Women have been breaking down the barriers of traditional men’s sport for many years now and horse racing has already given us a number of ‘firsts’.
Back in April of 2021, Rachael Blackmore recorded what may be the most significant landmark yet when she became the first female jockey to win the Grand National.
Blackmore has written her name into the history of this gruelling race but her success in the event shouldn’t have come as a shock.
Sign Of The Times
Rachael Blackmore led her mount, Minella Times, into the winners’ enclosure as an 11/1 shot. With the favourites starting at around 7/1 for the National, that wasn’t an outrageous set of odds in a race where 100/1 winners have been known.
Only 19 female jockeys had previously competed in the Grand National with Katie Walsh’s third place in 2012 being the previous best. It was a notable feat for Blackmore, but it wasn’t the first time that she had tasted success on this very horse.
2021’s Grand National was Minella Times’ 18th race in total and Rachael Blackmore had piloted the horse in five of those outings.
Overall, the record stood at four wins, with six-second places and one third-place finish.
Blackmore’s record from her five races with Minella Times featured three wins and two-second place finishes. She had not been outside of the top two in all five outings on this horse and that’s a seriously impressive return.
Punters should certainly have taken the duo as genuine contenders ahead of the National and many who did their research will have enjoyed some significant profits.
A National Treasure
Prior to the 2021 victory, the closest a female jockey had ever gotten to that coveted trophy was in in the film National Velvet.
Elizabeth Taylor rides her horse Pie to victory in the Grand National only to be disqualified when it’s discovered that she’s a girl masquerading as Pie’s Latvian male jockey.
Fiction obviously; but fiction or not Velvet Brown was the only female to have ever won the National before Rachael Blackmore.
Ginger McCain said in 2005 ‘Horses do not win Grand Nationals ridden by women; that’s a fact” and while it may have taken longer than many would have liked, he was eventually proven wrong.
And that’s not say that many hadn’t tried. Since 1977 when Charlotte Brew road Barony Fort and became the first woman to ride in the race, female jockeys have participated in 29 Grand Nationals.
In 1982 Geraldine Rees became the first woman to complete the course and in 2011 Nina Carberry became the first female jockey to ride in the race three times, completing on each occasion with a best placing of seventh.
Prior to 2021, Katie Walsh made history by becoming the highest placed female jockey when finishing third on Seabass in 2012.
Since then, Rachael Blackmore has ridden in five Grand Nationals since making her debut on Alpha Des Obeaux in 2018.
In many ways women seem ideally suited to be jockeys. Women are generally smaller and lighter than men and this should give them a natural advantage over many male jockeys who often struggle to reach the ideal racing weights; on the flat, jockeys need to weigh around 8 stones and over jumps around 10 stones.
It isn’t all about weight though and a great deal of upper-body strength is required to push the horse over the finishing line and strong arms can make a real difference in a race where the winner is often decided by tiny margins.
And it is the winning that counts. If you include potential stud fees as well as the prize money, the difference between winning a Derby and losing can be worth tens of millions of pounds.
This could explain why some trainers and owners are not at all keen to take a chance on a female jockey, despite the success of Blackmore.
Trainer Michael Bell has been a supporter of female jockey Hayley Turner since deciding to take her on at 18 as an apprentice in 2000.
“You can’t underestimate what Hayley’s achieved,” Michael said. “There’s an inbuilt prejudice against female riders – the first lady rider only rode on the flat less than 40 years ago – so she really has been a pathfinder.”
Putting prejudice aside though another female jockey, Carrie Ford, admitted “I know it might disappoint some people, but I’m not an advocate of the view that women can compete on any horse.
“Men will always have the strength and some horses need that. Women would have trouble with big, old-fashioned, thick-set chasers; they take a lot of holding together when they get tired.
“But other horses require more finesse than strength. Some horses resent being bullied.”
Uniting The Punters
The Grand National marks one of the biggest, if not the biggest day for betting shops and online sportsbooks. Many gambling operators like 888 offer various welcome bonuses for new punters to use on major events such as the National.
Regular bettors are joined by punters who may only place one wager a year. As a result, millions of pounds are staked on this single event.
Other major races and meetings such as the Derby and Royal Ascot will also attract interest, but nothing compares to the buzz that surrounds the National.
As recently as 2013, a 66/1 winner came home in the shape of Auroras Encore and the unpredictability and potential for high returns adds to the interest in this race.
Even Noble Yeats, the 2022 winner, went of at 50/1, having been as high as 80/1 early in the betting.
Rachael Blackmore – Breaking New Ground
Rachael Blackmore’s historic feat is likely to lead to more women taking up horse racing. We’ve seen this in other sports such as cricket, while Fallon Sherrock’s success against the men has led to a higher take-up in terms of female darts players.
Those who don’t choose to take up the sport can still enjoy a higher ratio of females taking part. At big meetings, most notably Royal Ascot, the race is a major social occasion.
Many of those meetings have a Ladies Day, which offers a perfect excuse to dress up, enjoy a drink or two, and take in an afternoon at the races.
The sight of women performing well in an arena that has traditionally been dominated by men will surely boost that interest.
Success breeds success and Blackmore’s win in the toughest jump race on earth is surely just the first.
She’s recorded a major breakthrough, but what does the future hold for Rachael Blackmore? She was 32 when she won the Grand National on Minella Times and had already recorded some notable achievements by this point.
The Irish jockey has previously won nine times at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival and one of her next goals will be to take that tally into double figures.
In 2022, at the Cheltenham Festival, she secured a repeat win on Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle and then became the first female jockey to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, riding A Plus Tard to a 15-length victory.
She returned in 2023 to secure yet another win with Honeysuckle in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle and added a second Ryanair Chase to her CV with Envoi Allen.
Whatever happens, the future for Rachael Blackmore looks to be a bright one. In turn, she has made a major breakthrough for women jockeys which can only benefit the Grand National and the sport of horse racing as a whole.
In her wake, many more female riders will surely follow and begin to set their own records.