The Grand National is one of the most exciting and competitive horse races anywhere in the world. Often referred to as ‘The World’s Greatest Steeplechase’, it officially took place for the first time in 1839. When it was first created, the idea was the ‘gentlemen’ riders would take part in the race, which is to say men who were not paid to be competitive jockeys. Though this was written into the rules of the race, it was rarely actually adhered to.
The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 meant that female jockeys were allowed to take part in the race for the first time, with Charlotte Brew being the first to do so in 1977. Despite the race’s long history, then, it wasn’t until the middle of the 1970s that female jockeys could take part in the Grand National. That might help to explain why no female jockey had won the Aintree race until 2021 when Rachael Blackmore was victorious with Minella Times.
Has a Female Jockey Ever Won The National?
Yes, in 2021 Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win a Grand National when she was victorious with Minella Times who was trained by Henry de Bromhead. Minella Times was an 11/1 shot and won by a resounding 6½ lengths.
Before Blackmore, the woman who had come the closest to riding a winner was Katie Walsh, sister of famed jump jockey Ruby Walsh. In the 165th renewal of the race, Walsh rode the 8/1 joint-favourite horse Seabass, trained by her father Ted Walsh. Walsh took him to a 3rd place finish, just 5 lengths shy of the winner Neptune Collonges.
It took five years from the first female rider in 1977 before a female jockey finished the race when Gerladine Rees and Cheers finished 8th in 1982.
Best Performances by Female Riders
In any race, the best performance that can be achieved is, of course, to be the winner. On the 10th April 2021, that is exactly what County Tipperary born Rachael Blackmore did in the Grand National when she powered home to a 6½ length victory riding Minella Times for trainer Henry de Bromhead. In doing so, Blackmore ended a 44 year wait for the first female winning jockey in the National, since the first female rider in the race, Charlotte Brew, in 1977.
At the time of writing, just eighteen female jockeys have actually taken part in the Grand National. Of those, many have done so more than once, with one winner and numerous placed finishes over the years. The sheer weight of numbers is one reason why more women haven’t won the race (more on this later), but the quality of ride that they’ve been given to compete in the race is another reason. This is in spite of the fact that the stats show that they’re just as good as male riders.
Here’s a look at all of the female jockeys that have taken part in the Grand National between 1977 and 2023, as well as the best position that they achieved during their career up to that point:
Female Grand National Riders – 1977 to 2023
|Jockey||Races||Best Race Finish|
|Charlotte Brew||2||Did Not Finish|
|Jenny Hembrow||2||Did Not Finish|
|Lizzie Kelly||1||Did Not Finish|
|Tarnya Davis||1||Did Not Finish|
|Gee Armytage||1||Did Not Finish|
|Penny Ffitch-Heyes||1||Did Not Finish|
|Venetia Williams||1||Did Not Finish|
|Jacqui Oliver||1||Did Not Finish|
|Valerie Alder||1||Did Not Finish|
|Joy Carrier||1||Did Not Finish|
|Linda Sheedy||1||Did Not Finish|
|Judy Davies||1||Did Not Start (void race)|
To those with knowledge of the horse racing industry, some of those names are extremely recognisable. The likes of Venetia Williams and Lizzie Kelly are well-known, yet the all only entered the Grand National once. Was that because they were only offered one ride, or did they simply decide that the race wasn’t for them? Regardless, it’s certainly noteworthy that even female jockeys who did relatively well weren’t given other opportunities.
There are some names on the list that, whilst decent jockeys in their own right, would pass most people by when considering who the best female jockeys of all-time are. The likes of Carrie Ford, Jacqui Oliver and Joy Carrier are certainly interesting characters, but probably not the sort of people that those with a limited knowledge of female jockeys would want to learn more about. Instead, we’re going to look in more detail at the top female jockeys on the above list.
Whilst Charlotte Brew might not be the best-known of the names on the list, she’s also not one that we could readily ignore. She was, after all, the woman that started it all. The trailblazing Brew was the first female jockey to take part in the Grand National, doing so on the back of her horse Barony Fort in 1977. Barony Fort was able to enter the race thanks to a fourth-place finish in the Foxhunters, which saw automatic qualification.
It was, of course, thanks to the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 that Brew was able to take part in the race at all. She came close to finishing the event, too. She’d ridden well around the course but her ride lost its way on the fourth-to-last fence, refusing to jump. Even so, what Brew had done on the back of Barony Fort, and would do again five years later with Martinstown, paved the way for fellow female jockeys.
