The Grand National is probably the best know horse race in the UK and has become part of the national culture. Vast numbers enjoy a ‘little flutter’, together with the fun of sweepstakes in the office and with the family, even though they may know very little about horse racing.
On Saturday, Rachael Blackmore entered into the history books as the first female jockey to win the Grand National. Rachael modestly said, “Ah, look, it’s brilliant, but I won’t be the last.” The success of women, competing on a level playing field against men, is a hugely positive step forward.
My husband, Gordon Mousinho, is a big horse racing fan, and Rachael’s spectacular win led to some interesting conversations and lots of questions from me around why it has taken so long for women to break through (women were first permitted to ride in 1975) when their smaller size and weight should be an advantage (or so I thought!). So, he wrote a piece for us …
Saturday saw the 173rd running of the Grand National at Aintree. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll know that, for the first time, the winning jockey was female. Her name is Rachael Blackmore and the triumph capped an astonishing few weeks in which she also became the first female to be top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival (jump racing’s top race meeting) and the first female to ride the winner of the ‘big four’ races at the Festival when she rode the mare Honeysuckle to win the Champion Hurdle.
Rachael, from Killenaule, County Tipperary, is no overnight success. She is 31 years old and has been riding professionally for 7 years, having won her first race as an amateur, aged 21. The daughter of a dairy farmer and teacher, Rachael grew up around horses and started winning in pony racing. She thought of becoming a vet and completed a degree in equine science at Limerick University before the pull of the turf became too strong.
When it comes to horse racing, the female horses at least get real equality. Colts and fillies, stallions, geldings (ouch!) and mares run in races against each other. When they do, the females get a weight allowance to offset any perceived strength advantage of the males or geldings. When Honeysuckle won the Champion Hurdle she carried 11 stone 3 pounds, while her male rivals shouldered 11 stone 10 pounds. There are also female only races such as the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Oaks at Epsom, but there are NO male only races.
Why, then, is it taking so long for the breakthrough of female jockeys? After all women owners have won 13 Grand Nationals and women trainers 4. It is true that women were not permitted to ride in the race until the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. Charlotte Brew became the first woman to compete in 1977. But since then there have been only 20 different female riders and only 27 rides.
The main issue is around weight differences between male and female jockeys. Rachael weighs 9 stone 3 pounds and is 5ft 8 inches tall. In contrast, championship chasing jockey Harry Skelton is a stone heavier and an inch shorter.
So what, you may well ask?
The so what is that the minimum weight any horse carries in a jumps race is 10 stone. So if Rachael were to ride the horse, she would need to carry 11 pounds of lead – dead weight – in her saddle. Harry has the choice of riding overweight by 3 pounds or sweating in the sauna and ‘making the weight.’ Either way, all the weight on the horse’s back is ‘active’ and, all other things being equal, that is what trainers and owners prefer. It is no coincidence that, of the top ten jockeys vying for the 2021 British title, eight can ride at the minimum weight and the heaviest is 10st 4 pounds. And that’s before we get to arguments around what strength it takes to control half a ton of racehorse travelling at around 30 mph.
But what Rachael may lack in brawn, she clearly more than makes up for in brain and, that indefinable, but priceless, quality, horse sense; the combination of empathy, feel, judgement and a steely determination that has led to Ireland’s rising star trainer Henry de Bromhead engaging her as his stable jockey. She is also getting rides from other top trainers in Ireland, notably Willie Mullins and Denise Foster and trails Paul Townend by 10 wins (95-85) in the race for the Irish Jockeys’ Championship.
While Rachael is rightly being feted for her achievements, she is not the only top female rider. Two others rode in Saturday’s race, one of whom, Bryony Frost, made history of her own by becoming the first woman to ride a Grade 1 winner at the Cheltenham Festival on Frodon in 2019. And in Flat Racing, Hollie Doyle is so successful that she is currently lying second in the race for the champion jockey title. She also won the Jockey of the Year 2020 at the Lesters, the racing equivalent of the Oscars.
Yes, everyone now knows Rachael, but how many remember the name of the horse that won the National only two days ago?Gordon Mousinho
The BBC describes Rachael as ‘modest trailblazer’, a ‘quiet pioneer’, and also cites her talent, instinct, tactical awareness, strength, work ethic and high pain threshold – all characteristics synonymous with Wonder Women in all fields!