TRAILBLAZERS: Women at The Cheltenham Festival

Features | 6th March 2019

These are the women that broke down barriers and inspired future generations to emulate their success at The Cheltenham Festival. The impact of these women can’t be underestimated with many of the current female jockeys and trainers saying they saw these women succeed on the highest stage and thinking that could be me some day.

From the first female jockey to win a race at The Festival to multiple Gold Cup winners, there are so many women over the years that showed the younger generations that you can follow your dream to Cheltenham Festival glory with hard work and dedication.

Here are just some of the trailblazers.

Caroline Robinson

Caroline Beasley (now Robinson) made history as the first female to win at the Cheltenham Festival when partnering Eliogarty, who she owned herself, to success in the Christie’s Foxhunter Chase in March 1983.

The amateur rider then became a pioneer when scoring over the Grand National fences as she guided the same horse to victory in the Fox Hunters’ Chase at Aintree three years later.

Robinson is now a leading point-to-point trainer and breeder based in Shropshire, with her daughters, Immy and Kitty both successful amateur jockeys themselves and riding the majority of her runners on the track.

Gee Armytage

Arguably the leading female rider of her generation, Armytage became only the second woman to ride a Cheltenham Festival winner when partnering The Ellier to success in 1987.

At the same meeting, she doubled her tally for the week aboard Gee-A and would go on to tie with Peter Scudamore in the Festival’s prestigious overall jockey standings, only losing on count back through placed efforts.

It was a monumental achievement which went a long way to change the perception of female riders in the sport, with Armytage going on to ride over 100 winners during her career, as well as partnering Gee-A in the 1988 Grand National.

Linda Griffiths

Clearly ahead of her time, Linda Sheedy (as she was then known) made history when becoming the first female jockey to ride in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, partnering Foxbury in the 1984 renewal.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until 2017 that Lizzie Kelly would emulate her. The mother of twins and frequently described in newspaper reports at the time as ‘the Welsh housewife’, Sheedy was also the third woman to ride in the Grand National at Aintree.

It speaks plenty about expectations at the time that one bookmaker offered 8-1 about Sheedy and her mount Deiopea even being able to complete the first three fences successfully.

In the event, they were still going on the second circuit when forced out of the race by a loose rival. She retired from riding after breaking her neck in a point-to-point fall in 1986 and in 2002 re-married and moved to a farm in Abergavenny. She died in 2010, aged 57.

Henrietta Knight

A much-liked and hugely-respected figure in the sport, Knight is best known for training three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Best Mate.

She began training in 1989 and would go on to send out over 700 winners in a hugely successful career with a total of 14 Grade 1 victories, including the handling of Edredon Bleu, winner of the 2000 Queen Mother Champion Chase, one of seven Cheltenham Festival winners for Knight.

Following her retirement in 2012, “Hen” remains heavily involved in racing with a close association with friend and neighbour Mick Channon, purchasing his 2018 Cheltenham Festival winner, Master Whitaker, for owner Tim Radford.

Mercy Rimell

Credit: Sky Sports

Mercy Rimell started training at the historic Kinnersley yard in Worcestershire in July 1981 following the death of her husband, the legendary Fred Rimell, and she became the first women to train a Champion Hurdle winner with Gaye Brief at the 1983 Festival. A year later she had another major success at the Cheltenham Festival with Gaye Chance in the Stayers’ Hurdle and she won the 1987 Arkle with Gala’s Image.

She retired in 1989 having trained 232 winners on her own account but continued to be involved in racing and was the owner-breeder of Simon, who was from the dynasty that produced Gaye Brief and ended up running in two Grand Nationals.

Jenny Pitman OBE

Pitman is widely-renowned as one of the greatest trainers in National Hunt history. Her toughness and determination saw her blaze a trail for women in racing in the 1970s and unprecedented success was to follow.

She became the first female to train a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner when Burrough Hill Lad won in 1984, one of two victories in racing’s Blue Riband event for Pitman.

She was also the first woman to train the winner of the Grand National courtesy of Corbiere in 1983, again, an achievement she would repeat when Royal Athlete landed the 1995 renewal.

A true pioneer of our sport and still actively involved as a member of the BHA’s disciplinary and appeals panel.

Nina Carberry

Carberry is the leading all-time female jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, recording seven winners at Prestbury Park, four of which have come in the Cross Country Chase and all in the colours of JP McManus.

The pioneering Carberry was the first female to ride a Grade 1 winner in 2006 when Leading Run took the big bumper at Punchestown, a feat she would repeat in the same race 12 months later.

Carberry was also the second female to win Ireland’s Amateur Riders’ Championship in 2006, a title she again retained the following season. She retired from riding after guiding home one final winner at Punchestown in April 2018.

Jessica Harrington

Harrington is long-established as one of the most talented dual-purpose trainers in the game with over 40 Grade/Group 1 victories on her glittering CV.

She will forever be associated with the legendary Moscow Flyer, but many top-class horses have followed and so has further success at the Cheltenham Festival, with Sizing John’s victory in the 2017 Gold Cup helping Harrington on the way to becoming the meeting’s all-time leading female trainer (11 winners).

Better yet, Classic glory on the Flat has further enhanced Harrington’s reputation, with Alpha Centauri winning the Irish 1000 Guineas in 2018, one of four top-level wins for her superstar filly.

See further Jump jockey and trainer profiles here.

See further Flat jockey and trainer profiles here.