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The jumper

The jumper

As a child Lydia Hislop dreamt of winning the world’s most famous horse race. No woman would ever do that, they said. Then Rachael Blackmore rode into view

“Mrs Thornton’s riding is of the first description. Her close seat, perfect management of her horse, bold jockeyship on one of the most crowded courses ever seen, elicited the highest admiration. On winning she was greeted with deafening cheers.”

So enthused a newspaper report in 1805 when Alicia Thornton pitted her horse against Frank Buckle in a formal match over two miles at York racecourse. A crowd said to be in the region of 100,000 had gathered on the Knavesmire to watch her ride against Buckle, a professional jockey then at the height of a career spanning 27 victories in the Classics – the most exalted races in the British horse racing calendar. Thornton beat him, riding side-saddle, her horse finishing half a neck in front.

Alicia Thornton, riding side- saddle, narrowly beats Frank Buckle in an 1805 race at York

One hundred and ninety-nine years later, a 15-year-old girl won her first pony race in Cork, defeating a 13-year-old Paul Townend – a jump jockey who has since been crowned Irish champion four times. That girl would grow up to remind the sport of something that was seemingly common sense in the 19th century – the primacy of “horse management”. 

Why this story?

Last week, the jockey Robbie Dunne was given an 18-month ban from horseracing after he was found guilty of bullying his colleague Bryony Frost.

But while the case has shed light on a culture within the sport that can be toxic and misogynistic, the triumphs of women jockeys have seen an unprecedented level of success in recent years, chief among them the triumph of Rachael Blackmore (no relation) winning the Grand National this year. Keith Blackmore, Editor

Film survives of the exhilarated and breathless ponyrace winner being interviewed in the rain. A small figure in blue-and-white-striped silks and a red hat, fiddling shyly with her whip, when the interviewer bends down to talk to her, she enthuses: “It was brilliant … [My horse] had so much left in him at the end. He went really well and I couldn’t believe it.” 

It makes me smile. It is 2004. This is Rachael Blackmore. I’ve waited my whole professional life for Blackmore to come along. Indeed, I may have been willing her into existence since I was seven. Back then, when I was asked what I’d like to be when I grew up, I’d reply: “The first woman jockey to win the Grand National.” 

I knew this notion was absurd. The National is probably the most famous race in the world – marathon in length and hazardous in character, with 30 daunting fences to negotiate. But I rarely rode. And of course, everyone knew that women were physically and probably psychologically incapable of such a masculine feat. But it was something different for my childish self to say, it voiced my passion for horse racing and it was challenging. Even transgressive. 

My dreams of riding winners would soon give way to more realistic ambitions: writing and broadcasting about the sport I loved so much. Then on 10 April this year Blackmore won the Grand National.

It feels strange to recount how much joy and satisfaction her achievements bring me, even though I only stand and watch. After years of being told repeatedly what women could not do in the saddle – despite logic and experience telling me this was utter bunkum – here was a woman who could. And did. And will go on doing. 

Some great jockeys have never won this race; several minor ones have done. But winning the National was not, in this case, a random outcome of Aintree’s nine-minute equine lottery. Blackmore won because these days she routinely rides horses who have a better chance of winning than most. Why? Because she’s employed by one of the sport’s leading trainers and that opportunity has enabled her to develop into one of the best riders of her generation. She just happens to be a woman. 

After Thornton beat Buckle, it would take another 167 years for women to be permitted even to ride competitively under British racing’s official rules, as laid down by the Jockey Club. In 1972, 12 “ladies-only” flat races (as opposed to jump races, which involve obstacles) were laid on for 90 amateur “jockettes”. Meriel Tufnell won three and became their de facto champion. 

Another two years passed before women were allowed to compete against men on the flat in Britain. Not until the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 were women permitted to ride over jumps, thus enabling Diana Thorne to become the first to win a race – an amateur event against men – a year later. 

In 1977, Charlotte Brew, then 21, crossed a new frontier by becoming the first woman to contest the Grand National, on Barony Fort, who refused four fences from the end. “Those who were antagonistic were very antagonistic,” she recently recalled, citing BBC racing anchor Julian Wilson and the champion jumps trainer David Nicholson as leading the chorus of disapproval. Ginger McCain, who trained the great Red Rum to a third win in that race, declared the National “no place for lady riders”. 

