Women have only been allowed to enter the National as jockeys since 1975, making it a male-dominated event — until now.
A Hollywood fantasy turned into reality on Saturday when Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win Britain’s grueling Grand National horse race, breaking down one of the biggest gender barriers in sports.
Blackmore, a 31-year-old Irishwoman, rode Minella Times to a landmark victory at odds of 11-1 in the 173rd edition of the famous steeplechase at Aintree in Liverpool, northwest England
“I don’t feel male or female right now. I don’t even feel human,” Blackmore said. “This is just unbelievable.”
Blackmore is the 20th female jockey to compete in a race that has been a mud-splattered British sporting institution since 1839. Women have only been allowed to enter the National as jockeys since 1975, making it a male-dominated event — until now.
“I never even imagined I’d get a ride in this race, never mind get my hands on the trophy,” Blackmore said.
After all, the 1944 Hollywood movie National Velvet was the story of a 12-year-old girl, Velvet Brown — played by a young Elizabeth Taylor — who won the Grand National on The Pie, a gelding she won in a raffle and one she decided to train for the world’s biggest horse race. In the story, Brown was later disqualified on a technicality, having dismounted before reaching the enclosure.
Even though Aintree was without race-goers because of the pandemic, cheers rang out as Blackmore made her way off the course — still aboard Minella Times — and into the winner’s enclosure. She looked as if she couldn’t believe what she had done.
“For all the girls who watched National Velvet!” tweeted Hayley Turner, a former female jockey. “Thank you Rachael Blackmore, we’re so lucky to have you.”
Blackmore, the daughter of a dairy farmer and school teacher, grew up on a farm and rode ponies. She didn’t have a classic racing upbringing, though, making her ascent in the sport all the more inspirational.
A professional jockey since 2015, she rode the second most winners in Irish jump racing in 2018-19, the same season she won her first races at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival. She was already the face of British and Irish horse racing before arriving at Aintree, having become the first woman to finish as the leading jockey at Cheltenham three weeks ago.
Now she’s won the biggest race of them all, one that even non-horse racing enthusiasts turn on to watch and one that first captured Blackmore’s imagination. Indeed, her first memory of horse racing is going over to a friend’s house and taking part in a sweepstake for the National.
A beaming Blackmore had special words for her parents, who “took me around the country riding ponies when I was younger.”
“I can’t believe I am Rachael Blackmore. I still feel like that little kid — I just can’t believe I am me,” she said.
“I hope it does help anyone who wants to be a jockey. I never thought this would be possible for me. I didn’t dream of making a career as a jockey because I never thought it could happen,” she said.
The previous best performance by a female jockey in the National was Katie Walsh’s third-place finish on Seabass in 2012. That always looked under threat by Minella Times, who went out as the fourth favorite of the 40 horses in a race run over 6.4 kilometers and features 30 big and often brutal fences.
‘He was just incredible’
Minella Times was always near the front of the field and Blackmore timed the horse’s run for glory to perfection, easing past long-time leader Jett with around three fences to jump.
The famous, draining run to the line — about 500 meters from the last fence — was a procession as Minella Times won by 6 1/2 lengths.
“He was just incredible and jumped beautifully,” Blackmore said. “I tried to wait as long as I could. When I jumped the last and asked him for a bit, he was there.”
One of the other two female jockeys in the race, Bryony Frost, was taken to the hospital after being unseated from her horse, Yala Enki.
The Long Mile was destroyed after suffering an injury while running between two of the fences. It was the second equine fatality since safety changes to the race were introduced in 2013.