London (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Katie Walsh heads a trio of female jockeys who could later on Saturday make history in winning the world’s greatest steeplechase the Grand National at Aintree racecourse on the fancied Baie des Iles.
Overcast skies will have greeted her, Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore — the latter two having their first ride in the race — as they awoke in Liverpool.
Around 70,000 spectators are expected to flood into the historic racecourse for the race which gets under way at 1615 GMT.
Walsh and her two fellow female corinthians will be part of a 38-runner field after the late withdrawals of Regal Encore and Walk In The Mill.
The 33-year-old has come closest of all the women over the past 41 years with a third place on Seabass in 2012.
Should Walsh prevail it will be a family affair — just like when her legendary brother jockey Ruby Walsh teamed up with their trainer father Ted to win with Papillon in 2000 — as Baie Des Iles is trained by her husband Ross O’Sullivan.
However, Walsh says she cannot understand what all the fuss is about and dismisses the significance of becoming the first woman to win the race — which would come in the centenary of British women getting the vote for the first time.
“I won’t be celebrating winning the National because I am a woman. I will be delighted to win like any of the other jockeys because it is the greatest race,” said Walsh, who is riding in the National for the sixth time.
Walsh, though, goes into battle without the weight of her injured brother Ruby’s support as he has plumped for Total Recall, trained by his boss Willie Mullins.
– ‘Imagining coming home first’ –
The size of the task facing all the riders and horses is made even more daunting as quite aside from the 30 imposing fences they will race on heavy going. That sort of surface was last encountered when Red Marauder won in 2001.
On that occasion only four horses finished the marathon — two of those remounted, but that practice is no longer permitted.
The testing conditions should however suit Baie des Iles.
Frost’s mount Milansbar should also take to the going — she won on him at Warwick earler this season — and with advice from her father Jimmy, who won on Little Polveir in 1989, the respected rider known as “Bee” by her proud dad is set fair.
Blackmore, the only one of the three who makes their living from the sport as she is professional, rides Alpha des Obeaux for the 2016-winning handler Mouse Morris.
The 28-year-old — who recorded an impressive 35 wins last season — admits she has been flying ever since she got the ride.
“I don’t think I’ve been able to shut my eyes since I heard I was riding in the race without imagining coming home first,” she told the Daily Telegraph.
However, like Walsh she is phlegmatic about the significance of being the first woman to win.
“No, listen, if it happened I won’t be thinking about what it means. I’d just be the happiest person in the world.”
Baie Des Iles has been heavily backed all week — she is 18/1 — but is not favourite. That burden rests on another Irish runner, Anibale Fly, 12/1 in the early-morning show.
The ladies are not the only ones bidding to etch their names into National folklore as Welsh jockey James Bowen on Shantou Flyer’s can become the youngest rider to win. Aged 17, he will be a few days younger than Bruce Hobbs was on Battleship in 1938.
The Walsh family success of 2000 could also be emulated if the well-backed Captain Redbeard triumphs for trainer Stuart Coltherd and his 19-year-old son jockey Sam.
“It would go down in history and mean everything but as long as we come home safely and give it our best shot we can do no more,” said papa Coltherd.