Next we have Venetia Williams, the woman who rode Marcolo in the 1988 Grand National. As with Penny Ffitch-Heyes and Gee Armytage, who also rode in the same race, she didn’t finish but did at least make history by being involved in the largest number of women to ride in the same National race. Born in 1960 and based in stables at Aramstone in Herefordshire, she is best known as being a trainer.
She was forced to retire from racing after breaking her neck in 1988, initially working as a trainer for Martin Pipe and John Edwards before getting her own licence in 1995. Whilst she might not have influenced the Grand National much as a jockey, she certainly has as a trainer. She oversaw Mon Mome’s win in 2009, making her just the second female trainer to have a winner after Jenny Pitman. It’s fair to say that she’s been a trailblazer in numerous ways.
It says a lot for Katie Walsh that she was known as a talented jockey in her own right and not just as the sister of Ruby Walsh. She’s also the daughter of Ted Walsh, the trainer and one-time amateur jockey, but is known to most as being the first female to finish in the places at a Grand National. She did so on the back of joint-favourite Seabass in 2012, going one step further in 2015 when she won the Irish Grand National with Thunder and Roses.
Having earned her stripes in Eventing, she began riding jump racing horses in 2003 and notched up her first winner in the same year. She won two races during the 2010 Cheltenham Festival to all but solidify her place in the history books as one of the best female jockeys ever. This was confirmed with the Grade 1 win in the Champion INH Flat Race at Punchestown in 2016 and then the Champion Bumper back at Prestbury Park in 2018. Walsh retired from riding in 2018.
For many years, Katie Walsh’s a rival for the title of ‘top female jockey’ was Nina Carberry, who actually married into the Walsh family when she wed Ted Walsh Junior in February of 2012. As with Katie Walsh, Nina Carberry escaped the shadow of a famous family thanks to her racing successes, being the daughter of jockey Tommy Carberry and sister to Paul Carberry. She won her first race at Cheltenham in 2005, becoming the first woman to do so for eighteen years.
Though she didn’t enjoy the Grand National successes of Walsh, failing to finish twice and finishing sixteenth, fifteenth, ninth and seventh in the other races, she nevertheless carved a solid reputation for herself in the industry. She won the Cross Country Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2007, proving that she’s had the mettle to take on the tougher races. She retired in 2018 after winning on the final day of the Punchestown Festival.
The Frost family has the Grand National in its blood, given that Bryony’s father was Jimmy Frost, who won the race in 1989. Bryony Frost is the other jockey alongside Rachael Blackmore who is still competing, having only turned professional in 2017. That came after she won the Foxhunter Chase during the Cheltenham Festival that year, taking Pacha Du Polder over the line in first place.
Her best performance in the Grand National to date came in 2018 when she finished fifth on the back of Milansbar. Later that year she became only the fifth woman to rack up seventy-five wins under rules. She continued making history in 2019 when she became the first woman to win a Grade 1 race at the Cheltenham that featured obstacles, taking Frodon to the winning post in the Ryanair Chase, winning the British Conditional Jockeys title to boot.
And so on to the only female jockey to have won this great race, Racheal Blackmore. She is currently one of just two female jockeys in the table above still competing (alongside Bryony Frost), meaning that even though she already has a Grand National win, there could yet be more to come. Her first winner as a jockey came in 2011 when she was still an amateur, not turning professional for more than four years. She did win as a pro virtually straight away, thought she had to wait until 2019 for both her first Cheltenham Festival winner and her first win in a Grade 1 race.
She finished the 2018-2019 season with ninety winners to her name, which led to her being named the runner-up in the Irish Jump Racing Champion Jockey standings. Often used by the trainer Henry de Bromhead, Blackmore developed a good relationship with Honeysuckle with whom she won the Champion Hurdle twice, the Irish Champion Hurdle three times.
Her best finish in the Grand National to before winning was her 10th place, achieved in 2019. She came into the 2021 race having won the top jockey award at the Cheltenham Festival, bagging six winners including the Ryanair Chase with Allaho. In 2022, Blackmore completed another milestone when she became the first female winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup with A Plus Tard.
Why Haven’t There Been More Female Winners?
There are two main reasons why women have struggled historically to make an impact on the Grand National in any meaningful sense, with the first one being that they aren’t always given the same quality of ride as their male counterparts. The other, and the one that we’re focussing on here, is a matter of sheer numbers. The reality is that not as many female jockeys are given rides as men, so they’re always less likely to finish in the places.
