Dramatic start of 2004 Grand National at Aintree -- Photo by Lauren R Giannin
Dramatic start of 2004 Grand National at Aintree -- Photo by Lauren R Giannin

The shorter month of February is highlighted by teasing glimpses of spring when brief periods of warmth encourage green shoots, which enliven the wintry landscape with promises of daffodils. On March 5, the Virginia Point-to-point season goes under starter’s orders at Rappahannock Hunt (see links at end). Last month’s “Horse-Crazy: Let’s Go Racing!” is online with tips on everything from tailgate food to what to wear. 

This month’s Horse-Crazy is about chasing dreams and making goals, about the importance of hope and not giving up. Books and movies with horsey themes continue to inspire and motivate me and my bucket list involves my passions for writing and horses.   

Crazy about racing, I was 11 or 12 when I read “National Velvet” by Enid Bagnold, first published in 1935. About a young girl and The Piebald, a horse she won in a raffle after seeing him jump a five-foot fence to get out of his field. Her dream is to compete in one of the world’s most exciting and historical jump races: the Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree Racecouse, Liverpool, England. I wasn’t the only kid, then or now, who wanted to be Velvet. 

In the early 1960s I watched “National Velvet” on television. The 1944 color movie, starring two young Hollywood legends, Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, totally captivated me. My dreams of equestrian glory got all fired up. No internet back then, but reading was a passport to where I wanted to be and we had publications like Chronicle of the Horse, which is how I fell in love with Virginia, which really is for (horse) lovers.

Of course, it was love at first read with the late, great Dick Francis when my mother handed me her latest volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books with a horseracing mystery by Dick Francis. It came as no surprise that Dick credits working with his wife, Mary Francis, for their success. He was a clever fellow and stated in an interview that Mary and their families addressed him as Richard so he figured Dick Francis stood for Mary and himself. Their unique collaboration produced some of the best horse fiction ever. 

As jockey to the Queen, Francis certainly encountered many characters and their schemes. It helps to write what you know and they did research for each book. Mary became skilled at photography, earned her pilot’s license and ran an air taxi service, even delved into computer programming. She edited each manuscript. The result is that each original Dick Francis mystery is a gripping armchair adventure with great characters, good and evil, set in the vivid world of racing in England and around the world.

Dick and Mary Francis created really cool protagonists who served as narrator. Readers were privy to their thoughts and emotions, could see into their heads and hearts. The main characters were human, yet managed to overcome “feet of clay” even as they faced incredible risk. There were romances, but no graphic sex. You can always count on a Dick Francis protagonist to gallop in and save the day – even those who couldn’t ride. The world needs more of these heroic individuals who refuse to give up in the quest for truth and justice. 

“Blind Beauty” (published in 1999) joins the long list of terrific fiction about horses by British author, K.M. Peyton, one of my all-time favorite storytellers. She writes in an amazing voice, with great clarity whatever her topic. “Blind Beauty” involves a young Irish girl, Tessa, who finds her heart and salvation when she meets up with Buffoon, an Irish-bred Thoroughbred racehorse with a link to her troubled childhood. 

No female jockey in real life had won Aintree’s Grand National, but Tessa finds salvation in hopes and dreams fueled by her incredible belief in Buffoon. She convinces the horse that he is a winner. The story touches heart and soul – it’s moving, gritty, and very real with all the highs and lows of life lived with horses. 

It’s a sporting classic, love story, and tribute to all equines – for their immense heart, healing power, and schoolmaster ability to teach profound lessons about life and everything… Out of print, but hardbound and paperback available; links at end. 

The point is that kids of all ages need hopes and dreams, goals and purpose. I love writing about horses and racing. It’s a win-win for me, because I’m still working on new chapters in life and in art, still crazy about horses. The point of this column is the progress and success female riders have achieved at the top of sports and disciplines, especially steeplechasing.

The first Grand National ran in 1939. Female jockeys weren’t allowed to enter the Grand National until 1975’s Sex Discrimination Act. The first female jockey started in 1977, but didn’t finish—like many contenders, whatever their gender, since the first Grand National ran in 1839. 

The Grand National is the top tier of British jump racing, and every jockey knows that to finish the Grand National is an accomplishment, but to win is career-changing. Winning, after all, is the hope and goal of every jump jockey, whose day at the office involves keeping that dream alive while jostling for position going full tilt boogie in a field of 40 Thoroughbreds. Anything can and often does happen.

Last April, almost one year ago, history was made when Irish jockey superstar Rachael Blackmore piloted Minella Times to victory in the Grand National by six and a half lengths. She had watched this British classic as a child on Saturday when the featured finale of the three-day festival is televised. That’s how a dream began for the daughter of a dairy farmer and schoolteacher in County Tipperary, Ireland. 

Blackmore’s parents encouraged her and provided ponies. She participated in pony club, foxhunting and pony racing, but no one ever dreamed that Rachael would grow up to be an amateur jump jockey. She earned her college degree and, totally focused on her dream, turned professional in 2015, hoping it would lead to more rides and better horses. It turned out to be the right decision. 

Blackmore, now 31, became the first female to partner a winner of the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Across the four days of the meet, Blackmore recorded six victories to make history as the first female to win leading jockey at Cheltenham. She became the face of British and Irish horseracing three weeks before she arrived at Aintree for the 2021 Grand National. 

Blackmore is only the 20th female to compete in this British classic. In 2012, Katie Walsh, sister of retired champion jockey, Ruby Walsh, both Irish, finished third, the best finish by a female rider and the first female to make a top three placing. Blackmore’s first ride in the Grand National in 2018 ended when Alpha des Obeaux (33-1) fell at the Chair (#15), and she finished tenth with Valseur Lido (66-1) in her second start.

When the pandemic cancelled the 2020 Grand National in which Blackmore was named as jockey for Burrows Saint, the British classic turned into a virtual event online. Last year, the 173rd Grand National ran without the usual 70,000-strong crowd. Minella Times (11-1) and Blackmore moved carefully through the inevitable scrimmage, jumping 30 fences over four and a half miles. A thinking, gifted rider, Blackmore credits trainer Henry de Bromhead for having plenty of horse when she made her move. Videos are on youtube. 

Here’s hoping Rachael Blackmore inspires new generations of riders to reach for the stars while chasing all sorts of dreams. 

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