Katie Walsh didn’t feel as if she was striking a blow for women when she finished third on Seabass in last year’s Grand National, but she was, all the same. It’s only 35 years since Charlotte Brew became the first female jockey to compete in the world-famous steeplechase. And only seven of the 18 women to follow her even managed to complete the Aintree course. None had ever looked remotely like winning the great race. But fleetingly, fabulously, Katie Walsh did.
“Coming up to the second last, it flashed through my mind that I might just win the National,” she recalls. “As soon as we jumped that fence, Richie McLernon came up beside me on Sunnyhillboy, and he was going a lot easier. I knew he had much more in the tank. After that it was just a case of trying to finish as well as we could. But for a couple of strides, a couple of seconds…”
She tails off, not because she’s suddenly overcome by the romantic image of becoming the first woman to win the Grand National, but because she’s politely waiting for the next question. Jockeys tend not to be sentimental creatures. Not even this one, who admits to being mesmerised, as a child, by Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. And even if Katie had won the National on her debut, she wouldn’t even have been the first in her family to do that – her older brother Ruby did that on Papillon, in 2000.
Five years and a vast number of wins separate the siblings. At 33, Ruby is at his peak, one of the world’s greatest jump jockeys; Katie is and always will be an amateur, whose main job is working at the County Kildare stables run by her father Ted, trainer of Papillon. It’s a small operation, with just 20 horses, yet two of them are highly fancied for this year’s Grand National. One is Seabass, with Katie on board again. The other is On His Own, which Ruby will ride. As the big day approaches, is there much sibling rivalry?
“Not really,” she says. “Look, there are four of us, plus Mam and Dad, and we all have a great relationship. We’re all very different, all opinionated, but we all get on and look after each other. I never really think about beating Ruby.” A pause, and a small chuckle. “But it’s definitely a bit sweeter when he finishes second to me.”
Ruby offered her some pointers before last year’s race, but nothing could really prepare her for the experience of milling round waiting for the starting tape to go up. “When I heard the fanfare of trumpets, that got my heart jumping out of my chest. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is actually happening.’ But as soon as I hacked down to the start, I was 100 per cent.”
So, happily, was Seabass, the joint-favourite. “Yeah, he gave me an unbelievable spin. A dream run. My dad had trained the horse, he was fancied. It was a fantastic day.”
The recollections of that day aren’t sweet, however, for those associated with Synchronised and According to Pete, the two horses who sustained fatal injuries at last year’s National. Following a barrage of criticism, the fences have been redesigned, and the landing has been raised at the famously intimidating Becher’s Brook.
“Any changes that make it safer are a good thing,” says Katie, “but I hope they leave it at this and don’t change anything else. I hope to God there are no accidents this year, but these things happen, and they’re horses at the end of the day. I don’t mean that in a cruel way, but to see John Thomas McNamara get a horrible fall at Cheltenham… for the minute he’s gone from the neck down, and that’s a different deal altogether in my eyes.” Fellow Irish jockey JT McNamara is still in hospital, having suffered spinal injuries sustained in a fall at the festival last month.
Those who lambast horse racing as barbaric simply don’t understand it, she adds. “Anyone who gets up on Christmas Day and mucks out loves animals. Sure, it’s a dangerous sport. But every night, all over the world, a lot of horses are left out in fields starving. These horses are so well looked after. Better than some children, to be honest with you. I don’t read the criticism because it’s not worth it. And at the end of the day it would be a lot worse if it had been two jockeys who lost their lives. I think everyone should remember that.”
The physical dangers to jockeys, exemplified by MacNamara’s terrible accident, have engendered a unique brotherhood. In many cases, the keener the rivalry between top jockeys, the closer the friendship, as between Ruby Walsh and British champion jump jockey Tony McCoy. But how does Katie fit into this brotherhood? Has she ever detected a whiff of sexism in the weighing-room, where riders congregate?
“Never,” she says firmly. “I’m 28 and I’ve been in the weighing-room since I was 18, 19 years of age. I’ve grown up with them all, and there’s great craic. They’re all great fellas. Sure, there’s the odd time that I might get a comment from a punter roaring over the rails, but I wouldn’t pay much attention to them. No, racing’s a great leveller. You can give a great ride and be a hero for ten minutes, and the next race you give the worst ride of all time, which brings you right back down. Nobody gets too big for their boots.”
Almost everyone would be too big for her boots, though. She is a slip of a thing, but insists that brute strength isn’t required to propel a horse over 30 testing Grand National fences. “No, it’s not about strength, it’s about getting him into a nice rhythm and enjoying himself. I’ll give him as good a ride as anybody. But saying that, I would never turn pro because I’m no Ruby Walsh or Tony McCoy. I wouldn’t be able to handle the falls they get, and some of the injuries they’re getting.”
Which also means that she doesn’t get their rewards, such as an estimated 10 per cent of the handsome £102,862 third-place cheque in last year’s National. “That’s the last thing that would come into my head,” she says firmly.
All the same, she is risking life and limb without remuneration. What have been the worst injuries she has sustained? “Oh, I’ve been very lucky. Only a broken ankle and a broken collarbone twice. I’ve been lucky.”
If that luck holds to the end of the 2013 Grand National, might she and Seabass go one or even two better than last year? “Well, that would be a fairy tale, like winning the Lotto. But he has a chance. He probably deserves to be one of the favourites, though I think that’s because a lot of women who wouldn’t normally have a bet have been putting a fiver on him. Women like to get behind women.”
That’s true, but men and women alike should celebrate when a female jockey finally wins the Grand National. Especially if it turns out to be what Katie did next.
Watch coverage of The Grand National on Saturday from 1:00pm (race at 4:15pm) on Channel 4