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The Velvet revolution

Friday 16 April 2021

Rachael Blackmore’s triumph in the Grand National was also a victory for generations of female jockeys – many of them little-known – who struggled against the patriarchal racing establishment for the most basic rights on the racecourse

Rachael Blackmore’s triumph in the Grand National was also a victory for generations of female jockeys – many of them little-known – who struggled against the patriarchal racing establishment for the most basic rights on the racecourse

When the Irish jockey Rachael Blackmore crossed the line on Minella Times to win last week’s Grand National, it was a moment that I and at least three generations of women had only known in fiction. A dream inspired by a young Elizabeth Taylor had, at last, come true. 

The 1944 film National Velvet told the story of teenager Velvet Brown cutting off her long brown hair to look like a boy so she could ride in the world’s most famous horse race. Taylor, then aged 12, played the role of the first girl to win the Grand National, held annually at Liverpool’s Aintree Racecourse, only to be disqualified when it was discovered she was a woman.

Jump racing has always been the less glamorous (and less lucrative) of horse racing’s codes, as well as being physically tougher than its upmarket sibling: flat racing. The perception that women lacked the “stickability” on the back of a horse in a jump race, that we were too weak both physically and mentally to cope with the rigours of the sport – these were among the reasons given to me as a teenager as to why I and other women could not, or should not, be given licences to ride competitively in the sport. 

Women had been actively chasing the Grand National dream for twenty years by the time I joined that chase in the late 1990s. The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 forced racing’s regulator, the Jockey Club, to allow women to ride in the race. Trailblazers included Charlotte Brew, the first woman to ride in the National in 1977, and Lorna Vincent, the first professional female jockey to ride a winner over jumps in 1978.

Yet, ten years later, women were still a long way from being accepted in the sport, let alone welcomed. In 1987, when another pathfinder for professional female jockeys, Gee Armytage, rode at the Cheltenham Festival, she was pelted with plastic bottles and jeered at by spectators, who shouted that she was “unfit to be on a racecourse”. Armytage went on to ride two winners (one at the unlikely odds of 33-1), narrowly missing out on being crowned leading rider at Cheltenham. This was the closest any woman got to that title until Rachael Blackmore became the first woman to take it, three weeks before making history at Liverpool. 

Blackmore has repeatedly played down the fact that there is anything special about her sex, despite being just the second woman to hold a professional licence in Irish jump racing history. “It doesn’t matter what you are. We’re jockeys, we win races,” she said after becoming the first woman to win the Champion Hurdle, a jump race at Cheltenham, in March. 

Yet, for Blackmore to win races, those who went before her laid decades of groundwork, in what was an extremely hostile environment for women.

The names of others in the vanguard will be unfamiliar, or unknown, to the current generation of successful female jump jockeys. In the 1980s and 90s, Sophie Mitchell and Diana Clay laid the foundations when most women could not get professional licences or would not be given the rides as professionals to make it worth it. 

As I discovered when I interviewed for a trainer’s licence in the early 2000s, the battle was not helped by the then governing body of the sport, the Jockey Club, which had not yet  modernised from its 18th-century foundations as an elitist, misogynistic male-only club.

But for every woman seen riding in a race – more often than not on horses owned or trained by family members, due to the entrenched refusal in other quarters to give such opportunities  – there were many more struggling to get there, at least when I worked in the sport. Off the racecourse, they had to face much worse than plastic bottles and jeering. 

One of the first racing yards I worked in was one of the last to allow women through the gates. What followed was probably similar to the experience of women in the army in the years running up to 2018, when combat roles were finally opened up. Physical and verbal assaults were a daily experience. On the latter, we certainly gave as good as we got. Profanity became punctuation. 

The closest I got to the Grand National was a mare called Fiddling The Facts, favourite for the race in 1999. I’d ridden her every day at home for years, jumped her over the National’s fences in training, but had never been allowed to ride her in a race, especially not on the hallowed Aintree turf. The type of amateur licence I held excluded that possibility and I failed to get the rides required to progress.

My housemate at the time was a successful female amateur jockey. Yet, despite being more than qualified under racing’s rules to upgrade her licence and ride against professionals, the Jockey Club refused her application until she raised the issue in the racing press. They immediately caved. The dream to be the first woman to win the National was passed on to her daughter, also my god-daughter. 

In 2016, I told my 10-year-old god-daughter the story of National Velvet. Her father had won a Grand National before she was born, so the legend loomed large. She became determined to be the first. I hadn’t realised, until two days before Blackmore’s historic win, that she thought the story of the girl pretending to be a boy to ride in the National was true. 

Now 14, she welled with anger when Blackmore won, furious that she’d been beaten to it. I cried with relief, disbelief and in acknowledgement that every woman who’d stepped foot in a racing yard had contributed to – had fought for – Blackmore’s win.

The day after the Grand National, my god daughter and I put both our dreams to rest. We sat down and watched, for the last time necessary, Elizabeth Taylor pretending to be a boy in order to win the world’s most famous horse race. From now on, young girls can watch the 2021 Grand National to see the dream come true.

Photograph by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images