What a fuss was made about the News of the World Grand National in 1977, and not just because of Red Rum chasing an historic third success after near-misses in the previous two stagings.
No, there was just as much chat about number 41 on the racecard of forty-two contenders, Barony Fort, as the first runner with a female jockey on board.
Things certainly were beginning to change – albeit very slowly – in the men’s world of British horseracing, which, although the Queen had been champion owner on the flat twice and the Queen Mother was a prominent national hunt supporter, still gloried in its ‘Sport of Kings’ tag-line.
Women had only been officially recognised as trainers in their own right as recently as 1966 – after a fierce legal struggle with the then regulator, the Jockey Club – and it was not until 1972 that female jockeys were permitted to take part in races away from point-to-points.
Now, here was Charlotte Brew, a 21-year-old who’d ridden Barony Fort, her own horse, into a respectable fourth place in the previous season’s Aintree Foxhunters – which qualified them – taking on Red Rum’s jockey Tommy Stack and forty other men in the most famous racing event in the world.
Media interest was intense, perhaps unsurprisingly led by the race sponsor and its ‘stablemate’ The Sun, which, incidentally, staged the Page Three Chase on the same April afternoon, while critics included the never-short-of-views Ginger McCain, trainer of Red Rum.
In the race itself Barony Fort, sent off at 200-1, never really featured and at the fourth last of the thirty fences refused to continue.
However, a major bastion of British sport had been infiltrated.
Though it would be incorrect to say that after 1977 the Aintree floodgates sprung open, certainly a steady trickle of female jockeys soon emerged; Brew herself returned in 1982 on Martinstown, another outsider, and the same year Geraldine Rees riding Cheers (66-1) was the first woman to complete the course, behind Grittar – twelve months later, Jenny Pitman broke new barriers when becoming the first female trainer of the winner, with Corbiere.
It wasn’t until 2005 that a woman was on a leading fancy when Carrie Ford partnered Forest Gunner, a horse made second in the betting behind the (winning) favourite Hedgehunter, after two previous clear rounds (once ridden by Ford) over the famous fences.
I recall reporting for the BBC from Aintree on the Friday evening as the principal item on a string of news bulletins, though close behind was another quote from Ginger McCain dismissing the young mother, as “a broodmare now…horses do not win Nationals ridden by women”; she finished fifth.
Since then, Nina Carberry, Katie Walsh – whose mount Seabass started favourite twice, in 2012 (when 3rd) and 2013 (13th) – Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore have all distinguished themselves, while in 2019 Aintree appointed Sulekha Varma as its first female clerk of the course.
Blackmore, on a big-race roll after being central to Ireland’s 23-5 rout of its British counterparts at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, is due to ride Minella Times, trained by her old ally Henry de Bromhead – will the horse’s stamina last out the distance?
There are no such concerns for Frost on the Paul Nicholls-trained Yala Enki, a keeping-on third in each of the last three stagings of the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow.
And although Tabitha Worsley’s mount Sub Lieutenant, trained by her mother Georgie Howell, is close to 100-1, not only is a previous second place in Aintree’s Topham a positive, but his rider’s record over the famous fences is 100% after Top Wood’s 2019 Foxhunters success.
Of course, the term ‘female jockey’ is hardly used within the racing bubble, but outside there remains an ongoing fascination so a Grand National victory for Blackmore, Frost or Worsley would create global headlines.
And there can be no doubt that such a win will happen sooner or later. Perhaps sooner.