Somerset-based Jenny Hembrow, already a point-to-point champion, secured a ride in two Grand Nationals – the first in 1979 and the second a year later.
She recalls: “I was the second lady to ride in the Grand National. I was one of the first to race-ride at all because we weren’t allowed to ride until 1976 because of the Sexual Discrimination Act, and when that came along I was already riding in amateur races like point-to-points.
“But until 1976 you couldn’t ride in proper racecourses or against men, so when the Act came along I applied for a license and got one. I was lucky enough to find someone who would put me up on their horses and so I started to ride against the men properly in National Hunt races. It’s all changed now, but that’s how it all started back then.
“I stayed an amateur because at the time they were hardly ready for ladies riding, let alone a lady professional. I thought if I stayed an amateur I still had the same opportunity to ride against professionals, but it gave me more opportunity also to stay in Hunter Chases to get myself known. It gave me more choice because I wouldn’t have had the rides as a professional – people didn’t want lady jockeys in those days, not many.
“I rode for a man called Gerald Ham and he had half a dozen horses of his own that he trained. He started training under Rules and I’d already ridden for him in point-to-point races, so he asked me if I’d like to ride. So I got my license and he got his license and I rode for him. I was lucky though, because I had no parents or family who were into horses, we weren’t connected with horses or racing because there were hardly any trainers in the area. Of course now Somerset is a big area for training but at the time it wasn’t.”
Despite her lack of family background in the sport, Jenny had been riding since she was three years old, having ponies as a child and taking part in Pony Club activities… and then fate stepped in:
“Then I met my husband [to be] and when we were going out together we went to watch a point-to-point. I said ‘I wouldn’t mind doing that’ so I started searching around for someone who had racehorses and who would give me a ride. I started riding out to learn how to do it and so on, and so I learned it that way.”
After teaming up with Gerald Ham, Jenny was introduced to a fine horse named Sandwilan.
“I had ridden him in other races; we had to qualify to go in the National anyway and we won a race at Newton Abbott, that actually qualified him. So Gerald said then ‘he’s qualified for the National, do you want to ride him?’ and I said yes!
“At this stage I’d never even seen Aintree before! When it came to the big day we went up with some friends to stay the night before at Southport. For some reason we were late getting there so we walked around the course very quickly that night and that was the first time I visited Aintree.
“Daft as it sounds, because I had never seen the race or ever spoken to anyone down here who had seen it, I had imagined the jumps to be so enormous that when I actually saw them in real life it wasn’t as bad as I thought! I used to go along back at home looking at hedges thinking ‘well The Chair must be like that’, or ‘Becher’s must be like that’ – the hedges I was looking at were nearly un-jumpable! So when I actually saw the real fences they seemed much less intimidating.
“On the day – it was very different in those days because they didn’t really know where to put you because they were not used to ladies riding – I ended up having to change in a toilet in the grandstand. It was hard because you do feel a bit out of it.
“When I came the second year they had a mobile home next to the weighing room which was nice because you felt a bit more involved with it.
“But the first year I had to change on my own and I had to take my stuff out of the loo so that someone [a racegoer] could go in there after me!”
Despite the disorganised start, Jenny was cool as a cucumber going into the race for the first time.
“I had seen the National Velvet film as a child but I didn’t compare myself with that! To be honest, looking back, I don’t think that I appreciated the enormity of it. I just went there thinking to myself ‘it’s just another race and nothing to get excited about’. There had been so much publicity beforehand it had driven me mad and for months people were asking me about it. But now I think I didn’t appreciate how big it was really.
“In the first year it was awful because everybody tears at the first fence and I hadn’t spoken to any other jockeys or anything… we all tore off to the first fence and there was a big pile-up. Sandwilan stood off so far he over-jumped and just turned over.
“It was awful because there had been so much publicity and I had to just swallow my pride. It was all in the papers and it was really hard, because other people had fallen but nobody had noticed that, they only noticed me!
