As first trips to the Grand National go, Katie Walsh’s was, she recalls “not at all bad”. It was back in 2000, she was just 16 and was working as a groom for Papillon, a horse trained by her father, Ted, and ridden by her brother, Ruby. That day she ended up leading the horse into the Aintree winner’s enclosure, her brother in the saddle, her father nearby, her full-beam grin the picture of a triumphant family day out. She must have thought it was easy, an everyday part of the Walsh routine.
“No, no, no, not at all,” she said, speaking in a brief break between race commitments in Ireland. “Even at that age you knew it was all a fairy tale. No way did you think that was what always happened.”
She is back at Aintree this week. But not as a groom. She will be on top of the Paul Nicholls-trained Wonderful Charm, a 33-1 chance, although that in itself is something of a miracle. She tumbled off Distime in the Foxhunters on Thursday, with initial reports suggesting she had broken her arm. A trip to hospital revealed ‘merely’ severe bruising, with Walsh cheerfully tweeting “Roll on Saturday”.
“People tell me I must be mad to put myself in such a dangerous place,” she had explained in Ireland. “But I don’t think I am. I tell you one thing: I wouldn’t get on the back of a motorbike. So who’s mad?”
Instead, she describes herself as in love with her job. “I really enjoy what I do. I don’t think of it as remotely scary. Yeah, of course accidents happen, that’s part of the job. But you never go into a race thinking, ‘It could be me falling off here, I’d better be careful’. You go in thinking, ‘It could be me here winning, I’d better be quick’.”
The prospect of defying the pain to ride in the National clearly still intoxicates her, even if it is something, she says, she never thought possible 17 years ago when she helped prepare Papillon. “It just didn’t enter my mind that one day I could be racing in the National,” she says. “I was just happy to be there, helping Ruby and Dad. I never thought that I’d be back there riding myself. It was so far from a possibility it wasn’t even an ambition.”
Her assumptions back then were understandable: women jockeys and the National were not words used frequently in the same sentence. Indeed, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the first time a woman broke into a previously exclusive male preserve and rode a horse over Aintree’s intimidating obstacles.
In 1977, Charlotte Brew took Barony Fort as far as fence 27, before it refused to jump. Since then 14 other women have joined the frantic, elbows-out jostle that is the start line of the nation’s favourite racing event – of which Walsh is the most successful. This year will be her fifth excursion round the fences. “It was working with Seabass that made me think I could do it,” she says. “You knew from the moment you sat on him that he was special. And Dad encouraged me to try on him.”
So it was that, five years ago, on top of the young gelding, with horses falling all around her and seasoned jockeys tumbling to the turf, she made her way to the front of the melee. And there she stayed almost to the last, sending the commentator’s voice skywards and giving every impression that she would, at the first attempt, become the first woman to win the most testing jump race in the calendar.
“The second time we went past Melling Road, when we were heading towards the second last and we were out in front, then yeah, I’ll admit the idea did enter my mind for a moment,” she recalls. “Yeah, I had the feeling that we were going to win.”
Sadly, for Walsh, it was the most fleeting moment of epiphany. Neptune Collonges overtook her in the finishing furlong and she and Seabass ended up tiring in third place. “People say I was robbed but the reality was it was no hard-luck story,” she says of the finish. “He ran out of steam. When you get that far anything might happen. Just to get around was something.”
Her third place, nonetheless, offered final proof that women were not simply novelties in the race. “I think the arguments changed,” she says. “There’s no doubt that Ruby and Barry Geraghty and the other guys are physically stronger than any woman could be. That’s a fact of life. But I don’t bring that into it. What I’m trying to do, like all women jockeys, is bring what I can do to the front.”
In 2013, a year after her National debut, visitors to London were confronted by very public evidence of Walsh’s competitive commitment. A stunning picture of her taken by Spencer Murphy won the Taylor Wessing Photography Prize and was used by the National Portrait Gallery as a publicity shot, appearing on posters across the capital’s transport network.
It showed Walsh, spattered in mud, looking completely spent at the end of a race, her gaze set on some distant, apparently as yet unattainable, prize. Though, as she recalls, in this instance, the camera was telling something considerably less than the full truth.
“It wasn’t taken after a race,” she reveals. “That wasn’t really mud, it was make-up applied with a brush. And everyone said I looked as if I was exhausted after riding. What I thought I looked like was someone who doesn’t know where her next meal for her 12 kids is coming from as she waves off her husband on the boat to America.”
Walsh’s ready humour is a significant part of her armoury. She laughs off suggestions of female inadequacy, cheerfully mocks prejudicial assumptions, jokes about needing to make any special consideration. And while she does not regard herself in any way as a spokeswoman for her sex, she insists it is only a matter of time before a female jockey does ride to victory at the National.
“People say it’s about finding the right horse,” she says. “But at the National, that’s only part of it. Course you need a good horse, but there’s so much going on anything can happen. And for the winner, everything’s got to fall into place.”
There is no reason, she adds, that it can’t all fall into place for her, as it did for her father and brother that day 17 years ago. “You’ve no idea what is going to happen. All you can be is ready for it. And I tell you what, I’m ready.”