Carrie Ford made history when she finished 5th onboard Forest Gunner in the 2005 Grand National. At the time it was the highest finish by a female jockey in the race’s long history. We recently talked to her about that day at Aintree, her career in racing and to find out what she’s is doing now.
I read that you were only 2 years old when first sat on a horse?
Yes, I was bought a pony when I was two and a half. I’m not from a racing background but for some reason my parents bought me a pony and my mum bought a horse too. We rode together and when I got older I joined the pony club. It was just for fun but I was very keen on horse racing and whilst my school friends had pop stars all over their walls, I had John Francome pictures on mine.
At any point did think about a career outside of horses?
I suppose I never really thought of it as a career until I was in my late teens. My parents wanted me to stay on at school and do my A levels but I wasn’t too keen. So we struck a deal where if I passed my O Levels I could leave school, which I duly did because I was intent on doing something with horses I just didn’t know what.
After school I started a Thoroughbred Management course. It was a three year diploma course but after the first year I went to work in Ireland over the summer and I ended up not returning to the course. I stayed in Ireland and that’s how I got started in racing.
Who did you look up to when you were starting out, other than Francome?
Loads of people. From a riding point of view that’s who you aspired to, Francome and the likes, trying to be as good as them.
Did you ever think about becoming a full-time professional jockey?
No. Now there’s Hayley Turner and Lucy Alexander doing exceptionally well as female jockeys. At the time the reality was I couldn’t have made a living as a professional jockey. It just wouldn’t have been feasible. I only rode as a professional when I took out my licence to ride in the Grand National. I’m really superstitious so it was only done in case we won because if you’re an amateur you don’t get a percentage of the prize money!
How did you feel when you and Forest Gunner got the National entry?
Very excited! The previous year I’d come out of retirement and won the Fox Hunters’ Chase at Aintree on him and at the time my daughter Hannah was just 10 weeks old. The Fox Hunters’ Chase was such a spur of the moment thing and after it I said to Clare Balding “That’s me back into retirement unless he ever runs in the National!”
It was very much tongue and cheek because at the time we didn’t think he’d be good enough or that he would stay so I went back into retirement and the following autumn he won the Becher Chase. He was improving and a National entry was being talked about tentatively and after Christmas he won the Red Square race at Haydock and won it convincingly so that’s when the National bid was really on.
I knew that if he got in I was always going to ride him so from that point everything was geared towards the National.
When the day of the National finally arrived, what did you think?
It was actually surreal. It was a feeling of strange calmness because everything was done. It was either going to work or it wasn’t. There were no hiccups, I could have been fitter but everything I had set out to do we’d done. There were no falls at home, no injuries. I’d had advice from the jockey club and a nutritionist. I was as prepared as I could be. Everyone was so helpful too, when the BBC came to the yard to film I asked one of the guys if he could put together a DVD of the previous Nationals so I could watch them, he very kindly put together a DVD of 10 races for me to study.
Forest Gunner’s preparation had been perfect. He’d galloped well and not had any nicks so on the morning of the race so I just remember a very strange feeling of calm.
Did you walk the Aintree course?
Yes, we walked around and did fairly routine stuff but I’d had a plan and strategy. Originally I was going to stay in the middle to outer of the course in the hope we’d get more daylight there. Neale Doughty, who rode Hallo Dandy and who’s National record is exemplary, said forget that plan, the better horses go up the rail. The day we arrived at Aintree we had another course walk and thought about what he said.
One of the funniest things that happened to me on the day was a chance meeting with Ginger McCain. Aintree provide the trainers and jockeys with golf buggies to ferry you around. As I walked through racecourse security to get in the buggy so did Ginger McCain and we both ended up in the same one. (Day’s earlier Ginger McCain had given an interview where he stated “horses do not win Grand Nationals ridden by women, that’s a fact”).
So here we are sharing the buggy and heading towards the weighing room, Ginger was carrying flowers to place at Red Rum’s grave, which he always did, and Sue Barker was in room filming a preview and that’s when Ginger said to me “Come on we’ll have a laugh now.” He proceeded to do a mock presentation pretending that he’d gotten me these flowers to make up for all upset. It was pure spur of the moment thing and you could see people thinking that’s Ginger and Carrie down there but they don’t get on! It was very funny and really light hearted.
What’s the atmosphere like in the weighing room?
It’s electric. It’s was the last year the old weighing room was used and at that time the ladies changing room was outside and around the corner meaning I had to come in for the pre-race pep talk from the starter. As we’re about to walk out into the parade ring Ruby Walsh, who was on the far side of the room, came around to me and gave my shoulder a squeeze which I thought was lovely and as we were leaving I get another tug on my shoulder, it was Paul Carberry. He was sitting on the bench and he said “Good Luck Carrie” which I thought that was so sweet.
When you were on the starting line, was your goal to win or just get around safely?
We never thought he would stay or see the trip out and then you get carried along and start thinking that actually he had a great chance. We weren’t there to make up the numbers or for the story. I certainly approached it like I had as much chance as anybody else.
Is it a relief when you get over that first fence?
