Rachael Blackmore made headlines across the world when she became the first woman to win the Grand National last year, but her path to success in the race was trodden by the female jockeys who broke new ground before her.
The first woman to ride in the world’s greatest steeplechase was Charlotte Brew in 1977, who was aided by the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act as she made history aboard Barony Fort despite the horse refusing to jump further than the 27th fence.
In the following years a handful of women followed the trail blazed by Brew, but after Rosemary Henderson’s brilliant fifth-placed run aboard Fiddlers Pike in 1994, there was a spell of nearly a decade when not a single runner in the 40-strong National field was ridden by a woman.
Then came Carrie Ford, an amateur who rode Forest Gunner to a remarkable Aintree victory in the 2004 Foxhunters’ over the big fences for trainer and then-husband Richard Ford, with the couple having welcomed their daughter just 10 weeks prior.
Ford had emerged from retirement to take the ride on the chestnut in the amateurs’ race and immediately hung up her boots afterwards, with Peter Buchanan taking the winning ride on the same horse in the Grand National Trial at Haydock the following year.
That victory convinced connections to go for the National itself in 2005, but as both Buchanan and Richie McGrath, another go-to jockey for the stable, had pledged themselves to ride elsewhere, Ford surfaced from retirement again to partner Forest Gunner in the most famous race in the world.
The British Horseracing Board, as it was then, stipulated that Ford would have to take a handful of rides in the lead up to the race to prove her fitness, and it was during those races that she started to get a taste of the unique camaraderie that is shared between those brave enough to take on the the Grand National.
“In those few rides I had before, I rode at Towcester against some Midlands jockeys who I wouldn’t normally have ridden against before and they were all wishing me luck even then, a week beforehand,” she said.
“The approach on the morning of the race at Aintree is quite different, there’s lots of hand shaking and ‘good luck’. That seems to be unique to Aintree or to the National.
“We all had to squeeze into the old weighing room for the pep talk, I had been on my own around the corner in the ladies’ changing room, and I’ll never forget I walked past Ruby Walsh and he winked at me and wished me good luck.
“The next thing I felt was this tug at my sleeve, I looked across, you could smoke inside in those days, and Paul Carberry was lying on the bench having a fag, he hadn’t even got his helmet on.
“He wished me good luck as well and when we jumped off, I ended up tracking Paul and we jumped the big ditch, which is the third, and he turned round and shouted to me ‘are you still with me Carrie?’ which was really nice.”
Forest Gunner was in the leading group throughout the race and Ford felt the bubbling atmosphere of Aintree on National day heartened the gelding as he travelled in the slipstream of the leaders.
“He just loved his job and he was quite an intelligent horse and I think he could just sense all these people there and all this noise, it was as good as being able to tell him in words that it really mattered,” she said.
“The first circuit I was just hunting round and not really thinking about it as a race.
“I reflected back to the plans we had and then the second time around, jumping Becher’s, Brian Harding, who finished third on Simply Gifted, was on my outside. He said ‘are you all right Carrie? Tack across with me now’, so we both pulled out a little bit before Foinavon to get the line for the Canal Turn.
“When I jumped the Canal Turn for the second time you can hear what is just a hum at first, but as I got closer I could start to hear the crowd. It just gets louder and louder as you get closer, the whole thing is unique and such a privilege to be a part of.”
Forest Gunner finished fifth as Hedgehunter galloped on under Walsh to provide Willie Mullins and the late Trevor Hemmings with their first Grand National success.
After a hiatus for female jockeys in the race, Ford’s performance seemed to usher in a new generation of women riders as Nina Carberry rode the same horse into ninth place the following year and became an Aintree regular alongside Katie Walsh.
The latter was beaten just five lengths when third aboard Seabass in 2012, a placing that was bettered only by Blackmore’s breakthrough victory on Minella Times last year.
“Katie upped what I did and came third on Seabass a few years later and Nina had a few great runs,” said Ford.
“I think we’re making great strides forward and Rachael created history last year. She seems to create history wherever she goes, I’ve never met her but I’d love to sit down and talk to her.”
Blackmore’s success in the National and beyond, along with the high-profile victories enjoyed by Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly, have broadened horizons for female riders – something Ford feels the sport should capitalise on.
“In the future, when Rachael or Bryony wins a big race it’s not going to get the publicity it gets now, when in reality it probably still should, but we’re in a pioneering era where we can really maximise it and make the most of it.
“I just hope people can see that it is accessible, that it’s there for women and they can see that it’s achievable.”
Though now retired from the saddle, Ford is still very much involved in the sport through her role with Racing To School, a charity that encourages engagement in racing by hosting educational days on racecourses for schoolchildren.
“Basically we’re introducing young people to racing, which is second to football as the biggest sport in the country, but most of the children who come to take part in events haven’t been to a racecourse before,” she explained.
“We’re introducing the sport to them and you hope that they can pick it up as a hobby with their families.
“A lot of pupils and teachers come to our events with a view that racing is quite an elitist sport, a bit tweedy and a bit expensive.
“I point out to everyone that I can that’s it’s cheaper to go racing than it is to go to the football, in a big way, so we blow that theory out of the water.”
Racing To School removes a boundary between the youth and the sport of horseracing and thanks to the efforts of every woman mentioned above, there is no shortage of female role models for the young people it aims to inspire.