Russell keeps gender revolution at bay
Bryony Frost's display suggests it won't be long before a female jockey wins the National
The story of the 2018 Grand National was written across the face of the winning jockey. As Davy Russell made his way back to the parade ring, the smile creasing his weather-beaten face was one of mighty relief.
At 38 and the oldest rider in the race, he had been around long enough to know precisely how close he had come to missing out on what Carl Llewellyn, a double winner of this race, reckons is the greatest feeling in sport: the winner's walk after triumphing in the National.
Apparently well clear, six lengths ahead as he steered round the Elbow, the vast, sun-drenched crowd baying in his ear, Russell seemed certain to win the race for the first time in his lengthy career.
Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, David Mullins stoked Pleasant Company into life. With a jet-heeled burst, Mullins accelerated the horse up at the last, closing in on the leader. Suddenly Russell could hear hooves thundering alongside him. Such was the turn of pace, one more yard and Mullins would have won, as he had two years ago. But Russell held on, according to the photo finish.
The tiny Tiger Roll, the horse that his owner, Ryanair's Michael O'Leary, dismissed with characteristic caustic wit as "a little rat", steamed over the line first. So it was that the most successful trainer, owner and jockey at the Cheltenham Festival combined again to win the National.
It was a victory for the established order, a victory for tradition, for the standard way of doing things. Because Russell was not just holding off Mullins in that final acceleration for the line. He was holding back a revolution.
This was billed as the National when, never mind wizened old stagers such as Russell, the women were about to accede to the throne. In the build-up, the most substantial contingent of female riders since 1988 had seized the media agenda.
In the fizz of attention, the three female jockeys concerned had shied away from the symbolism; they were just doing their job, they all insisted, they were not revolutionaries. But the rest of us could not disguise the sense of anticipation, the thought that we might be witness to sporting history.
Seated on proper horses, horses with a real chance rather than the kind of tokenist mounts women had received in the past, it was reckoned there had never been a better chance for a female rider in the National to improve on Katie Walsh's third place in 2012. Walsh was back for her sixth attempt to win it, joined by the debutants Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore.
These were the harbingers of the new order. And, however hard they tried to downplay it, the significance was clear: one of them winning here would signal the time when jump racing became recognised as a truly gender-blind sport.
The excitement was not confined to the media: 36 per cent of the bets in the build-up had been placed on Walsh's horse Baie des Iles, trained by her husband Ross O'Sullivan. By Friday, the odds had narrowed to 8/1 for one of the women riders winning. As the race hove into view, however, the support dissipated for the women. Though, according to those in the know, there was nothing sexist about it. It was all in the name.
"On the day, recreational punters come out and shape the market," explained Nicola McGeady of Ladbrokes. "And they tend to back striking names." Hence the money piled in behind Chase the Spud and Captain Redbeard. And not the French names of Walsh's Baie des Iles or Blackmore's mount Alpha des Obeaux. Frost, meanwhile, was on Milansbar, a moniker that hardly leapt out.
But it was not hard to find supporters for the women riders. Never mind that for the first time there was a clash with a local football match; Liverpool kicking off against Bournemouth at Anfield at about the time the horses were beginning their second lap. The names of the trailblazing women jockeys were on everyone's lips. Well almost.
"I went for whatsername," explained Ruth, who had come from Yorkshire with a gaggle of friends to the race for the first time. "Oh, you know. Katie? Anyhow she's a woman, so I did it to support the women. Solidarity!"
At the Tote kiosk beneath the Princess Royal Stand, the man taking the bets confided that, if anyone was after a tip, they might be wise to choose a woman. "It's got to happen one day," was his reasoning. "So why not today?"
He had backed Frost. "Her dad won it didn't he?" he said of the great Jimmy who came first in 1989. "It's in the genes. And racing's all about genes."
As the riders came out for the start of the race, Frost was the first to emerge, galloping down the course on her own, assessing her path. Behind her, Walsh stood out in her pink silks, her horse the field's only grey. In the scramble of early fences, as the crowd oohed and aahed as the horses they had backed tumbled, Blackmore was the first to fall, taking a nasty tumble at the Chair.
But Frost and Walsh remained in the saddle, sticking to the first rule of the National: you've got to stay in it to win it. And, even as Walsh's mount began to tire, so Frost kept at it, coming home in a hugely credible fifth place.
"We went on a lovely evening gallop and he rode in his own space," she said. "I hope he sleeps as well as I will tonight."
The truth was Russell's nerveless dash to the line ensured it m ay not have been the seismic, women-empowering moment we had expected. But Frost can sleep well in the knowledge that she had just demonstrated that women's time is surely soon. It will happen.
WHERE THEY FINISHED
1st Tiger Roll 10-1
2nd Pleasant Company 25-1 head
3rd Bless The Wings 40-1 11 lengths
4th Anibale Fly 10-1 neck
6th Road To Riches
7th Gas Line Boy
8th Valseur Lido
9th Vieux Lion Rouge
10th Raz De Maree
12th Baie Des Iles
Perfect Candidate, fell 1st
Blaklion, brought down 1st
I Just Know, fell 6th
Houblon Des Obeaux, fell 6th
Virgilio, fell 6th
Captain Redbeard, unseated 7th
Final Nudge, unseated 8th
Buywise, unseated 8th
Lord Windermere, unseated 8th
Alpha Des Obeaux, fell 15th
Saint Are, brought down 15th
The Dutchman, unseated 23rd
Ucello Conti, unseated 27th
Chase The Spud, pulled up 15th
Delusionofgrandeur, pulled up 17th
Maggio, pulled up 18th
Thunder And Roses, pulled up 26th
The Last Samuri, pulled up 26th
Tenor Nivernais, pulled up 26th
Shantou Flyer, pulled up 26th
Total Recall, pulled up 29th
Warriors Tale, pulled up 29th
Pendra, pulled up 29th
Double Ross, pulled up 29th
Carlingford Lough, pulled up run in
Childrens List, pulled up run in
Sunday Indo Sport