“I was only young and not confident at dealing with anything like that,” Brew said. “Whereas now you’d just say ‘piss off’.” 

On the day, Brew had struggled into her racing silks in a tiny toilet isolated from the men’s facilities, with a makeshift sign on the door reading Lady Jockey. Officials failed to call her to the parade ring to mount her horse, leaving her alone to elbow her way through the huge crowd. “I could hear people saying ‘where is the lady jockey?’ and I was standing right behind them. I couldn’t get through to get on the horse,” she said. 

In 1977 Charlotte Brew becomes the first woman to ride in the National

Even in 2021, facilities at many racecourses are woefully inadequate for women, and access to the equipment they need often exposes them – grim pun intended – to the male changing room. In an ongoing official complaint about bullying and intimidation, British jockey Bryony Frost has alleged that a particular male rider “would stand in front of me naked” when she was a young amateur. 

Brew’s Aintree exploits were followed by Jenny Hembrow in 1979 and 1980, and then by Linda Sheedy in 1981. The latter would also become the first woman to contest the Cheltenham Gold Cup – jump racing’s most illustrious event – in 1984 on a 500/1 outsider. 

This was the background to the race that was surreptitiously to change my life. But mine was no girly National Velvet fantasy, as I now realise my childhood inquisitors probably thought. I must at some time have seen the film in which 12-year-old Velvet Brown jumps to short-lived National glory, but if I did, it washed over me. It was Geraldine Rees, not Elizabeth Taylor, who put the crackpot idea in my head. 

It was 1982 and the very weekend when a British task force was being readied to sail for the Falklands. The story of 26-year-old Rees was therefore a titillating distraction. The daughter of racehorse trainer, Captain Jimmy Wilson, Rees was determined to ride in the Grand National. But three weeks before the race, her intended mount was injured and she was then outbid at the Doncaster sales for another potential runner, Cheers. The successful bidder was a trainer, Charlie Mackenzie. But he offered her the ride. 

A film clip survives of a pre-race interview with Mackenzie. “Now I know it’s said that a woman isn’t strong enough to get round the National and finish,” the reporter confidently asserts. “Do you go along with that?” Mackenzie said: “No. After seeing Geraldine … I’m confident that she’s an exception and I honestly think she’ll get round today. And be there all the time – you know, in the race.” 

Rees didn’t quite manage to be there all the time. She was, she later said, intent on not getting “too far behind”, but by the famous Becher’s Brook second time around, 22nd of the 30 fences, Cheers was one of two distant stragglers. He was ultimately coerced to finish a weary last of eight finishers. 

Nonetheless, Rees became immortalised in quiz-team trivia and her achievements were annually trotted out as part of a slow-growing, almost fetishistic roll call favoured in the build-up every year that a woman subsequently rode in the race. It soon read: Rees (fell 1st) and Joy Carrier (unseated 6th) in 1983, Valerie Alder (fell 8th) in 1984, Jacqui Oliver (unseated 15th) in 1987, Gee Armytage (pulled up 26th), Penny Ffitch-Heyes (fell 1st) and Venetia Williams (fell 6th) in 1988, and Tarnya Davis (pulled up 21st) in 1989. 

In the meantime, women had broken down other boundaries. Lorna Vincent was the first professional to triumph over jumps, amassing 22 winners in the 1979/80 season – a total not bettered for 32 years. On Eliogarty in 1983, Caroline Beasley was both the first woman to triumph at the Cheltenham Festival and, three years later over a short course of the National fences at Aintree. Gee Armytage rode a Festival double in 1987, beating male professionals in the Mildmay Of Flete on the appropriately named Gee-A, and losing only to the eight-times champion jockey Peter Scudamore in the meeting’s overall standings on countback. 

On the flat, Gay Kelleway’s success on Sprowston Boy in the 1987 Queen Alexandra Stakes was the first by a woman at Royal Ascot – a pioneering feat that, unimaginably to me at the time, would not be repeated for another 32 bleak years. “I felt that I’d succeeded in something that was very hard for women to compete in,” Kelleway said. “I knew that if I was a lad, I’d probably get five rides a day and it was tough getting any rides.” 

