Carrie Ford (left) alongside Katie Walsh at a Racing to School Aintree Beacon event. Katie rides Baie Des Iles in the big race on Saturday. Source: liverpoolecho.co.uk

Grand National trailblazer Carrie Ford recalls the thrills of her first career

In March 2004, Racing to School’s Northern-based Regional Education Officer, Carrie Ford had recently retired from a highly successful race-riding career and just given birth to her daughter Hannah. Her husband, Richard, was due to run a horse in the amateur riders Fox Hunters’ Chase at Aintree on April 1st, but the stable’s amateur jockey had just left. A horse with no rider was not ideal and it was one of the owners who first suggested: “Why doesn’t Carrie ride?” Despite having given birth just 10 weeks earlier, Carrie bravely decided to give it go. The horse, Forest Gunner, would go on to win the race and together they began an amazing adventure.

Looking back Carrie recalls: “He was a horse that ran strongly within himself during his races, which was just as well, as I wouldn’t have been able to ride him if he was lazy, as I was so unfit! We hoped he could run well and finish in the first six, but we weren’t expecting him to win.”

After the race, when interviewed by Clare Balding, Carrie joked: “I’ll be going back into retirement now…. unless he runs in the National.” It would turn out to be a very insightful comment.

“It was just a joke, at the time,” explained Carrie. “We didn’t think he would stay the distance or was good enough, but the next year he proved us all wrong by winning the Grand Sefton at Aintree and the Grand National Trial at Haydock, so we were going to have a go at the big one.”

Even at that point, Carrie was third in line to take the ride behind two of the stable’s regular jockeys.

“Peter Buchanan had ridden him for his two wins and we mainly used Richie McGrath in those days, but they were both declared to ride other horses. Had that changed one of them would have ridden him. Luckily for me, it didn’t!”

Looking back at the day of the 2005 Grand National, Carrie recollects: “It was a surreal and amazing experience. I have never ridden at the Cheltenham Festival so had nothing to compare the experience with, but walking the Aintree course on the morning of the race, the atmosphere was like nothing else. Everyone was very quiet, wishing each other luck, it just isn’t like any other race day.” In the National, Forest Gunner gave her a great spin round despite the new and daunting challenge.

Carrie said: “In the Fox Hunters’ he was well within his stride all the way, but in the National he was always reaching for his fences, which you would expect in a top race. Having said that he ran well and after Beecher’s the second time we still had a chance, but after the penultimate fence he just emptied.” He kept on to finish in fifth, which at the time was highest-placed finish by a female jockey in the history of the four mile two and a half furlong race.

Since retirement from race-riding, Carrie has worked for the charity Racing to School as our Regional Education Officer, based in the North West. As well as delivering our events all over the north of England, she also heads up the Aintree Beacon, which works with four primary school and one high school in Liverpool. The programme is generously supported by Aintree Racecourse and grant-giver The Racing Foundation. The programme offers annual events for pupils from Year 5 through to Year 10 aimed at generating interest and knowledge in racing through learning activities.

The Beacon helps to creating pathways to employment in sport and to highlight the importance of Aintree to the local community. It starts with a pony education day in Year 5 at Aintree, which is for the majority of these inner-city kids, the first time they have seen a horse. In Year 6, Carrie goes into the schools to give a background on Aintree; the Grand National and her own first-hand experience. The day ends with a Question of Sport-style quiz. The group in Year 7 participate in a Racing to School education event at a race day, while Year 8s are tasked with testing their writing skills by producing a journalistic piece on a famous National of the past. In Year 9 & 10 the focus switches to careers, involving a marketing exercise complete with budgets and a mock advertising campaign – the best of which go on display at Aintree.

Now in its third year, Carrie thinks the Beacon is really starting to pay dividends. “During the Year 10 marketing task there is an opportunity for the students to apply for a one-week work placement at the racecourse,” said Carrie. “This year we had five applicants and three of them cited being introduced to racing through the Racing to School Aintree Beacon as the reason they wanted to pursue a career in the industry.”

Since Carrie’s fifth-place finish in 2005, only two women have ridden in the National, Nina Carberry (six times) and Katie Walsh (five). Katie beat Carrie’s record in 2012 when finishing third on Seabass, who was trained by her father, Ted. Katie will this year ride Baie Des Iles, trained by her husband Ross O’Sullivan, who are the first husband and wife combination to contest the race since Carrie and Richard. Two more female jockeys will add their name to the list of riders making their National debuts, with Rachael Blackmore set to ride Alpha Des Obeaux and Bryony Frost booked to partner Milansbar.

When asked about the subject of female jockeys, Carrie is diplomatic: “The lads were always very fair to me, they didn’t cut me any slack and I wouldn’t have expected them to.” She went on to say that it would be great if a lady rider could get the win this year, singling out Bryony Frost, who is “exceptional, a real natural and the horses just seem to jump so well for her.” Perhaps this could be her year.