most famous race. She went close to a National hat-trick in 1993 but despite her horse, Esha Ness, being first past the post, the race was frustratingly voided. She was also responsible for the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1984 (Burrough Hill Lad) and 1991 (Garrison Savannah).
That second Gold Cup success was all the sweeter for the fact that her son Mark was in the saddle that day. Born and raised in Leicestershire, Jenny worked as a stable girl in her youth before marrying a jockey at the age of 19. In 1975, she obtained her license to train and landed a winner that year before moving to training hub Lambourn in 1977. Awarded an OBE for her work in racing she was also honoured in 1999 to become the innaugural winner of the Helen Rollason Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
Another hugely influential figure in National Hunt training who was born around the same time is Henrietta Knight. It would be unfair to say that Knight is known only for her role with Best Mate but it is certainly with that brilliant horse that she enjoyed the most success.
With Jim Culloty in the saddle, Knight and Best Mate won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004. That makes her the most successful woman trainer in the history of the most prestigious National Hunt race in the world. Indeed, her hat-trick puts her ahead of training legends such Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins, for now at least.
Best Mate gave Knight more glory in the King George VI (2002), as did Edredon Bleu the following year. The latter horse also won four Peterborough Chases, the Champion Chase and the Grand Annual Chase, whilst Knight also saddled Karshi to Stayers’ Hurdle success in 1997.
She retired in 2012 having been based in Oxfordshire. A graduate of Oxford University, the triple-Gold Cup winner was a successful eventer before being involved with the British Olympic Horse Trials Selection Committee. She will always be remembered for her incredible association with Best Mate but Edredon Bleu and more recently Somersby have also delivered some magical moments, as well.
Younger than the greats listed above, Venetia Williams is another trainer whose biggest successes have come in the jumps game. Born in 1960, Williams was an amateur rider until a serious injury meant she had to give it up in 1988. She worked with the legendary trainer Martin Pipe before obtaining her own license in 1995.
She didn’t have to wait to long for some major successes when grey Teeton Mill landed the Hennessy Gold Cup in 1998. That horse added the King George VI Chase the same year and whilst Williams would taste a great deal more success, she had a rather long wait before she would scale such heights again.
It may well have been worth the wait though as 2009 was a truly astonishing year. She had two winners at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, including a one-two in the Freddie Williams Festival Plate (now the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate). Around a month later came perhaps her best day in racing when she joined Pitman as a winner of the Grand National.
Mon Mome won by an astonishing 12 lengths in the 2009 Grand National. Even more astonishing was the triple-digit price the French-bred animal returned, improving on a respectable 10th place finish 12 months prior. We suspect his trainer may have had a quid or two on but her percentage would have covered plenty of champagne in any case as connections split a very tidy sum of £506,970!
Emma Lavelle is a little younger than some of the trainers we have looked at and her best days may yet be ahead of her. That said, she has been in the industry for almost 20 years now, mainly working with National Hunt horses though with some flat runners as well. Based at the Bonita stables in Wilshire since 2016, Lavelle has the benefit of using gallops Lester Piggott said were the best he had ever trained on.
Lavelle works for the British Racing Club, a form of shared ownership that is an affordable route into racing. Whilst she has enjoyed some success with horses owned through that scheme, undoubtedly her best days of the track have come with Paisley Park.
Owned by Andrew Gemmell, this brilliant hurdler has won almost £500,000 in prize money. Much of that came in March 2019 when the Irish horse landed the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. That win was part of a sequence of seven in a row that also included big races such as the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot and the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.
The nicely named De Rasher Counter has also been a fine horse for Lavelle, landing three chase wins including the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury. For a trainer with a relatively small number of horses Lavelle has done well and since moving to her own stables at Bonita she has really delivered.
Lucinda Russell may not be quite so much a household name in the way that some of the other trainers we have featured might be but, like Lavelle, she can boast winners at both the big National Hunt festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree. Indeed, she scooped the biggest of the lot in 2017 with One For Arthur winning the Grand National at odds of 14/1.
Awarded an OBE in 2018, Russell has more than 700 winners to her name and her yard, north of Edinburgh near Kinross, is probably the most successful in Scottish National Hunt racing. Born in 1966 she is the partner of legendary jockey Peter Scudamore and together they have built a highly respected operation with a substantial number of horses in their hands.
Another woman to have trained the winner in the biggest steeplechase in the world is Sue Smith. Smith was born in 1948 and became a fully licensed trainer in 1990, landing a winner in her first year. Born in West Sussex, she is now based near Bingley, West Yorkshire and was an international show jumper before she began her training career.