But she has also recently revealed that she was sexually harassed by certain jockeys and trainers. “What I went through would be enough to push someone, especially fragile girls, to suicide,” she said. “I got harassed so much. I just wished they would leave me alone. All I wanted was to do my job to the best of my ability.” 

Blackmore and I grew up blissfully unaware of all this. In 1989, as she was born, I turned 15. She was raised in Killenaule, County Tipperary, the middle of three children. Her father, Charles, is a dairy farmer and her mother, Eimir, a secondary school teacher. 

The Blackmore kids loved to be outdoors and around animals. Rachael wasn’t born into the sport, as so many of its protagonists are, but her father taught her how to ride and she was soon intent on jumping whatever her elder brother Jonathan jumped. She followed him into Pony Club events. Years later, riding for Tipperary, she would win the Pony Club championships and her mother recalls her being described as “the best boy on the team”. 

“I always wanted to be an amateur jockey and ride in races, but I never envisaged the professional jockey route. It was not a career I thought would work out for me,” Blackmore has said. She originally wanted to be a vet, but an uncharacteristic lack of application meant she ended up studying equine science in Limerick instead. 

Meanwhile for female riders in Britain, the arc of progress had long flatlined – and, over jumps, plunged sharply downwards. This was despite Julie Krone’s success at the highest level in the United States that would see her win the 1993 Belmont Stakes (one of the most significant races in that country) and later that year be named Female Athlete of the Year in the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly (ESPY) Awards. 

On 8 July 1992, Krone had made a gloriously memorable flying visit to Britain – to Redcar, of all places – in what can only be described as a myth-busting exercise. Given that Krone had ridden almost 2,500 winners and won more than £20 million in prize money, it shouldn’t have been surprising that she won three of the six races. Yet she was rationalised as “a one-off”, even by Yvonne Stapleton, of Britain’s Lady Jockeys’ Association, who part-organised the visit. 

In 1994, 51-year-old Rosemary Henderson guided the 100/1 shot Fiddlers Pike to fifth in the National and, even though she finished 55 lengths adrift of the winner, became the highest-placed female rider in the event’s history and only the second to complete the course. A further ten runnings of the National would then pass without a female competitor until Carrie Ford also finished fifth in 2005. Her achievement was different, however – getting competitively involved and producing Forest Gunner to challenge the winner, Hedgehunter, at the second-last fence. 

Blackmore and her horse Alpha des Obeaux fall in the 2018 National. Both were unhurt

In 1996, Alex Greaves had become the first woman to contest the Derby, the most famous race on the flat. Portuguese Lil, her mount, was trained by her husband, David Nicholls. “It won’t make any difference,” Greaves said then. “I was brought up in racing and I’ve known the score for a long time. If you come in thinking that you’re going to make a big difference you’re going to be greatly disillusioned. But we’ve only been riding here for less than 30 years. In Scandinavia and America, they’ve been doing it much longer, and every year things are getting better. It’s just going to take a very long time.” 

Just days after this I started work experience as a journalist at the Sporting Life, then one of two daily papers covering the sport. Fresh from university and with all the complacency of a woman in her early twenties who hadn’t yet noticed more insidious inequalities, I was intent on doing a good job. 

Yet there was a sense of going backwards in time. It was routine to have your bottom publicly patted by a champion trainer or, once I decided to broaden my skills into television, for a co-presenter to make jokes about your nipples, live on air. But the ultimate barrier remained in the saddle. 

The paramount skill of horse management had been almost universally transmuted into the cult of “strength in the saddle”, the focus shifting from maximising the athletic ability of the horse to the machismo of the men who rode them.

“Their bottoms are the wrong shape,” Lester Piggott, that most celebrated of jockeys, once muttered. “Women jockeys are a pain,” said Steve Smith Eccles, most famous for guiding See You Then to three successive Champion Hurdle victories. “Jumping is a man’s game. They are not built like us. Most of them are as strong as half a Disprin.” 

