A first female Grand National-winning jockey looks more likely than ever this year, as three women are set to take their chance at making history.
Leading the charge is Cheltenham Festival heroine Rachael Blackmore, who was top rider at the season’s pinnacle meeting when winning six races – including the Champion Hurdle.
Blackmore now turns her attention to Aintree and will partner Minella Times in the big race, with the eight-year-old trained by her most loyal supporter and the man behind many of her Festival wins, Henry de Bromhead.
Minella Times has been ridden by Blackmore on his last three starts, with a win in a Listowel handicap chase followed by two runner-up spots in competitive large-field contests at Leopardstown.
Having inevitably attracted plenty of market support, the JP McManus-owned gelding will provide Blackmore with her third ride in the world’s greatest steeplechase after two previous efforts in 2018 and 2019.
“I’m really looking forward to riding him – he’s had two very nice runs in handicaps at home,” she said.
“He seems very well, (and) his jumping technique is good.
“It’s a Grand National, and anything can happen, but I wouldn’t swap him anyway.”
Minella Times has never run at Aintree and will be tackling the unique course for the first time on Saturday. But De Bromhead has created some National-style fences and home, and Blackmore reports the horse fared well when introduced to them.
“Henry put up some Aintree-looking fences, a bit of spruce – he seemed to take to them well,” she said.
“His jumping technique has been good, so I’m really looking forward to riding something like him.
“He jumps and he travels. There’s plenty of unknowns over this distance, but we couldn’t be happier with him.
“We’re just hoping for a nice run round.”
Blackmore’s first National ride ended in a fall when she parted ways with Alpha Des Obeaux, but her 2019 tilt was more successful – steering Valseur Lido home in 10th place.
“I got around last time on Valseur Lido – I got a kick out of that,” she said.
“He was a fantastic ride. It would be great now if we could get a bit closer this year.
“I hope if people are backing me I can make sure they don’t go broke!”
Blackmore’s earliest memories of racing involve watching the race as a child, and the 31-year-old has dreamed of success since then.
“I think every kid on a pony does (dream of winning),” she said.
“The Grand National captures everybody’s imagination.
“Any kid on a pony, out jumping anything that resembles a hedge, you’re thinking about the Grand National.”
Bryony Frost also rode in the National for the first time in 2018, finishing fifth on Milansbar for trainer Neil King in the same race that saw Tiger Roll claim the first of his two successive victories.
An injury ruled her out of participating in 2019, but Frost will be in action this time as she takes the ride on the Paul Nicholls-trained Yala Enki.
The duo have become well acquainted since the gelding left the yard of Venetia Williams before the start of the 2019 season, winning two renewals of the Portman Cup at Taunton and coming third in the Welsh Grand National twice.
A tilt at the Becher Chase in December did not go as planned, with the 11-year-old falling at the first fence over the condensed National course.
The jockey has schooled her mount over similar obstacles since that spill, however, and remains open-minded as to which ground conditions would be most suitable.
“It was not ideal falling at the first in the Becher, but we have done a lot of practice at home and we’ve let him see replica Grand National fences since that day,” she said.
“His form has come on soft, because he stays very well, but I actually think he jumps better off the better ground.
“There are two negatives and two positives to take from both sides of better and softer ground.
“I’ve just got to get him out there galloping, and at the end of the day a race like that is all about luck.”
Representing a stable a fraction of the size of Nicholls’ will be Tabitha Worsley, who takes the ride on the veteran Sub Lieutenant.
Owned and trained by her mother, Georgie Howell, Worsley’s mount was purchased for her to ride and is rated nearly 50lb higher than any of the five other horses in the yard.
“It’s a real family affair – my brother and sister-in-law will be leading him up together, and I ride him most days,” Worsley said of the set-up.
“We are a proper little family team, and just to have that support – all of us going there together – it’s amazing.
“I generally stay quite relaxed. It’ll be more excitement than anything else, but my mum on the other hand…
“She’s terrified but very excited as well. I don’t think we’ll fully believe it until we get there.”
Worsley triumphed in the 2019 Foxhunters’ Chase aboard Top Wood, an amateurs’ race run over a lap of the same course as the National, and is hopeful that Sub Lieutenant can recreate that winning ride.
“Anyone would dream of winning the National,” she said.
“It’s an amazing race, and I daren’t even think about winning it.
“Just to be there in the 40 horses, with the real top guns and the best of the best, it’s amazing – it’s what we’ve dreamed of.”
Sub Lieutenant was previously trained by De Bromhead and has form over the Aintree fences, having finished second in the Topham Chase at the 2019 meeting.
Blackmore was in the saddle that day, and both she and De Bromhead provided Worsley with some words of encouragement when they crossed paths at Cheltenham.
“I was riding out for Henry all of Cheltenham week this year, so I found out a bit more about him,” she said.
“He said he is such a fun horse to have about and he is a lovely horse.
“He said he can see him running a really nice race – so let’s hope he isn’t wrong.
“I asked Rachael about him when I was riding out for Henry, and she said if you think he jumps a normal fence well, then wait until you get him over one of those Aintree fences.
“She said he won’t travel between the fences, but as soon as he is in those wings he just lights up, so that filled me with a lot of excitement as well.”
All three women riding this year will be aiming to better the 2012 performance of Katie Walsh, who partnered Seabass to the highest-ever placing achieved by a female jockey when finishing third.
Walsh was thrilled to see Blackmore thrive at this year’s Festival, and would happily surrender her position as the race’s most successful female jockey.
“That wouldn’t even cross my mind to be honest with you,” she said, at the suggestion she might want to retain her record.
“I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’s finished the best place in the National – and personally I’d love to see Rachael win it.
“Rachael was phenomenal at Cheltenham, and it was great TV.
“She was brilliant – take male or female out of it – she was absolutely super, and I suppose the picture has changed really quickly.”
There was widespread resistance when Charlotte Brew became the first woman to ride in the National in 1977, but the consistent presence of Walsh and Nina Carberry has made female jockeys a celebrated part of the race in recent years.
Now Walsh believes there is no doubt that a woman will lift the National trophy, with the only question being when.
“I was on Seabass in 2012, and people didn’t really believe it could happen, but now it feels as though it’s a matter of when (a female jockey will ride the Grand National winner),” she said.
“It’s a great day for whoever wins it, and it’s a great race to be involved in, so may the best man win – male or female.”