Grand National 2018: Bryony Frost bids to become the first ever female winner

Can the rising star follow her father and past winner Jimmy Frost?

TAUNTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 09: Bryony Frost during Taunton races at Taunton racecourse on January 9, 2018 in Taunton, England. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

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Bryony Frost has a vague memory of seeing the 1944 film National Velvet, in which Velvet Brown wins the Grand National on The Pie, only to be disqualified when it’s discovered that the jockey is – shock, horror – actually a young girl who looks very much like Elizabeth Taylor.

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Forget Hollywood. Frost, 22 – already tipped to be the best female jockey Britain has produced – is dreaming of a real-life sequel in which she becomes the first woman to ride the winner of its greatest jumps race.

“That National Velvet story is going to come to life when we get a woman winner, and it’s going to happen sooner or later,” muses her dad, Jimmy Frost, on a dank day at Hereford racecourse where Bryony is riding a couple of the horses he trains at Buckfastleigh in Devon.

And that history-maker might just be his bubbly daughter, who was inspired to pursue a career in the saddle after watching an old video of her dad winning the 1989 Grand National on Little Polveir – six years before she was born.

“A ride in the National? In my first season as a professional? My dad was 30 when he got that first National ride on Little Polveir and I’m just 22. I mean, that’s cool, isn’t it!” she laughs.

“This time last year I was still point-to-point racing and if you’d said to me then, you’re going to ride a horse in the National who’s lovely, and if everything’s right you’ll get round and possibly even come close to winning, you’d go, ‘You’re havin’ a laugh, aren’t you?’”

That “lovely” horse is Milansbar, a six-time winner on whom Bryony has already run away with a big race, at Warwick in January, and is expected to make the cut for the 40-strong field on Saturday.

Like father, like daughter? “What a story that would be,” smiles Jimmy, who says that watching Bryony ride the National would be just as big a thrill as winning the race himself. “I see those quotes where people say she could be the best-ever female jockey and I think, ‘Blimey, they’re talking about Bryony,’ but she really is head and shoulders above what I was doing at the same age. But though I’d be very proud and excited, I’d be a little bit nervous, too.”

Jimmy always tried to dissuade Bryony from becoming a jump jockey because of the sport’s perils. In 30 years in the saddle, he reckons he was unable to race 12 times because of injury – but those injuries included a punctured lung, seven broken ribs and having his front teeth kicked out. And he says he was lucky.

Yet racing – and a rare toughness – is in Bryony’s blood. At the family-run yard where both Jimmy and his father Richard trained, her elder brother Hadden learnt to be a professional jockey and her mum, Nikki, also schools horses. Even as a toddler, Bryony could always be found on the back of her four-legged “babysitter”, the farm donkey, Nosey.

Jimmy discovered his daughter’s resilience the hard way after he saw her fall, aged 15, in a schooling session and get rolled on by her horse. It triggered a nightmarish chain of events that included an undiagnosed internal injury, a dozen operations, septicaemia, and culminated in a life-threatening kidney infection.

“At the hospital, they said they had one more antibiotic, the strongest they had, and if that didn’t work then we’d lose her to sepsis. When you hear that, you suddenly remember what’s important in life,” recalls Jimmy solemnly. “My blood ran cold.”

Yet it was as his little “fighter” recuperated that Jimmy became Bryony’s inspiration. “I became a right terror to be around, stuck indoors,” she says, “so Dad got out one of his videotapes and said, ‘Well, if you’re that bored you can watch me ride.’

“And I only watched a video of him riding Little Polveir round Aintree, didn’t I! Even though I was ill, you know when something gives you such a buzz it makes you go all goosebumpy? Well, watching him made me vow, ‘I will try to be the best I can be so that one day I can have a career a little bit like Dad’s’.”

Or perhaps even better. Bryony came fourth in a major race as an amateur at last year’s Aintree Festival, over the same fearsome National fences. And, in the nine months since turning professional with the Somerset yard of ten-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls, she’s already in the top 30 jockeys in the country, having become only the second female jockey ever to win a grade-one race at the prestigious Kempton Park Christmas meeting.

In an exciting era for women jockeys, alongside the likes of Lizzie Kelly (the first) and the Irish duo Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, the young and fizzy Devonian has the ability to be the best of them all.

Modestly protesting that she’d be nothing without the support and the opportunities she’s had, she’s already proving that, as a recent survey suggested, the best women jockeys can be just as effective as their male counterparts.

“If people want to say you’re a great lady jockey or a great jockey, then either’s cool. I’m just me,” she shrugs. “And I want to beat whoever’s lined up on the horse next to me, boy or girl.”

One thing’s for sure – she’s a much more stylish rider than her dad. Jimmy concedes he rode “farmerishly”, and Bryony loves to tease him about the trademark fidget that saw him shake his backside before every jump. “Oh yeah, the Jimmy Wiggle. Absolutely hilarious,” she laughs.

Dad is quick to point out he was only shifting his weight from left to right. But it’s clear they have a special bond. It’s good old Dad whose brains she’ll pick and with whom she’ll walk the Aintree course on Saturday.

“I’m so lucky. If I stopped having Dad’s advice, I wouldn’t be half the jockey I am,” she says. So, could she become the real-life Velvet Brown? “Of course, I fancy Milansbar’s chances. You’ve got to go out there and grab the moment by the scruff of the neck. And that’s what I’m going to do,” she says boldly.

In the Aintree stands, look out for a man jumping every fence with her, accompanied by a very distinctive wiggle.

“It somehow worked for Dad,” laughs Bryony. “Maybe I need to start practising the Jimmy Wiggle!”

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Racing Live: the Grand National is on Saturday 14th April at 4.35pm on ITV (race 5.15pm)