As late as 2010, Piggott’s words would inspire the title of a sociological study of horse racing that argued: “The increasing organisational changes that have allowed women to be a part of the Jockey Club, be granted licences, train and compete alongside males do not appear to have changed attitudes toward female jockeys, who are largely perceived as weaker and less capable.” 

Yet this focus on strength ignored other skills critical to crossing the finish line first. The primary elements of race-riding involve getting your horse balanced and distributing its energy evenly throughout, travelling smoothly and jumping well, while positioning it appropriately according to how the race develops. It doesn’t matter how strong you are in a finish if your horsemanship and tactical acumen are insufficient. 

Even in 2020, another sociological study – its title drawing on an oft-heard racing adage that “a good girl is worth their weight in gold” – observed that racing “may seem a highly progressive site for gender equality in sport because, unusually, men and women compete directly against each other … But gender inequalities are deeply rooted and persistent in British racing … 

“Conventional ideas about women’s … intuitively caring and ‘loving’ nature towards horses may open up prospects for females as junior stable staff, but they also dialectically reduce opportunities elsewhere. Obstacles to advancement on merit mean that family connections and influential networks shape female prospects in racing rather more than is the case for men.” 

In 1991, Greaves became the first female apprentice in Britain to ride out her “claim” – a weight allowance, deducted from all that a horse must carry in a given race. (Horses are assigned a particular total weight – including saddle, rider and, if necessary, added lead – according to the criteria for each race.) A claim is provided to all novice jockeys, male or female, to offset inexperience and is withdrawn once they have ridden a certain number of winners. Its loss had an immediate impact on Greaves’s opportunities. The main incentive for employing her – that her ability literally outweighed the allowance she received – had disappeared. 

Had Greaves not later married Nicholls, it seems unlikely her career would have remained viable. It was a similar story for Kim Tinkler, who rode predominantly for her husband Nigel, and Emma O’Gorman, whose rides were overwhelmingly supplied by her father, Bill. Yet over jumps in this period, even familial connections couldn’t propel women beyond the amateur sphere. 

In 1997, the Knavesmire nonetheless provided another significant milestone when Greaves delivered her mount Ya Malak to dead-heat with Coastal Bluff, ridden by future champion jockey Kevin Darley, in the Nunthorpe – a Group One race for sprinters. She became the first woman in Europe to ride a winner in this highest category of event. (Accuracy obliges me to note that Darley was riding without steering, clinging on to Coastal Bluff’s mane, the broken bit unfortunately swinging around his mount’s neck from the first furlong.) 

Alex Greaves of Great Britain at Epsom

Afterwards, Greaves asserted: “Today I think I’ve shown that if the animal is good enough, then so am I.” The winning trainer, again her husband Nicholls, added: “I don’t have to tell anyone how good she is any more. Everyone in England, Ireland and France can see how capable she is. She’s philosophical and realises there are owners and trainers who will never put her up, but that’s their problem.” 

Yet the total number of female professional jockeys in Britain would drop from 6.1 per cent of licensees in 1991 to 5.5 per cent in 2001. Fewer women visualised a future as professional riders, most acutely over jumps with the non-claiming population falling by 71 per cent and among conditionals (novice jumps riders, the equivalent of flat apprentices) by 74 per cent. Just five women held a nonclaiming professional jumps licence and there were nine on the flat, compared with 164 and 222 men. 

It was hardly surprising, then, that most women couldn’t imagine making a viable living as a professional jockey, especially over jumps. At the time, I was often told that a series of injuries suffered by leading female riders had rendered squeamish the men providing their opportunities. Nobody wanted to be responsible for a paralysing fall, such as that suffered by Sharron Murgatroyd at Bangor in 1991. 

This was humbug. Women had continued to ride with great success on the amateur jumping scene. Alison Dare dominated the British point-to-point field from the 1980s and Katie Rimell, Polly Curling, Fiona Needham and Rilly Goschen all tasted success at Cheltenham. 

Fast-forward to 2015 and, shortly after becoming the first woman to win a Grade One race over obstacles in Britain, professional jockey Lizzie Kelly said: “There are plenty of reasons why trainers don’t use girls, and it is never going to change … The subconscious idea of females being the ones who should be at home, looking after the children, is part of our make-up.” 

