Six women who paved the way for Rachael Blackmore

Rachael Blackmore
Blackmore became the first woman to win the Grand National when she rode to victory in 2021 - PA/Adam Davy

Rachael Blackmore, who won the Grand National aboard Minella Times in 2021, is back for more this year. Blackmore will be riding Minella Indo in Saturday’s showpiece. Although female jockeys are still vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts, several women have ridden notably in past Nationals.

Geraldone Rees (on Cheers, 1982)

Five years after Charlotte Brew became the first female to ride in the race, Rees became the first to complete the course finishing eighth and last on Cheers behind Grittar.

She had been due to ride Gordon’s Lad but that fell through and she had been underbidder on Cheers at a sale but his new owners said they did not have a jockey. “It was on,off, on, off but eventually I was thrilled to have the ride,” she recalls.

“I watched the video back recently and was surprised how close up we were on the first circuit. I knew he didn’t have a snowball chance in hell of featuring in the finish so took an outside route and played it safe to get round.

“He was a schoolmaster, a great jumper, and there were two distinct groups of us setting out on the second circuit, seven or eight leading, then a similar number of us a bit detached. At Becher’s second time two loose horses refused and took out half a dozen of my group. I jumped round one other until he started to draw away from the Melling Road.

“It was quite a big thing in the media, women had been trying for a few years to get round and it set a benchmark. I sell horseboxes now and someone in the office said ‘you’ve got to put this, that you were the first to get round the National, on the website.’ We spent Wednesday doing that!”

Tarnya Sherwood (on Numerate, 1989)

As Tarnya Davies she rode her father’s Numerate, bought from her future husband Oliver, in the 1989 National.

“Dad bought him a fortnight before the race because he was a fantastic jumper for me to realise a dream,” she recalls. “He pulled up just before the 21st (Becher’s second time). On good ground I think he’d have jumped round but he struggled in the mud. It was the most amazing thrill. Totally unique. I remember walking round at the start next to Peter Scudamore who was always helpful with advice. I told him I felt sick and he said he felt the same. The fact that the multiple champion jockey felt the same way put me at ease.

“The other thing I recollect very well was that Numerate’s silks were bad for seeing and, after a circuit where you go past the stable staff, I heard someone saying ‘He’s still there!” At least I jumped every fence at least once.

“There was always a bit of mutual teasing going on with Ginger McCain. He had an opinion about female jockeys and I always told him one would win it one day. When I was staying near his yard in Cheshire I’d go down to his grave. In the National after he died Seabass had a real chance of winning it for Katie Walsh so we picked it for him in the sweepstake and said to him ‘Guess what you’ve got in the National?’ and put its name under a stone by his grave.

“All I wanted to do since I was a five year old was to be a jockey and ride in the National. It was all down to Elizabeth Taylor and that film. When Many Clouds won it (trained by her husband) it was phenomenal. An extra-ordinary experience. I may not have ridden a winner but at least I was involved with one.”

Penny Ffitch-Heyes (on Hettinger, 1988)

These days she is a Chicago-based jockeys’ agent in the US where she has lived since 1993. Among the jockeys she has looked after in the past are Hall of Fame riders, Randy Romero, Jacinto Vasquez and Kent Desormaux.

“There were three of us in the ladies changing room that year, Gee Armytage, Venetia Williams and me. Hettinger was a Pumpton specialist who’d landed a huge gamble on his first start in Britain having come over from Ireland. I’m not sure Irish point-to-point form was a readily available in those days and he was backed from 50-1 to 5-2.

“In the National the atmosphere was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe the size of the fences when I walked the course with Bob Champion. But they were inviting and horses slowed down to jump them when they got there.

“He was actually number 41 but got in as a reserve. He just forgot to put his landing gear out at the first which he did every now and again. I’ve never been as fast to a fence in my life, it was balls to the wall. I was mad that it lasted such a short time. I dislocated my collarbone but female jockeys had been getting a bad rap - Jayne Thompson had recently been killed and a couple of others had just been paralysed - so I didn’t say anything about it. I’m so glad we’ve had a female winner though.”

