A Worcestershire lass, Jacqui Oliver still lives in the shadow of the Malvern Hills. She began riding from a young age and was soon competing in point-to-point and novice events. She spent some time in Ireland working as a Secretary, but riding in her spare time.
Her father was the well respected Henry Oliver and naturally, Jacqui was keen to make her mark in the sport. In 1987, her greatest moment was thrust upon shoulders already used to the rough and tumble of chasing.
Eamon’s Owen was trained by her stepmother, Sally, but the horse had just been sold, though the new owner invited Jacqui to ride the horse in the Grand National. She’d won on him six times and knew the horse well. It made sense to let her take to the saddle even though a female jockey was still a rarity in the event. She told me: “To be honest our preparation was no different to running at any other course. For us it was exciting but another race just the same. We were comfortable with each other so why worry?
“As for Aintree I’d walked the course when I was 17 though my dad told me not do it again before the race as to put it bluntly, ‘I’d fill my panties’!! I wasn’t really nervous on the day to be honest though I had a booking in the ‘Sandyman’ Hurdle just before the big one. I was on a horse called ‘Aonoch’ and got a dream ride winning well. Naturally it put me on a high and the adrenaline was running when the BBC interviewed me on Grandstand, though I can’t remember what was said now.”
Jacqui gathered herself through the weighing room and without a thought was confidently cantering down to the start for the race of her life. Ears pricked, Eamon’s Owen was thriving in the atmosphere.
Jacqui added: “Dad told me to go and speak with the great Fred Winter and ask him for advice on how I should ride the race. ‘You must jump quickly out of the gate and come up on the inside – make sure you jump the first open ditch and then ride your race’. I thanked him and off I went.”
“We gathered at the tape and one of the jockeys’s shouted ‘what are you doing here Jacqui’. I shouted back, ‘the same as you’. The banter was good and the jockeys were a big help to me as we all knew what we were in for. Feeling good I followed Fred’s instructions and off we went at a good gallop. Eamon’s Owen was a small horse at no more than 16 hands, but he had a big heart and was a fluent jumper, even though he tended to stand off ditches a bit. I knew we were 200/1 to win the race and 33/1 to get round. The conditions were good and we kept out of trouble and everything was going really well. The ground was better after the Canal Turn but Valentines was a big fence and took a lot of effort. Before we knew it the turn was beckoning and I could actually hear the crowd starting to roar.
“It occurred to me we were in fourth or fifth place having led the race at one point – but he was going so well I thought, ‘we’ve a chance of a top six place – certainly of finishing close in the frame. Then as the crowd roared again he picked up the bit and I thought, ‘Oh no not now – The Chair is coming up!! We got to the front on the outside but he stood up a bit on the approach and his hind legs brushed through the fence – the pull booted me out of the saddle. I curled up into a ball realising Colin Brown – Desert Orchid’s jockey though not in this race – had also come a cropper. Unhurt we got to the other side of the rail and watched the finish from there. I felt so gutted and disappointed, sure we could have finished very strongly. My Grand National was over!
“I was still concerned for my horse who ironically actually galloped on to finish sixth – but I was so proud of him and the race he’d run. The next day I got offered a ride at Market Rasen and after the horse fell violently found myself in a coma for three weeks; such are the ups and downs of being a jockey. I kept watching the tape of my ride in the National and it helped me make a quick recovery. I suffered three comas in my career though the Injured Jockeys Fund certainly looked after me.”
Jacqui doesn’t ride any more but attends the odd race meeting with a friend who has a couple of horses. She admits to getting a tingle when she watches the National each year. Did she get another offer of a ride in the big one? “No – I was a woman, and even though people like myself, Lorna Vincent and Gee Armytage etc, made inroads there was still a long way to go for the girls.”
A book is being prepared about the career of a lady whose grit and determination, not forgetting a special horse, gave the critics a run for their money 23 years ago – though in the eyes of many, Jacqui Oliver will always be a Grand National winner.
By Grahame Anderson