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that, were a woman good enough, she would always have been able to “make it” as a jockey – the implication being that because no woman had broken through to the top table, this proved an ineluctable truth. Yet in Britain in 2011, female professional jockeys made up 11.9 per cent of the total but were employed on only 7.3 per cent of available rides and enjoyed 5.4 per cent of the total number of winners. When it came to Group or graded races, they received only 0.9 per cent of the rides. In short, on the rare occasions that a woman was booked, it tended to be on an inferior horse in a lesser race. 

The trend has since moved glacially in a positive direction. In 2020, 17.4 per cent of the total jockey population were professional women, taking 8.8 per cent of the rides, 3.7 per cent of which were in Group or graded races, and with 7.6 per cent of winners. During the preceding decade, the proportion of women among the total jockey population remained relatively static, indicating that more female race-riders think they might now make it as professionals. 

In 2019, another sociological study on gender in horse racing was published, its title drawing upon the old horsemen’s saying that “men fall like boiled eggs; women fall like raw eggs”. This belief has been presented to me in all seriousness within the past year. 

The study’s authors observed that women are perceived as “needing protection from potentially risky horses” and highlighted an “unquestioning belief that horses know the gender of their rider and will respond differently according to what this is”. They encountered received wisdom about female bodies, noting “what they can and cannot do is generally presented as factual” and “the female body is positioned as physically weaker, designed for motherhood and more prone to injury”. 

They concluded: “This is difficult to challenge because female jockeys do not have access to a range of horses that might provide a challenge to this perspective and, whilst so few female jockeys are riding, when serious injuries do occur, they may provide evidence for this perception.” 

Blackmore with trainer John “Shark” Hanlon, who spotted her talent

Given this perceived dynamic, there is an element of dramatic irony to Shark Hanlon, the trainer who gave Blackmore her big break by advising her to turn professional in 2015, being partly motivated by concern for her wellbeing. 

They had met in February 2011, when three-times Irish champion jockey Davy Russell recommended Blackmore to Hanlon for the fancied ride on Stowaway Pearl in a ladies’ race at Thurles. This she duly won, impressing Hanlon by following his instructions to the letter, and showing a cool head at the final hurdle. 

“She was a very good rider, always a good rider,” Hanlon recalled in Jump Girls, a TG4 documentary about women in Irish racing. “[But] a girl riding point-to-points, they weren’t getting the best rides in the world. I just felt that she was going to get killed riding point-to-point horses because she got two falls the one day I’ll never forget, on two awful horses. 

“We asked her then to go changing [to conditional] … ‘If you change for six months and if it works,’ I said, ‘I’ll support you.’” 

Blackmore was hardly the most obvious candidate for this career advice. She was, at best, an average amateur, having won just six races from almost 150 rides, and 11 point-to-points, before Hanlon advised the switch. She would also be the first woman to join the professional ranks over jumps in Ireland since Maria Cullen in the 1980s. The highly successful amateur Katie Walsh later acknowledged that the decision “turned a few heads” and Blackmore has admitted “some people said … [it] wasn’t the best idea”. 

Yet Blackmore turned all these seeming negatives into positives. Her lowly win record meant she started out as a conditional with a full 7lb claim – had she won more often as an amateur, she would have started with a lesser allowance and, when things started to roll for her, a lesser edge. 

It took her six months to ride her first winner, but she built up a wealth of experience in the meantime, making a novice’s inevitable mistakes away from the glare of attention. Her relatively advanced age – 26 – for this stage in her career meant she faced its challenges with maturity. 

“I knew from my amateur days how hard it was to get those winners and you have to be patient … There was money going into [my account] from my riding fees, I was starting to progress and I knew I was getting better.”

Blackmore had also arrived in a subtly altered landscape. Back in the mid-Noughties and primarily in Ireland, where the amateur scene is something of a misnomer, the next wave of female riders had broken. Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh broadened horizons, both for themselves and those who followed. 

Both were bred for the task. Carberry is the daughter of Gold Cup-winning jockey Tommy and sister to (among others) celebrated stylist Paul. Katie is the daughter of champion amateur jockey turned trainer Ted and sister to Ruby, arguably the greatest jump jockey of all time. 