Gee Bradburne, nee Armytage (on Gee-A, 1988)

On the back of two winners at the Cheltenham Festival in 1987, Gee Armytage was the darling of the National Hunt world. When Mark Dwyer got injured she came in for the National ride on one of those Cheltenham winners, The Ellier. It was, she says, the one that got away. She broke her knee in the Topham on a horse she should not have ridden two days before and The Ellier finished fifth to Maori Venture.

Gee A turned up the next year but the ground was soft and she pulled him up. “The changing room was detached from the weighing room so to get to your valet or the scales you had to make your way through the crowd,” she recalls. “There was a little old lady, doing her knitting, looking after a few curly sandwiches, totally uninterested in the racing in charge of the changing room and women (mostly working on TV) used to come in to use the loo but you felt totally isolated in there.

”Three of rode in it that year and it seemed like we were doing fashion shoot for the peper every day in the lead up. It was almost too much and distracting from the job.”

For 15 years she was PA to AP McCoy, she married another jockey Mark Bradburne and their daughter Katie is in the British pony showjumping team.

Carrie Ford (on Forest Gunner, 2005)

A small but athletic horse trained by her husband, Richard, she came out of retirement 10 weeks after giving birth to daughter Hannah to ride and win the 2004 Foxhunters.

“I’d hung up my boots to have Hannah but the amateur in the yard had had a spectacular fall out with Richard and left so we had no one to ride him,” she recalls. “It was a bit of a calculated risk because I wasn’t that fit and if he’d been a behind the bridle horse I wouldn’t have done it but he was a front-runner who didn’t need pushing.

“I announced I’d be going back into retirement adding tongue in cheek ‘unless he ran in the National.’ There was no way he’d get in it but Peter Buchanana won the Grand Sefton on him and then the Haydock National trial and the owners were supportive of me riding. I’d been riding out for over a year so was fit again. Ginger McCain said at the weights lunch that ‘Carrie’s a grand lass but she’s brood mare now and brood mares don’t win Nationals.”

“It was always tongue in cheek with him. I wasn’t mortally offended, far from it, but when I was asked about it, I said ‘until Red Rum came along a taxi driver hadn’t won the National either!” You had to give as good as you got with Ginger. I wasn’t a racing feminist but it made me more determined.

“It was a competitive year. There were eight to 10 of us in with a chance crossing the Melling Road. It was anyone’s race but jumping the second last it was like the ignition was switched off. He didn’t stay. I was happy. I couldn’t have finished any closer, there was no hard luck story and we both gave our all.”

These days she is northern education officer for Racing To School and helps out with pony racing - bringing on the next generation of jockeys and racegoers.

Katie Walsh (on Seabass, 2012)

Walsh, the amateur riding sister of Ruby, was the first female jockey to ride a favourite and finish in the first four when, on her first of six rides in the race, Seabass finished third just five lengths behind Neptune Collonges in 2012.

“He’d had a great lead up and there was huge momentum behind him,” she recalls. “Crossing the Melling Road I thought I was going to win but from the back of the second last I felt I wasn’t full of horse. He didn’t jump the last great but I was treading water by then.“I don’t watch it back too often. I had a great plan but I got a bit sucked in, I was too handy from Becher’s second time. I’d seen enough Nationals and didn’t think that would happen to me. If I could ride it again I’d have held onto him a bit longer, I was winging along from fence to fence when I should have been going ‘woe, woe.’

“At the time I got a great kick out of it. Whenever you get beat you look to see what you could have done better. Sometime when you finished third and should have finished fifth you think you couldn’t improve on it but I’d have liked another shot at it. Of the half dozen rides I had in though it was the best spin I had by far.”

Now married to trainer Ross O’Sullivan and mother of two children, she will be selling two breeze-up yearlings in Newmarket next week.