Aintree racecourse
There will be no spectators at Aintree for the Grand National

Three women seek a place in sporting folklore on Saturday as they bid to become the first female jockey to win the Grand National.

Rachael Blackmore and Bryony Frost have made history this season, and are joined by Tabitha Worsley in the race.

Top Cheltenham Festival rider Blackmore is on Minella Times, Worsley rides Sub Lieutenant with Frost aboard Yala Enki.

Cloth Cap is favourite at Aintree where a two-minute silence will be held to mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s death.

Flags at the track will be flown at half mast, with jockeys wearing black armbands.

The meeting was cancelled last year and takes place without spectators this time because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Racehorse owners are allowed to attend and leading owner JP McManus has seven contenders, including Minella Times, Any Second Now and Kimberlite Candy.

Tom Scudamore rides Cloth Cap for octogenarian owner Trevor Hemmings, who will be following from home in the Isle of Man hoping for a record fourth win in his green, yellow and white colours.

A two-minute silence was observed at the Merseyside track on Friday
A two-minute silence was observed at the Merseyside track on Friday

A National Velvet moment?

It is more than 70 years since the film National Velvet, in which Elizabeth Taylor played the female jockey who was first past the post in the Grand National, only to be disqualified on a technicality.

Women compete against men in horse racing, and opportunities for a female winner in real life have risen in recent years, with Katie Walsh achieving the best finish of third on Seabass in 2012.

Blackmore said her mount, for Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer Henry de Bromhead, had jumped well when trying National-style fences in training.

“Look, it’s the Grand National and anything can happen, but I wouldn’t swap him anyway,” said the 31-year-old Irish rider.

She is looking to follow up her landmark Cheltenham success last month when six victories meant she was the first woman to be top jockey.

Jockeys Katie Walsh, Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore pictured at Aintree in 2018
Jockeys Katie Walsh, Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore pictured at Aintree in 2018

Frost was the first woman to win the King George VI Chase when she guided Frodon to victory for Somerset trainer Paul Nicholls at Kempton in December.

“Bryony’s got a chance. Rachel Blackmore’s got a very good chance. She’s been riding at the top of her game,” 11-time champion trainer Nicholls told BBC Radio 5 live.

“It’d be really good for the sport if one of the girls did win the National. They’re more than capable of winning it.”

Grand National in a nutshell

Davy Russell celebrates on Tiger Roll in 2019
Davy Russell won the Grand National with Tiger Roll for a second time in 2019

How far is the race? It is just over four and a quarter miles. It is a handicap, in which each runner is allocated a different weight according to a rating of their ability. There are 30 fences including Becher’s Brook, the Chair and the Canal Turn.

How long does it last? The winner usually completes the course in about nine minutes.

Why isn’t Tiger Roll running? The 2018 and 2019 winner was withdrawn from the race in March, with owners Michael and Eddie O’Leary saying they were unhappy with the weight the horse had been given. The 11-year-old was fourth in Thursday’s Betway Bowl at Aintree.

What does the winner get? The total prize fund is £750,000 with the winning team collecting £375,000.

How many Grand Nationals have there been? This is the 173rd running of the race, which was last held in 2019.

What about safety? Significant changes were introduced before the 2013 race which saw the core of fences softened, the distance reduced and new procedures for loose horses. There was one equine fatality in the race last year – the first from a total of 276 runners in the past seven editions.

Amateurs to the fore

Patrick Mullins will ride leading contender Burrows Saint for his trainer father Willie Mullins after stable jockey Paul Townend suffered a foot injury.

The Mullins duo combined to triumph with Livelovelaugh in the Topham Chase over the National fences on Friday.

“When I was a kid I had a book about the history of the National fences, and I never thought I’d get a chance to win one,” said Patrick.

He is one of four amateur jockeys in the race – with Jamie Codd on Milan Native, Derek O’Connor riding OK Corral and Sam Waley-Cohen aboard Jett.

They are bidding to become the first amateur to win since Marcus Armytage on Mr Frisk in 1990 and are permitted to ride after the latest easing of lockdown restrictions, having been barred from competing at last month’s Cheltenham Festival.

Runners must negotiate 30 fences in the Grand National
Runners must negotiate 30 fences in the Grand National

A very different Grand National

The Merseyside track would normally welcome 70,000 spectators for the world’s most famous jumps race.

Instead, there will only be jockeys, trainers, owners, staff and a limited number of media.

Strict Covid-19 protocols are in place, and Irish-trained runners have been stabled at Haydock Racecourse.

Police have stepped up patrols around the meeting, with residents close to the Merseyside track warned not to gather in groups larger than six in their gardens during the races.

Grand National jockeys traditionally visit patients at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital on the eve of the race.

This time current riders Daryl Jacob and Richie McLernon were joined on a special Zoom call alongside National winners Mick Fitzgerald and Ruby Walsh to answer questions about their careers and provide some pointers for the big race.

Saturday will be a poignant day for two families whose names are inextricably linked with the big race and have lost loved ones in the last year.

Owen Paterson, the North Shropshire MP whose wife Rose was chairman of Aintree Racecourse, is launching a charity in her memory to raise funds for suicide prevention projects.

Friends and relatives of Liam Treadwell will be running, walking, cycling or riding the equivalent distance of the National in his honour and to raise money for brain injury charity Headway.

Treadwell won the National on 100-1 shot Mon Mome in 2009 but spoke of being depressed after suffering concussion in a fall. A verdict of misadventure was recorded at an inquest into his death.

“Liam’s passing left us all absolutely devastated. Life will never be the same without Liam but we all want to continue to make him proud,” said his brother Nathan.

Liam Treadwell died aged 34 last year
Liam Treadwell died aged 34 – 11 years after his Grand National win

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