By the time these women retired, within a day of each other at the Punchestown Festival in April 2018, both had won a Grade One bumper (a race run under jumps rules but without obstacles) and the Irish Grand National. One or other – or both – of them had ridden in Aintree’s Grand National every year from 2010 to 2018, with Walsh registering a best-yet finish for a female rider when third on Seabass in 2012 and, significantly, trusted enough by punters to have been made the 8/1 joint favourite. Walsh had also triumphed at the Cheltenham Festival on three occasions and Carberry seven – making the latter its most successful female rider until Blackmore came along. 

In the 2016/17 jumps season Blackmore’s career finally began to take off when she became the first woman to win the Irish conditional jockeys’ championship. She attracted the attention of Eddie O’Leary – manager of the powerful Gigginstown House Stud for his brother Michael – for whom she started riding regularly in early 2018 and took her inaugural ride in that year’s Grand National. 

The story goes that O’Leary recommended Blackmore to trainer Henry de Bromhead in the back of an Aintreebound taxi and by the next season, she was riding the trainer’s other horses regularly, too – with immediate success including, in November 2018, a certain Honeysuckle. That mare is now unbeaten in 12 starts for Blackmore, the 2021 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham being their most prestigious victory alongside seven other Grade One races. 

Again, Blackmore’s timing was immaculate. As can often be the way in racing, one jockey’s misfortune is another’s opportunity. In February 2019, de Bromhead’s go-to rider, Andrew Lynch, sustained a career-ending shoulder injury. By the time the trainer was looking for a substitute, Blackmore was literally already on the premises. 

But you’ve still got to take your chances when they’re presented to you. As de Bromhead has said: “She rode her way into it. It was her ability and that was it. I never gave her our job – she just kept riding winners and everyone wanted to use her. So it’s entirely down to Rachael and all the work she’s put in.” 

It was a good fit: Blackmore’s positive, uncomplicated style of riding suited de Bromhead’s philosophy. This coincided with de Bromhead’s own upward trajectory. Not only did he train Blackmore’s Grand National winner but he left Cheltenham having won three of the meeting’s four most illustrious races. 

They had previously enjoyed a double at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival. Their second victory, with Minella Indo in a Grade One hurdle, came less than 24 hours after Bryony Frost had become the first woman to win a Grade One chase in the history of that meeting. It was Blackmore’s first success at the highest level but since then, on either side of the Irish Sea, she’s had 17 more. 

Blackmore and Minella Times on their way to victory – and a place in history – in this year’s Grand National at Aintree in April

By the end of the 2018/19 season, Blackmore had partnered 91 winners in Ireland alone – a historic achievement for a woman. In 2020, she won Cheltenham’s Mares’ Hurdle for de Bromhead on Honeysuckle – but she was lucky to escape from a pocket of other runners. A year later, the acute tactical awareness she demonstrated on Bob Olinger in the Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle showed how quickly she had assimilated the lesson. 

She rode six winners in all at that one Festival – a feat only ever exceeded by Ruby Walsh. By any standard, such dominance at the pinnacle of the jumping calendar is a marker of a jockey at the forefront of their profession. Although her Grand National victory would later reverberate more loudly around the globe, catapulting her into mainstream news, what Blackmore did at Cheltenham three weeks earlier – and does, daily, on racecourses in Ireland – is a better measure of her standing. 

But perhaps the most revealing tableau came beyond the finish line in the Gold Cup, when Blackmore was briefly the embodiment of utter dejection – sinking in the saddle, head hidden behind the horse’s neck, nobody getting a look at her face until she’d composed herself. In the most important race of the season, she’d finished second. Finishing the meeting as top jockey was not enough. 

Three weeks later, she arrived in Liverpool for the Grand National. In the famous green and gold hooped silks of owner JP McManus, she was to ride Minella Times – a horse she’d partnered four times previously but whose all-important stamina for the four-and-a-quarter mile trip was unknown. 

From the start, Blackmore settled her horse into a smooth rhythm, jumping impeccably. You could see her anticipating trouble with a top jockey’s sixth sense, switching her horse to get a clear sight of the fences. She enjoyed some luck, too. At the 12th fence, Double Shuffle made a mistake just ahead of her. Had he fallen to his right, rather than his left, he would have hampered Minella Times. 

