I was a little perplexed by the frenzy of excitement that ensued in the aftermath of Katie Walsh’s brilliant victory in the Irish National on Easter Monday.
Her ride was good, very good. But what did we expect to see? Some faintly capable novice clinging on for dear life like a lonely pea on a vibrating drum? Much as I was delighted to see Katie lionised for winning the race, the fact that she is a female jockey seemed scarcely relevant to me and yet it was her gender that kicked off the majority of reports.
Walsh may not be in the elite, near-celestial group of no more than a handful of current National Hunt jockeys (her brother Ruby and retiring champion AP McCoy would be 2 of the few with life membership) but she is certainly knocking on the door.
REAL success for female jockeys might only come when the female element is dropped when the reporting is done. Over the sticks, Katie Walsh and her good friend Nina Carberry have done more in recent years to prove beyond any doubt – by winning with grace and real guts on the biggest stages of all – that the best jockeys can be male or female.
We’ve come a long way since the late, great, irascible and only slightly jocular Ginger McCain described Carrie Ford (who rode in the 2005 National) as a “brood mare”. Ginger was a Grand National legend, inextricably linked to the race through his training of Red Rum – but his comments were foolish. Women WILL win the Grand National – and here’s hoping it happens soon.
The media – and I daresay vast swathes of the nation – want an emotional send-off for McCoy aboard 7/1 favourite Shutthefrontdoor, but wouldn’t it be terrific if Nina Carberry (pictured, left) ignored the script and landed the big one with First Lieutenant?
Not just for the girls, but for everyone who is blind to gender in the toughest crucibles of the racing lot.
The Grand National is, indisputably, racing’s shop window. Bookies fall over themselves to clamour for your custom, and mainstream media from every corner of the globe, descend on Liverpool to join in the Aintree party.
All too often then I have left on the Saturday evening with a sense of ill-being and regret. Few things can be as harrowing as a horse dying on the biggest stage of all, and Aintree and its partners must be applauded for all they have done in recent years to make the course a safer, more horse-friendly track. Those who decry the amendments and hark back to a dangerous, threatening, terrifying so-called Golden Age do little to support those of us who fervently believe that our sport can appeal to a wider audience for all the wrong reasons.
Less tragic, but still irksome, is the all too frequent shambles that is the start of the National. 1993 was the low point when the infamous false start heaped scorn on the event, but over 20 years on, I am seldom as nervous as when the horses circle moments before the “off”. Whatever the whys and wherefores, false starts are not acceptable. We live in an age when a paying and spectating sporting public expect better, and everyone involved –from jockeys to officials – has a duty to due better.
Back in the 1970s Aintree was very nearly turned into a housing estate when property developer Bill Davies who had bought the course, did his sums, and worked out that racing didn’t add up. He’d tripled the admission rate since 1973 and attendances had dwindled. A concerted effort by bookie-businessman Cyril Stein and the Jockey Club helped to turn it around and one of the greatest marketing coups of the era was to encourage Liverpool and Everton FC to have earlier top division kick-offs so that local fans could catch the free bus to Aintree for the rest of the afternoon.
It worked a treat. Marketeers would have us believe that product cross-sell is the bright new hope for sport, but Aintree had this nailed nearly 40 years ago.
Cantlow ran well enough last week but we were out of the money. In the big one this weekend, The Druids Nephew can be expected to go well. His wasn’t a tough race at Cheltenham and he looked classy.
Ground conditions and the hurly burly of a big field will be in his favour. What could possibly go wrong?
Jockeys Nina Carberry (left) and Jane Mangan after they were presented with the Mary Hyde cup having tied for the leading lady rider for the National Hunt season, on day one of the Galway Festival at Galway Racecourse, Ireland.
CREDIT: Brian Lawless / PA Archive/Press Association Images