“The second year I heard John Francome speak and he said ‘everyone goes too hard and they need to take a pull before they get to the first fence’, so I realised that’s where I had gone wrong. So the next year, you tear off, you take a pull, and you jump it nicely. If I had been told that the first year I probably wouldn’t have fallen, but that’s how it goes.
“The second year I got to the 19th but the nice part about it was that I was up in third most of the way. I was told to put him in the race and not just to trundle round. By the time we got to The Chair I was lying third and I wasn’t far behind the leader when we got to the 19th.
“The Chair’s a big fence; a lot of people jump it quite easily but it is a big fence, and I suppose Becher’s was a big drop – of course in my day they hadn’t altered the fences then, they have levelled the ground out on that fence now. Sandwilan jumped superbly – absolutely brilliantly, he really did – he gave me a wonderful ride.”
Sadly, it was not to last and at the 19th, they came to grief:
“He didn’t fall – they say he fell – but actually he had taken off – it was a horrible fence the 19th, a huge ditch, and another horse had refused and ran along the fence. As we took off, the loose horse ran into Sandwilan’s backside which pushed him sideways on the take-off side. So he didn’t refuse – we didn’t even part company – he just happened to get knocked into the ditch, so he didn’t really fall.”
But despite the untimely end to her race, Jenny remains buoyant about the experience:
“He was a bit of an old thinker and I think if I had got him to Becher’s we would have got round. He really enjoyed the course – some horses like it and some don’t but he loved it and really came to life when he got there. He was jumping so well and not making mistakes and really flying over the fences, so I was really enjoying it too.
“Really I was very lucky because until then I had been up in third and had a lovely ride, and it was just the nicest feeling.”
Following her two attempts at the National, Jenny was keen for more of the Aintree fences and returned the following year with Sandwilan to ride in the Fox Hunters’, an amateur race over two and a half miles – one lap of the National course – and on this occasion completed a race at Aintree for the first time.
“We thought because Sandwilan was getting older then it was a bit much to go in the National again, so we went back for the Fox Hunters’ but it was a bit quick for him and I think we were fourth or fifth in the end.”
Amazingly, Jenny herself was also not quite as youthful as was generally believed:
“I was late starting because as I say you couldn’t do it until 1976 so I did lie about my age a bit at the time – I did it on purpose because newspapers always want to know how old you are, and so when they asked I said jokingly ‘I’m 29 forever now’… After that they always printed 29 but I wasn’t, I was 35, almost 36 when I first rode in the National!”
In fact, not only was Jenny older than commonly stated, she was also the mother of a three-year-old daughter.
“She was very proud of it and in primary school she would write it up and things like that. At the time, if I had broken something and I was in hospital she used to think that was very funny.”
However, despite her ‘advancing years’, Jenny continued to compete for several years after her National experiences.
“I kept racing until I was about in my 40s. I stopped in about ’86. Then I had my permit and trained a horse to win a few, which was nice, and then it all got hard to do on your own and I got too old for it in the end. So I haven’t ridden for a long time now and to be honest I wouldn’t want to just hobble about!”
Perhaps surprisingly, given how new women were to the sport, as well as to Aintree, Jenny was never approached for tips on riding the course by future lady jockeys aiming to tackle the National.
“No-one called me up for advice but most of them, to be honest, had fathers or connections – very few people do it without connections. I was lucky enough to be put up because normally they either have a father in training or someone to give them rides and without that they wouldn’t have got going. I think these days it would be different – if I was young now I would go to a racing school and learn.
“I wanted to be as good as I could and ride like a professional as much as I could, but in those days you didn’t have the help like you have now.”
Ultimately, Jenny received no formal celebration for her achievement in being only the second lady to ever attempt the National – “I didn’t get a special rosette or anything, I didn’t do well enough!” – but the experience will etched in her memory for ever:
“I sometimes think back now: it was extraordinary.”
By Karen Taylor
GUIDE TO THE GRAND NATIONAL 2015 – CLICK HERE