Up front, amateur Sam Waley-Cohen seemed intent on breaking the race apart at an unfettered pace on a horse called Jett. By Valentine’s Brook, the 25th fence, they were ten lengths clear but Minella Times was still travelling strongly. On the turn for home, predictably, Jett was done and Blackmore inched into the lead, still to ask her horse for his ultimate effort. 

Blackmore’s final challenger was the 100/1 outsider Balko Des Flos – stablemate of Minella Times at de Bromhead’s yard – but he jumped the last less cleanly. By the Elbow – the famous jink in the Aintree straight that has seen many a last-gasp drama – Blackmore was four lengths clear. 

I was at Aintree working for television, watching on a monitor, and felt a growing certainty that the moment I’d been visualising all my life was about to happen. By the finish line, she had extended her lead to six-and-a-half lengths. It is a marker of all that Blackmore had already achieved that I was elated but utterly unsurprised. 

The scenes that followed – Blackmore raising her arm in triumph, hunching forward, spent, having given her all, patting Minella Times’s neck with gratitude and looking skywards in disbelief as a string of her weighing-room colleagues offered their congratulations – were unforgettable. 

Yet, unlike Alicia Thornton on the Knavesmire in 1805, Blackmore was not greeted with the deafening cheers that should accompany such a momentous occasion. Under Covid restrictions, Aintree’s imposing grandstands, where tens of thousands should have acclaimed her, were silent and empty. 

A dazed Blackmore was escorted from interviewer to interviewer, each of us strictly corralled by the Covid protocols, and at last she appeared before me. What, I asked, did she feel was the significance of being the first woman to win the Grand National? Blackmore said: “It’s a massive deal for me personally. It is not something that hit me when I crossed the line. But … it is a big deal. I don’t know how to put that big deal into words myself, but I’m just delighted to have won.” 

Blackmore steers Tom Horn around the cross-country course at Punchestown in Ireland in 2018

Blackmore has consistently resisted attempts to characterise her success as a blow for female equality. “Essentially, I want to be treated like any other jockey in the weighing room – which I am, which is fantastic,” she has since told me. “So if in interviews I give [the media] loads on what they want to hear about females in the sport and talk about it excessively, then I’m making a deal out of it. Whereas it shouldn’t be an issue. That’s the tack I’ve gone with – answer it politely but not make a big deal out of it, because I don’t want it to be a big deal.” 

I recognise this. I have always railed against attempts to classify me as a female journalist or broadcaster. However, I also realise I’m no pioneer – whereas Blackmore, inescapably, is. And I refuse to legitimise those who, earnestly or speciously, seek to minimise how far it was from there to here. 

Blackmore told me: “I got a letter after Aintree from a woman saying: you need to stop putting down the fact that you’re female and you’ve won the Grand National. There are so many women who have gone before you that have done such amazing things to put you in this position. 

“Reading it, I felt bad because they have. It’s such a celebration that I’m in this position and maybe I’m being very dismissive of what women have gone through to put me here. But then I was kind of thinking: wouldn’t they be so happy that I crossed the line in the Grand National and didn’t feel like ‘I’m the first woman to do this’? It’s not what hit me. 

“If I was them, and I was looking ahead to the future and I saw a girl winning the Grand National, I would be so happy that she didn’t have to make a big deal of it, that the work that I had done in the past had put her in a position that she didn’t feel the magnitude of what was happening.” 

Why should Blackmore feel differently about her success than any other jockey? For her, joyfully, there is no need. But for me, and for women like her correspondent, it is vitally important that she is the incontrovertible end to a long-running, infuriating, argument. 

A trailblazer like Blackmore also lights the path for women around her, and those in her wake. Still I look forward to a time when it is no longer remarkable for women to enjoy careers as jockeys as numerous, viable, independent and – yes – as ordinary as the next man. Another giant hurdle has been cleared, but the race is yet to be won.

Photographs www.healyracing.ie, Alamy Images, Getty Images

This piece appears in Giants, the new Tortoise short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can buy a physical copy here.