'It would be fairytale stuff to win'
Katie Walsh would love to be the feelgood story the Grand National badly needs, writes Greg Wood
'There was a point coming down to the second last," Katie Walsh says, "when I had plenty left in the tank. For a couple of seconds, I thought I might win the National."
For a couple of seconds, a fair proportion of the 600 million people watching the race around the world thought so too. The Grand National, buffeted and bruised as it was – and still remains – after two fatal injuries to runners the previous year, offered a brief glimpse of a result to match any human interest story in its history. After Red Rum's third victory and Bob Champion's success on Aldaniti, Walsh, riding her father's horse Seabass, was about to become the first female jockey to win the National.
The victory was snatched away almost at once, as Seabass could only stay on at one pace into third while Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy fought out the closest finish in Aintree history. But even the excitement of a National winner by a nose was overshadowed by the news soon afterwards that two more horses – Synchronised, the Gold Cup winner, and According To Pete – had died out on the track.
It makes the memory of Walsh cruising around the home turn with a fresh horse underneath her all the more compelling as they prepare to return to Liverpool next Saturday. If the National needed a heartwarming story to rekindle the public's affection last year, it needs one all the more in 2013.
Seabass started joint favourite for last year's race, thanks almost entirely to fiver and tenner each-way bets all over Britain and Ireland.
There will be another surge of money this year too, matching hard cash with the sport's emotional investment in the hope of a dream result. Walsh, though, will start to worry about the run-in only when, or if, she clears the last.
"I don't think he was favourite from the punters' point of view," Walsh said last week. "I think he was favourite because of a lot of women around the country and a lot of kids who backed him for the story more than anything else. People that don't usually bet decided that they would have their fiver on Seabass.
"It would be fairytale stuff to win and I'd love to be part of it, but you can't go into the race thinking about winning it. I might go down to the first and hit it and fall and it's all over. I don't think I could have finished any closer last year, and being realistic, he's a year older and he's got eight or 10 more pounds on his back, so he has more weight to carry.
"I can't be thinking about what I'm going to do turning in for home. There's no point even thinking about Becher's, you have to get over a good few fences before you get there so it's just got to be one step at a time."
Last year's third place was the best finish for a female jockey in National history, and while amateur jockeys appear on the roll of honour at regular intervals, it is now nearly a quarter of a century since Marcus Armytage, on Mr Frisk, became the last amateur to win.
Walsh's amateur status is a little misleading, however, as she can draw on a wealth of experience and has also recorded a Cheltenham Festival success against senior riders, on Thousand Stars in the 2010 County Hurdle.
"When I think of myself, it's as a successful amateur and a successful jockey, but not as a successful female, that doesn't really come into it," Walsh says. "When I pulled up last year, I never thought, it's great that I've finished third because I'm a girl. It just felt great to be third in the National, there was no female perspective at all. It's what I've been doing since I was 19, and I'm 28 now. I'm just in the weighing room, doing something I love."
Walsh also has her brother Ruby, one of the finest and most successful jump jockeys that the sport has seen, to turn to for advice if necessary, though it is not a call she makes on a regular basis. And it is also quite possible that, thanks to a single 10-minute ride on Saturday afternoon, she will enjoy greater recognition among the general public than Ruby, who already has two National wins to his name, by Saturday evening.
"He'd be there, but he's by no means ringing me every day," she says. "When I need a bit of advice, like if I go to a track that I've not ridden before, I might give him a ring and ask him about it. We're very lucky, we're a close family and we all get on very well.
"There's no extra pressure riding for dad – in fact, it's probably a bit easier riding for him. I know Seabass like the back of my hand, I've won races on him, and I ride him out every day. I know that he's not going to give out to me, whatever goes wrong. He's been a great supporter and I love riding for him."
Ruby Walsh is expected to ride On His Own, the current ante-post favourite, in next week's race. His record around the Grand National course is exceptional, and after the teaser in last year's closing stages, Aintree might yet have an even better story to tell. Imagine Ruby and Katie, on the first and second favourites, jumping the last alongside each other, and setting off towards the Elbow with victory in the balance.
"I took it all in last year," Katie says. "I knew it was an opportunity that might never happen again. A lot of people never get the opportunity to ride in the National, so I cherished every moment and I'll have that forever. It could easily be him [alongside] if we're jumping there at the last. But that's one thing that I really haven't thought about."