Cornelius Lysaght

Cornelius Lysaght

A female jockey winning the Gold Cup would be just reward for a sport and an industry that’s been as disrupted as any by Covid-19.

The numbers make me feel proud and ancient in equal measure: I’ve reported on thirty seven Cheltenham Festivals and twenty nine stagings of the Grand National.

And it strikes me that every year since Bregawn led home trainer Michael Dickinson’s remarkable 1-2-3-4-5 in my first Gold Cup in 1983, and since Seagram stormed home for glory on my Aintree debut eight years later, there are two questions invariably posed.

First, the obvious: what’s going to win the Gold Cup or Grand National, which, when BBC Racing Correspondent, was always a little surprising as it was often accompanied by a derisive analysis of the tips broadcast on Radio 4’s Today programme which were usually assumed (incorrectly) to be my handiwork.

As a quick aside, I can add that hardly ever has it been suggested that in these times when people are rightly keen to promote safer gambling, that the Today programme tips shouldn’t be there. The programme is none the worse for a brief injection of harmless fun, available daily since the pin was first wielded in June 1978.

Perhaps most memorably, and with apologies to Shakespeare, presenter John Timpson once implored sports-bulletin reporter Mike Ingham: “Mike Ingham, Mike Ingham; Mike Ingham for a [winning] horse”. (That may be best acclaimed out loud)

Question two is also as guaranteed as bottomless winter going at Haydock or high-summer hard luck stories at Glorious Goodwood: what price the time will come when bookies pay out on a female jockey winning the Gold Cup or Grand National?

On the morning of the day that Bregawn beat stablemates Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House, a reasonable answer was “it would be great to think so”.

Actually, however, things started to change that very afternoon when Eliogarty was steered to victory by Caroline Beasley in the race before the Gold Cup, so becoming the first Cheltenham Festival winner ridden by a female jockey; Beasley was to be followed by names like Gee Armytage, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh.

At Aintree, the landscape has also changed markedly subsequent to Charlotte Brew riding Barony Fort and becoming the first woman to line-up in the Grand National, the year of Red Rum’s third win in 1977, and since Geraldine Rees became the first to complete the course on Cheers, in 1982.

And now, in the 2020s, with any lingering prejudices evaporating fast, the answer is a confident “yes”, not just for the Gold Cup and Grand National, but for a first female champion jockey; and the same applies to flat racing where Hollie Doyle’s stock soared further after winning a race, somewhat ironically, in Saudi Arabia.

And quite possibly the odds of an historic success at Cheltenham should be shorter than ever in 2021.

With a string of fancied mounts between them, Rachael Blackmore - from Ireland and second in the Irish jockeys’ championship - and ‘home-grown’ Bryony Frost are well-placed to grab headlines throughout the 28-race programme, notably in the centrepiece itself, the WellChild Gold Cup.

Plenty of shrewdies are keen on Blackmore’s mount A Plus Tard, from the prolific Henry de Bromhead stable in County Waterford, a horse that’s already shown a liking for the track with a Festival victory and a creditable third place.

When achieving that third, in day three’s Ryanair Chase in 2020, next to finish were Frost and the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon, twelve months after their unforgettable success in the same race saw the jockey’s profile take off – only to reach new heights when they captured the King George VI Chase at Christmas.

Now they are taking aim at the Gold Cup, and despite the strength of opposition, headed by hat trick-seeking Al Boum Photo, there’s a belief that even more experience of the course – six wins from thirteen starts – might just prove a trump card.

And it isn’t Blackmore and Frost alone: though even more would be good. Bridget Andrews, Millie Wonnacott, Page Fuller, Lily Pinchin and the currently injured Lucy Alexander, all find themselves riding more and better horses in more and better races, competing - unlike most other sports let it not be forgotten - on level terms with men.

‘Female jockeys’ loathe that term, and within racing there’s barely any differential made, but outside the bubble there remains an endless fascination, all of which clearly also provides an up-side.

A Gold Cup victory, or more, for Blackmore or Frost would see them and their horses gallop up the news agenda in the most positive of fashions – just reward perhaps for a sport and an industry that’s been as disrupted as any by Covid-19.

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