International Women’s Day | Female Pioneers At The Cheltenham Festival

Features | 7th March 2022

Rachel Blackmore took the Cheltenham Festival by storm last year as the Irish rider became the first woman to be crowned top jockey at jump racing’s greatest meeting. Here we look at the women pioneers of the Cheltenham Festival who preceded her.

It highlighted the giant strides women have made in racing in recent years and now it’s the norm for female participants to be seen in the winners’ enclosure after big‐race victories.

In the only mainstream sport where men and women compete on equal terms, racing leads the way in terms of equality in many respects.

Here we look at the long history of female pioneers at the Cheltenham Festival.

Jackie Brutton Becomes First Woman To Train A Winner In Britain

When Jackie Brutton saddled Snowdra Queen to win at the 1966 Festival it was a hugely significant moment in racing history.

In landing the United Hunts Challenge Cup – now run at Cheltenham’s hunter chase meeting – she became the first woman to officially train a winner in Britain.

It’s a strange anomaly that it happened at jump racing’s biggest meeting and before women were even allowed to hold a professional training licence.

Jackie benefitted from a change in the rules earlier in 1966 that allowed women to obtain permit licences to train in hunter chases.

Later that summer, Florence Nagle won a court case that forced the Jockey Club to allow women to train professionally under their own names.

Snowdra Queen raced in the famous McAlpine tartan colours as Jackie was from the powerful construction family. Her nephew Bobby McAlpine owned Festival winner River Ceiriog and her niece Valerie Shaw twice won the Champion Chase with Pearlyman.

It wasn’t until ten years later, in 1976, that the Festival saw a woman ride in a race for the first time. Jenny Stamp broke that particular barrier when she partnered Fair Gleam in the National Hunt Chase.

Unfortunately, the ground‐breaking partnership did not have a fairy‐tale ending. They fell at the 11th fence and Jenny fractured her collar bone.

Caroline Beasley Re-writes History Books to Become First Female Jockey To Win At The Festival   

It took another seven years for a female jockey to ride a winner at the Cheltenham Festival.

The historic moment came when Caroline Beasley rode Eliogarty to win the 1983 Foxhunters’ Chase. Three years later Caroline completed another notable first on the same horse. She became the first woman to ride a winner over the Grand National fences when she landed the 1986 Fox Hunters’ Chase.

Caroline clearly wasn’t fazed by the world‐famous Aintree obstacles. She had previously won two races around Punchestown’s fearsome banks course on consecutive days having cut the cast off her broken wrist and filled herself with painkillers.

Also at the 1983 Festival, Mercy Rimell became the first woman to train the winner of the Champion Hurdle when Gaye Brief lifted the prize.

In 1989, she won the Foxhunters’ Chase with Three Counties, ridden by her granddaughter Katie.

The following year, Wales‐born amateur jockey Linda Sheedy became the first woman rider to take part in the 1984 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

She partnered 500‐1 outsider Foxbury but failed to complete the course.

Incredibly, it would be another 33 years until Lizzie Kelly became the second female jockey to ride in the Festival’s showpiece race. She was unseated from Tea For Two at the second fence.

Jenny Pitman Lands The 1984 Gold Cup

It was the same year, 1984, that Jenny Pitman became the first female trainer to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

She lifted the Festival’s most prestigious prize with Burrough Hill Lad. Jenny had already won the Grand National with Corbiere the previous year and she was to go on to win a second Gold Cup when Garrison Savannah was successful in 1991.

Hen Knight and Jessica Harrington have since followed suit in winning the Festival’s top prize.

Gee Armytage Becomes First Female To Win A Festival Race Against Professionals 

In 1987, Gee Armytage became the first woman to ride the winner of a Festival race against professional jockeys when she landed the Mildmay of Flete Chase – now the Cheltenham Plate – on the appropriately‐named Gee‐A. It was her second winner of the meeting after the amateur rider’s victory on The Ellier in the Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Chase the previous day.

Nina Carberry Blazes Trail For New Generation Of Female Jockeys 

These days it is nothing unusual to see female jockeys and trainers in the Cheltenham Festival winners’ enclosure.

When Nina Carberry retired from the saddle in 2018 she had ridden seven Cheltenham Festival winners.

Her first victory came in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle in 2005 when she rode Dabiroun to victory.

Four of her seven wins came in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase making her the record holder in that unique contest.

Nina’s sister‐in‐law Katie Walsh rode two winners at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival. She won the National Hunt Chase on Poker Sivola and the County Hurdle on Thousand Stars.

Eight years later she partnered Relegate to win the Champion Bumper to record her third Cheltenham Festival victory before retiring little more than a month later.

Ground-Breaking Frost Lands First Grade 1 in 2019

Bryony Frost was the first woman jockey to ride a Grade 1 winner at the Festival.

She has formed a hugely‐popular partnership with frontrunning Frodon and the pair teamed up to land the Ryanair Chase in 2019.

It wasn’t Bryony’s first Festival success as she had won the Foxhunters’ Chase on Pacha Du Polder as a 21‐year‐old amateur in 2017.

While Bryony’s Ryanair Chase win was ground‐breaking, Rachel Blackmore has taken women’s Cheltenham Festival achievements to a whole new level.

It was only two years ago she rode her first winner at jump racing’s top event. It came in the Centenary Novices’ Handicap Chase on A Plus Tard and she quickly added a second on Minella Indo in the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

The following year she won the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle on a horse that was to make an even bigger impact in 2021.

Blackmore Tops Charts in 2021

Honeysuckle carried Rachel to Champion Hurdle glory with a devastating display. The star Irish mare was one of six winners at the meeting and she became the first female jockey to top the Festival charts.

With a strong book of rides, it’s hard to imagine she won’t add to her nine Festival winners this year. The Irish rider is not just jump racing’s leading lady, she is one of the very best jockeys currently riding. That really is worth celebrating.