She holds the distinction of having taken place in the first ever UK ladies’ race, at Kempton in 1972, racing under her maiden name of Susan Dye. As a trainer she has enjoyed many successes, including at the Cheltenham Festival, and has enjoyed a magnificent 2002/3 campaign when she had a strike rate in excess of 20% and saddled 74 winners.
There is no doubt though that her finest moment in the sport came in 2013 when her Irish bay Auroras Encore landed the Grand National at huge odds of 66/1. First bought for just €7,000, the horse was at one stage owned by Smith’s husband Harvey but it was owner Alicia Skene who took most of the £547,268 National prize money. In her 70s now, the Yorkshire-based trainer remains active but it seems unlikely she’ll ever enjoy a day as exciting or rewarding as when Auroras Encore made her the third woman to train a Grand National winner.
At the other end of the career spectrum is Rebecca Curtis, a Welsh trainer who saddled her first winner in 2008 and has really gone from strength to strength over the past few years. She has been around horses all her life and like many of the women to feature on our list of top trainers she was a showjumper before getting into training, representing Wales.
Based in Pembrokeshire now, she is a National Hunt trainer and boasts four Cheltenham Festival winners to her name: Teaforthree, At Fishers Cross, O’Faolain’s Boy and Irish Cavalier. Her biggest win was probably the 2018 Grand National when Joe Farrell was first past the post, meaning she emulated Jenny Pitman who had won the race in 1995.
Curtis has trained well over 300 career winners at the time of writing, including five at Grade 1 or A level, and we certainly expect her to add plenty more to that tally in the years to come.
Eve Johnson Houghton
There aren’t too many flat trainers on our list but Eve Johnson Houghton is very much worthy of her place. A former jockey, she won the ladies’ Diamond Race at Ascot twice but took over the Woodway stables from her father at the end of the 2006 season. Fulke Johnson Houghton trained well over 1,000 winners at the Oxfordshire stables, winning the Irish Derby and the (UK) St Leger in 1967 with Ribocco and the same two races the following year with Ribero. It seems Eve is well set to carry on the family success.
For now perhaps her biggest win remains the 2018 Queen Anne Stakes, with Accidental Agent, owned by her mother Gaie, doing the business in 2018. She has helped deliver over 20 wins during every flat season for the past decade and certainly has some decent horses under her control at the moment.
At the time of writing Gin Palace has delivered a level stakes profit of £28.50 with five wins from 14 and she has some excellent two year olds too. Could a Classic win be on the cards? It is something we think she will certainly be aiming for before her career is over and may happen sooner rather than later.
Criquette Head-Maarek is a retired French trainer but we have included her on this list as when it comes to flat racing she is by far and away the most successful female trainer in terms of English Classics. Born in 1948 she comes from something of a racing dynasty and that was never better illustrated than in the 1979 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Head-Maarek only gained her training license the previous year but enjoyed rapid success becoming the first woman ever to land France’s most prestigious race. It was a day for the family to remember as Three Troikas was ridden by her brother Freddy and owned by her mother Ghislaine. Safe to say the family opened a bottle of champagne that night.
Criquette enjoyed further success in the famous Longchamp contest in 2013 and 2014 with the brilliant Treve but we should return to England. Women have landed jump racing’s biggest prizes many times but few have done the same on the flat. France’s finest can boast a whopping four Classic wins, taking the 1,000 Guineas in 1983, 1988, 1982 and 2010.
Pam Sly (2006) is the only other female trainer to have landed that contest, whilst the only other woman to win any of the big five was Laura Mongan. She trained Harbour Law to glory in the 2016 St Leger so it shows just how ground-breaking and remarkable Head-Maarek’s wins were.
In addition, she also won a number of key Group 1 contests on this side of the Channel, something that very few other women have managed. She retired in 2018 but not before landing the following massive UK contests:
- Champion Stakes, Group 1, 1993
- Cheveley Park Stakes, Group 1, 1982, 1987, 1996, 2009
- Coronation Stakes, Group 1, 1993
- Falmouth Stakes, Group 1, 1996
- July Cup, Group 1, 1996
- Racing Post Trophy (now Vertem Futurity Trophy), Group 1, 2003
- Sprint Cup, Group 1, 2008
Given the relatively poor showing of women in terms of flat racing, Head-Maarek is by far and away the most successful woman in terms of racing success enjoyed on these shores. A true great, she is right up there with the very best globally too.