Grand National: How the female jockeys in this year's race could make history
When the 40 runners and riders gather at the starting line at Aintree on Saturday, it will be a Grand National like no other seen in the past 30 years. For the first time since 1988, three female jockeys will be in their number. And for the first time ever, all three will be on good horses.
The excitement is mounting well beyond the race course: could either Katie Walsh, Rachael Blackmore or Bryony Frost become the first female jockey to take home the £561,300 prize for first place? It is, without doubt, the best chance there has been of this outcome since Charlotte Brew became the first female rider to take part in the National in 1977 - and betting activity around Walsh, in particular, has been intense. Ladbrokes has reported a “rush of money” on her becoming the first ever female jockey to triumph in the world’s best known steeplechase.
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Walsh, 33, is the woman who has come closest to winning, taking third place on Seabass in 2012. But to 28-year-old Blackmore, at least, the significance of being a female rider is not foremost in her mind.
“Being female or male doesn’t really enter into it,” she tells me. “I would just like to win the race. I’m really looking forward to it and delighted to get the opportunity.”
Nevertheless, if the National is won by a female jockey, the impact will be enormous.
“The house will come down if one of them wins. I don’t think there’ll be a dry eye on the racecourse,” predicts Naomi Lawson of Great British Racing, the official marketing and promotional body.
Having three women competing this year is, she argues, is “brilliant for the sport”, which is one of the few where men and women can compete on an equal platform. “There have always been talented female riders and it’s great there are three in this year’s Grand National because there’s no doubt this is the biggest race in the world. It’s a great window on to the sport,” she says. “These three are brilliant role models. They’re talented and successful.”
Indeed, Walsh, from Kildare in Ireland, whose mount Baie Des Iles is trained by her husband, Ross O’Sullivan, won the Kerry National in 2014 and the Irish Grand National in 2015. But then, racing is in her blood: Walsh is the youngest daughter of the well-known former champion amateur and trainer Ted Walsh, while her elder brother Ruby has won the Grand National twice.
Blackmore, from County Tipperary, who will ride Alpha Des Obeaux this Saturday, won 35 races last season as one of only three female professional jockeys in Ireland. Meanwhile Frost, 22, who will ride Milansbar, only turned professional last July but clinched her first win at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Yet, the three jockeys remain part of a minority in their sport. More than four decades after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1977, analysis of a 14 year racing period - incorporating more than a million individual rides - has found that just 5.2 per cent were taken by women. In Class 1 races - including the National - just 1.1 per cent of rides went to female jockeys. While only 11.3 per cent of professional jockey licences are held by women.
They are, however - and unsurprisingly - just as good. A study, carried out by Vanessa Cashmore, a work-based learning manager at the Northern Racing College, compared the performance of female jockeys with their male counterparts in Britain, and found that although female jockeys have far fewer race-riding opportunities, their performance is equal to that of the men.
So why are we not seeing more female big winners? Cashmore suggests residual attitudes based on history and tradition may continue to exert some influence over the hiring decisions of owners and trainers when selecting jockeys.
“Although professional horse racing dates back to the early 18th century, women were not able to apply for a jockey licence until the 1970s,” she says. “Initially female jockeys were confined to a limited series of ‘ladies’ races and were only permitted to ride as amateurs, but by the late 1970s the Jockey Club [horse racing’s governing body at the time] conceded to gender equality legislation and allowed women to pursue careers as professional jockeys.”
But, she explains, the lack of parity may be thanks to a vicious cycle. “Since we know from the study that females are given rides on horses with a lower chance of winning, their observed performance figures will be lower than that of their male counterparts. Public perception of female performance may therefore be adversely affected, as ‘strike rates’ will not be fully representative of those expected under conditions of equality.
“Habitually riding the ‘long shots’ may reinforce the opinion that female jockeys are less effective than male riders who ride the horses with a greater chance of winning. Consequently, women may receive fewer rides on the best horses within a race and will therefore be unable to demonstrate their ability to be competitive. And so the cycle continues,” she says.
When Walsh, Blackmore and Frost compete this Saturday, it is hoped by many fans and punters that this feedback loop might finally be broken. Ladbrokes is offering odds of 10/1 on a female National winner this year, with the odds on first place for Walsh’s mount slashed from 33/1 to 16/1 this week. At the time of writing, the bookmaker had Frost at 33/1 to win, while Blackmore was a 40/1 shot for first place.
Nicola McGeady of Ladbrokes says that women across the country will be betting on the female jockeys. “Katie Walsh and Baie Des Iles are the ultimate girl power pairing,” she says. “Walsh came so close to winning the Grand National back in 2012, but this year there is a real belief that she can go all the way and make history.”
There is, of course, an element of luck in the National, which any rider would be quick to acknowledge. But as the most high profile event in the sport, the symbolism of a female victory cannot be underestimated and would arguably help speed up a process that has already begun.
“Recent high profile wins among female jockeys demonstrate real progress and will undoubtedly help drive the growing enthusiasm for supporting female riders,” says Cashmore. “This progress on the track, combined with research evidence, has the potential to drive positive changes to perception around the performance of female riders. While it would be unrealistic to expect it overnight, I am optimistic about seeing greater opportunities for women in the near future.
“Once the opportunities are available, female jockeys will be able to showcase their talent and prove themselves. Nick Rust, head of the British Horseracing Authority, has been quoted as predicting a female champion jockey within the next five years and I don’t think that this is unrealistic.”
Blackmore, meanwhile, appears to be keeping a level head. “I’ll try to approach it like I would any other race,” she told the Telegraph earlier this week. “I’ll speak to those who have done it before and I’ll walk the course. I’m not superstitious, so I won’t be worrying about whether I’m wearing my lucky socks. You have to trust to your instincts.”