London (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Katie Walsh will bid to become the first female jockey to win the Grand National on Saturday at Aintree as she rides Baie des Iles in the world’s greatest steeplechase.
If successful she will finally close a chapter that began 41 years ago when Charlotte Brew failed to finish on Barony Fort as the first woman to ride in the race.
The 34-year-old Walsh, from a notable Irish racing family whose trainer father Ted and brother legendary jockey Ruby teamed up to win the race with Papillon in 2000, has gone closest of all the female jockeys to winning the National when third on Seabass in 2012.
Baie des Iles, currently 16-1 in the betting, is a useful performer having finished fifth in last season’s 2016 Welsh Grand National behind Native River, who went on to win this season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Walsh will need no introduction to the horse’s connections either as Baie des Iles — who is bidding to become the first mare to win the race since Nickel Coin in 1951 — is trained by her husband Ross O’Sullivan.
The 35-year-old Irish handler — who decided to give up being a rider when his future wife beat him into second in a modest race — says the dream is possible.
“All the stars really need to align for it to happen and we will need a lot of luck,” he told the Daily Mail this week.
“It’s a fairytale kind of thing but there is the odd fairytale in the National.”
Actor Elizabeth Taylor on her mount ‘The Pie’ was disqualified in the fictional 1944 film ‘National Velvet’ for being a woman jockey.
But should Walsh and Baie des Iles reach the final fence in contention, they will be roared to the rafters.
– ‘Would mean everything to us’ –
However, things appear to be falling in Walsh’s favour and against some of the favourites in the 40-runner field as heavy rain will make it an even more exacting test of stamina and jumping ability.
“All her form is on soft ground so it is great to see the rain and there is more forecast before Saturday. It should all help,” said O’Sullivan.
Victory for a small stable like O’Sullivan’s would be a strike for them against their Irish compatriots and powerhouses Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins.
Both have fancied runners with Elliott’s leading hope the three-time Cheltenham Festival winner Tiger Roll — who will be ridden by veteran Irish ace Davy Russell, although the rain will have done him few favours.
Elliott — who landed his first Irish Grand National earlier this month having flooded the field with 13 runners — may enjoy better fortune with the tried and tested Ucello Conti.
Whilst he has been to the National ‘well’ twice and come away with nothing, he has been unlucky on both occasions and his rider Daryl Jacob is full of confidence.
“I’ve been so excited about Ucello Conti all season and I am so glad he has made it to the race,” said the 34-year-old Irishman, who won the 2012 edition on Neptune Collonges.
Mullins’ leading fancy will be Total Recall who came a cropper at the Cheltenham Gold Cup last time out.
Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies has won two Grand Nationals including one in the mud with Earthstopper, but a third victory with Blaklion would surpass the other two as his son Sam is on board last year’s fourth-placed finisher.
“It would mean everything to us,” said Twiston-Davies.
Others who could well come into the equation are Irish pair Raz de Maree, who won this season’s Welsh Grand National but at 13 would be the oldest winner since 1923, and Carlingford Lough, whose 81-year-old trainer John Kiely still rides out.
Scotland have two live contenders in Seeyouatmidnight and the well-backed Captain Redbeard to follow up One For Arthur’s win last year.
“We hadn’t won the (Five Nations) Grand Slam for about 60 years, and then along came two nearly in a row (in 1984 and 1990), so you never know,” said Seeyouatmidnight’s trainer and former top rugby player Sandy Thomson.