The Grand National:
Racing: Ford almost perfect in her 'thrill of a lifetime' ride
Forest Gunner runs dry but the rider keeps on going
Sunday 10 April 2005
It was never going to be a marriage of philosophies: Carrie Ford, nine stone of resolve and an obsession to claim a Grand National for the distaff side of the jockeys' fraternity, and Ginger McCain, who had proclaimed that if she achieved any such thing he would "bare my bum to the winds".
For weeks, she had withstood his jibes: that she was unsuited to her partnership with such a National favourite, that Ford should have perhaps been entered for the 12.30 at Windsor Guildhall rather than the 4.10 at Aintree.
Whatever the public's thoughts about the merits of the former occasion, there was no doubting their approval for the sole female participant of the latter. There was strong belief that on the big day it would be a union made in heaven for Ford, aboard her "little white-faced freak", as she describes the 11-year-old, Forest Gunner, trained by her husband Richard.
Here on the course and, apparently, from those surveying events from home, the weight of betting money indicated a contempt for the decidedly un-PC forecast of McCain, the trainer of Red Rum and Amberleigh House, who had contended that "horses do not win Nationals ridden by women". Ford was determined that she would provide the most cutting answer on the racecourse, although it was perhaps just as well that she was not aware of the spectacular nature of that financial support. Bookmaker William Hill's David Hood estimated that industry-wide, the weight of £8m of the £120m total staked on the race had been placed on the shoulders of Ford.
Forest Gunner started second favourite. For expectant punters, that meant potential winnings of around £75m. For his rider, this 33-year-old mother of one young daughter, the profit from victory would be Grand National immortality. Certainly, Forest Gunner was deemed liable to perform rather more auspiciously than the 12 horses previously ridden by women, who had recorded, with one exception, a depressing litany of outcomes: "refused", "pulled up", "fell", unseated, and "last".
Despite McCain's doubts, there was no doubting Ford's fitness from her regular work-riding at home. As for tactical awareness, she had taken the counsel of Neale Doughty, rider of the 1984 victor, Hallo Dandy. Before the race, Ford had sought the haven of the lady jockeys room, where a calm environment is ensured by the presence of two attendants who prefer knitting to horseracing. By all account, Black Beauty could romp home and they wouldn't raise an eyelid from their stitches. There, the National's 13th woman rider since the race was inaugurated in 1839 could focus and prepare herself mentally. She emerged, weighed out and posed for a "team photo" with her 39 male counterparts before forcing her way through the throng to the parade ring.
Her husband watched transfixed from the sidelines. His words of a few days ago came to mind when he was asked about the trepidation he would experience witnessing his wife participate in this of all races: "When we married, we both knew what we were letting ourselves in for. I'm the one who sits there as it unfolds and hopes that there won't be too many pieces to pick up if it all goes pear-shaped. If it does, it's my fault."
In the end, the four and a half miles and 30 obstacles proved probably around a mile too far for Forest Gunner. For much of the race, he was cantering easily among the leading pack. The horse who has twice won over these fences, but at a lesser distance of 2m 6f in the Fox Hunters' Chase, appeared poised to lay down a serious challenge to the eventual victor, Hedgehunter and those pursuing him. Ford and Forest Gunner eventually had to accept fifth, beaten by 27 lengths, that finishing position equalling the best performance by a woman in the National, Rosemary Henderson's achievement on Fiddlers Pike in 1994.
"It was a better class of race than he's run here before," the rider said. "He was brilliant. There was a couple of times when he had to reach for his fences and he just scraped over the Chair. To be honest, he was running on vapours from the Melling Road and it was down to his huge courage that he kept up with them. It's a tremendous feeling having done it. I loved it - it was the thrill of a lifetime."
Then she was asked if she would be back next year. "He might be. I won't be," Ford retorted with finality. She has always maintained that win or lose, this would definitely be her final race.
Her husband added: "I am absolutely chuffed - everything went right, but there was always that little doubt that he would get home, and he hasn't."
Ford was among the nine National "virgins", though such a status has never rendered a partnership forlorn, as winning jockey Ruby Walsh will attest having been successful here on his first National mount, Papillon in 2000.
Christian Williams, the champion novice point-to-point rider in his first season, came frustratingly close to joining that fraternity, the 40-1 shot Clan Royal, trained by Paul Nicholls, emerging the best of the chasing pack behind the comfortable winner.
But Walsh apart, this was Ford's day. Even McCain, whose Amberleigh House finished behind her in 10th, admitted he was getting worried. Richard Ford said: "Ginger came up to me and said 'I thought I was going to get a cold bum there'." There can be no greater accolade than that.
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