It is, that was one of the big things I was concerned about on the run up to the National. This was my one chance, there was never going to be a next year and I was paranoid about falling at the first fence. History has proven that nearly ever year something well fancied falls at the first. Hallo Dandy and Corbiere both won and fell at the first the next year. Forest Gunner had won twice over those fences so I kept thinking he could be one of those first fence casualties.
What fence requires you to hold your breath and take that leap of faith?
Bechers gives you real butterflies because it’s the only one with a hedge. It might sound odd but Bechers is the 6th of six fences in a row and you get into a rhythm and then you think which one is it? But you look up and you see the hedge and you think that’s it! The drop, which they’ve quite rightly modified, is still huge and you notice the difference. The Chair for me is the bogey fence, you try to ride it differently but you’re still going very quickly so you try to get on to the board because the ditch is so wide.
Your positioning in the race looked very deliberate, always within the first 10, was that strategic?
That was the plan. To get ourselves on the inside towards the front but it’s a lottery especially if somebody gets in front of you but historically it’s the place with the least chance of being brought down.
In the race itself I remember jumping the big ditch, the third fence, and Paul Carberry turned around and shouted “Are you still there Carrie! Are you alright?” then after Bechers second time around, I was beside Brian Harding, who finished third on Simply Gifted, and we jumped together and he said “Right Carrie, we’ll just turn down now” and he started asking me how I was doing and it was like having a little chat, from Bechers right up to Valentines.
Did Forest Gunner ever lose his stride?
Yes, I sensed he wasn’t as comfortable as he was in the Fox Hunters’. He was always traveling just that half gear beyond himself. Valentines the first time was the trickiest fence. He gave it a right whack and nearly came down and I was nearly off him.
Are you aware of what’s going on around you, like the loose horses at Bechers taking out Clan Royal and AP McCoy?
Yes, there’s a phenomenon called Target Fixation, you become so fixated on the fallen horse that you can forget to take the necessary action to avoid it! I was aware of that for a while and Clan Royal was a classic example. I remained focused and luckily the faller was far enough ahead of us not to be a concern. One of the things I didn’t take into account is even though the course is wide you’re aware of the extra volume of traffic. There’s no other race like it.
At the Canal Turn did you think you could win it?
In the moment I just got my head down, I didn’t have the time to think ‘oh actually I could win this’. I was lucky enough to be involved at the point in the race where you still have a chance and you’re not out of it. I was in the mix until jumping the last but very quickly I realised I was on vapours.
You finished 5th and became the most successful female jockey in Grand National history, how do you come down from that?
Afterwards we went out for dinner and drinks and the following weekend we went away and when we were travelling back we got a call from the yard telling us that one of the horses had suffered a fracture on the gallops, sadly he was put down. That’s how you come down. He was a real yard favourite, one day you’re riding in the Grand National and 8 days later you’re putting down one of your favourite horses.
You retired after the 2005 National did you ever consider going back?
No, I enjoyed it and when I close my eyes I can remember it. But I was 32 when I rode in the National so I’d been riding for a long time. I’d had a little bit of success but hundreds of falls, all of which I walked away, I didn’t want to push my luck too far. For me, I’d had my daughter and I was done.
Do you ever watch the race back? Is your daughter aware of your achievement?
I hardly ever watch the race and I haven’t watched it in ages, Hannah is aware but we’ve never actually sat down and watched it together – we will do soon.
What was the best part of being a jockey and what was the most difficult?
The most difficult bit is taking falls but I was really lucky because I seem to bounce well. Rolling off a horse at 30mph a few times a week isn’t everybody’s idea of fun but it is a fantastic way of life.
I never saw what I did as a job. I just got out of bed and did what I loved and although I didn’t go to University I did get to use racing to travel. I went to Canada, America and New Zealand. Racing is worldwide, it breaks down barriers and it connects people, I’ve had a very privileged career.
What was your favourite win as a Jockey?
There’s isn’t a jockey in the world worth his salt that’s not competitive so to have won the Fox Hunters’ is fantastic and I’ve got to look back with great fondness on that. Having said that the Grand National was like a fairytale.
Did the 2005 National have a positive impact on Richard Ford Racing?
No not really, I don’t think we came became more successful because of it. Similarly when I was reading Jenny Pitmans book she said when she won with Corbiere, with her percentage of prize money she built new stables and they were empty for 12 months because people thought her training the winner was a fluke.
Do you have a favourite Grand National winner?
Red Rum, I never saw him run but historically on his results and because I’m involved with training – to turn up five years running and to be fit on the day each time with the weights he carried, it’s a staggering achievement and it’s why nobody’s been able to do it since. I also like Aldaniti because the whole story is phenomenal.
If I gave you £100 who would back in the 2013 Grand National?
Seabass – I’ll put the £100 on him!
Today Carrie Ford is the Northern Region Eduction Officer for The British Horseracing Education & Standards Trust (BHEST). Carrie is involved with the ‘Racing To School’ initiative which is a free educational programme for pupils and students of all ages. The aim of the programme is to open minds to the many different careers and opportunities within racing. Over 10,000 young people have attended a ‘Racing To School’ programme with 77% of those coming from inner-city areas.
The programme relies on donations for funding so if you’d like to help Carrie and BHEST reach out to more young people visit: www.bhest.co.uk