Grand National 2015: Katie Walsh waits for this year's fairy-tale call

Jockey who came third at Aintree in 2012 tells Matt Majendie she is on tenterhooks for next week’s Grand National and that a woman will win it in time as it's where dreams come true

The Grand National is about fairy tales for Katie Walsh.

Fairy tale No 1 came when she was a 15-year-old and acted as the travelling companion and groom to Papillon, the horse trained by father Ted that gave brother Ruby victory in the Grand National on his race debut in 2000.

Fairy tale No 2 came when riding the 2012 joint-favourite Seabass, whom she partnered into third place, the highest-ever finish by a female jockey in the race.

Walsh, 30, is hoping fairy tale No 3 will happen next Saturday – but she is waiting for a late call as she’s currently without a mount. It came last year on the eve of the race when she replaced the injured Mikey Fogarty on board Vesper Bell so all is not yet lost.

Of the opportunity that may yet arise, she says: “It’s not the ideal situation, you want to know your ride from way back and you also don’t want to wish anything bad on your rivals so you get the chance. But as jockeys we’re used to it. If the call comes, you go for it.”

Regardless of her role in this year’s race, she has two more National fairy tales in mind: the first entails A P McCoy riding Shutthefrontdoor to victory in his final Grand National, the second climaxing in her or another female jockey winning the race.

“The Grand National’s a fairy tale anyway – it’s got that Disney effect to it,” Walsh says from the family’s base in Co Kildare, Ireland. “If AP was to win, that would be the ultimate fairy tale.” As McCoy partners the ante-post favourite, it is eminently achievable.

But her broader goal is also achievable within the family, with her sister-in-law Nina Carberry lining up in the race on 33-1 shot First Lieutenant. “All it takes is the right ride and a female jockey can win, for sure,” says Walsh.

She readily admits to  growing misty eyed when thinking of her involvement. “My earliest memory of the race is probably Papillon,” says the youngest member of the Walsh racing dynasty. “I’d had decent memories of riding ponies in the fields pretending I was in the National. It was an incredibly special day for all the family.

 

“I remember it like it was yesterday, the huge excitement, so much work and preparation, tacking him up and then Ruby doing the job. It was a very emotional time for all of us. I never dreamt I’d come back and ride in it. I never dreamt back then I’d go over those fences. My dreams have come true and I feel very lucky to have ridden in three of them. It’s like a dream when you do it, I’ve lived the dream.”

The Walshes are among the first families of Irish racing. Her father Ted is a trainer, her brother Ruby the king of Cheltenham, her brother Ted is married to the othe Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2013 r leading female Irish jump jockey of note in Carberry, while Walsh herself is married to trainer Ross O’Sullivan.

But riding was not something she was ever forced into by her parents, simply a path she took of her own accord.

Aintree is the ultimate for her, riding those National fences with only one parallel in everyday life: “It’s like your wedding day with all the preparation and everything that goes on before. It’s such a blast when it happens and, when it’s all over, you just want to do it all over again. I’d love to get the chance to ride it again.”

Walsh is often introduced as the highest-placed female jockey in National history but that is not the way she chooses to look at herself.

“I don’t see myself as a female in that sense, just a jockey that’s been riding for a long time [12 years],” she says. “I didn’t finish third on Seabass because I’m female.

“I’m just another rival to them [the other jockeys] and I wouldn’t want to be anything else. It was my choice to come into this world and it’s tough and hard. But each jockey has a lot of respect for the others because of the dangers.

“It’s not a case that the others are like, ‘Oh, here comes Katie, give her some room’. I’m just the same thing to them… a rival.”

But there is the hope that because of her gender she has inspired others to follow suit. There are race meetings where young girls tell her they have taken up riding because of her, and the profile of a female jockey has been helped by the former Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton having announced a switch to the sport to compete at next year’s Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Of Pendleton’s move, Walsh says supportively “fair play to her”.

Pendleton often talked about the balancing act of being a sporting star and feminine to boot, a sentiment echoed by Walsh too.

“Being feminine is very important to me,” she adds. “It’s very much a case that I can be both. I like to go racing but I also like shoes and fashion as much as the next girl. I happen to work in a male-dominated world but you can be feminine too.”

There is a possibility that having children could bring an end to her racing days but she is not looking that far ahead: “I don’t know what I’m having for dinner tonight, let alone what I’m doing next week or the week after. I’m just living in the moment.”

For the moment, that means watching the National from the sidelines. She hopes the chance will come again on a horse of the aptitude for Aintree as a Seabass. That would surely complete the fairy tale.

The Crabbie’s Grand National Festival is live on Channel 4 next Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

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