To prove the point, here’s a look at how many women competed as riders in the Grand National since 1977. We’ll look at not only the number of female jockeys but the percentage of the overall jockeys competing that were women.
It’s interesting to note that there have been 1059 jockeys taking in part in Grand National races that feature women. Of those, just 38 were female. That means that just 3.6% of the jockeys to have taken part in races that have featured female jockeys have actually been female. If you include the races in which no women took part between 1977 and 2023 then that percentage decreases even further to 2.1%, with those 38 female riders vastly outnumbered by the 1743 male riders.
As result, the sheer weight of numbers has always been against female jockeys. With a little over three and a half percent of all jockeys to take part in the National in races featuring woman actually being female jockeys, it’s hardly surprising that only Rachael Blackmore has won the race to date. Winning ‘the Greatest Steeplechase On Earth’ is difficult enough without there only being around 1/50 of you trying to do so.
Full List of Grand National Runners with Female Jockeys
The table below contains a full list of the female jockeys in the Grand National between 1977 and 2023.
Female Grand National Riders – 1977 to 2023
|2023||Rachael Blackmore||Ain’t That A Shame (H. de Bomhead)||17th|
|2022||Rachael Blackmore||Minella Times (H. de Bromhead)||Fell (9th fence)|
|2021||Rachael Blackmore||Minella Times (H. de Bromhead)||1st|
|2021||Tabitha Worsley||Sub Lieutenant (G. Howell)||14th|
|2021||Bryony Frost||Yala Enki (P. Nicholls)||Unseated (20th fence)|
|2019||Rachael Blackmore||Valseur Lido (h. de Bromhead)||10th|
|2019||Lizzie Kelly||Tea For Two (J. Williams)||Pulled up (29th fence)|
|2018||Bryony Frost||Milansbar (N. King)||5th|
|2018||Katie Walsh||Baie Des Iles (R. O’Sullivan)||12th|
|2018||Rachael Blackmore||Alpha Des Obeaux (M. Morris)||Fell (15th fence)|
|2017||Katie Walsh||Wonderful Charm (P. Nicholls)||19th|
|2016||Katie Walsh||Ballycasey (W. Mullins)||Unseated (29th fence)|
|2016||Nina Carberry||Sir Des Champs (W. Mullins)||Fell (15th fence)|
|2015||Nina Carberry||First Lieutenant (M. Morris)||16th|
|2014||Katie Walsh||Vesper Bell (W. Mullins)||13th|
|2013||Katie Walsh||Seabass (T. Walsh)||13th|
|2012||Katie Walsh||Seabass (T. Walsh)||3rd|
|2012||Nina Carberry||Organisedconfusion (A. Moore)||Unseated (8th fence)|
|2011||Nina Carberry||Character Building (J. Quinn)||15th|
|2010||Nina Carberry||Character Building (J. Quinn)||7th|
|2006||Nina Carberry||Forest Gunner (R. Ford)||9th|
|2005||Carrie Ford||Forest Gunner (R. Ford)||5th|
|1994||Rosemary Henderson||Fiddlers Pike (R. Henderson)||5th|
|1993||Judy Davies||Formula One (J. Edwards)||Void race|
|1989||Tarnya Davis||Numerate (P. Davies)||Pulled up (21st fence)|
|1988||Gee Armytage||Gee-A (G. Hubbard)||Pulled up (26th fence)|
|1988||Venetia Williams||Marcolo (P. Ransom)||Fell (6th fence)|
|1988||Penny Ffitch-Heyes||Hettinger (J. Ffitch-Heyes)||Fell (1st fence)|
|1987||Jacqui Oliver||Eamon’s Owen (S. Oliver)||Unseated (15th fence)|
|1984||Valerie Alder||Bush Guide (J. Adler)||Fell (8th fence)|
|1983||Joy Carrier||King Spruse (M. O’Brien)||Unseated (6th fence)|
|1983||Geraldine Rees||Midday Welcome (J. Wilson)||Fell (1st fence)|
|1981||Linda Sheedy||Deiopea||Refused (19th fence)|
|1980||Jenny Hembrow||Sandwilan (G. Ham)||Refused (19th fence)|
|1979||Jenny Hembrow||Sandwilan (G. Ham)||Fell (1st fence)|
|1977||Charlotte Brew||Barony Fort (C. Brew)||Refused (27th fence)|