Around 20 years ago, Sarah Swindells enjoyed riding as a point to point jockey in her spare time, as did her younger sister Katharine.
The horses they rode were owned and trained by their father John on his farm in Cheshire – he and his wife Romy had also been point to point jockeys in their youth.
After Sarah and Katharine had been competing in the point to point circuit for a few years their father and a friend jointly bought a horse called Pontoon Bridge to aim at Hunter Chases (the next step up from point to point). The horse was a good jumper on the whole, although “he was a bit chicken over his fences until he got warmed up” Sarah recalls – perhaps the reason why the horse got his stable nickname from the Swindells family: Mrs Pantywoman!
The year was 1999 and the family took Pontoon Bridge to run in a two-mile Hunter Chase at Doncaster Racecourse where he came second with Sarah aboard. This qualified him to run in the Fox Hunters at Aintree during the Grand National Festival of that season. “The opportunity was there so we simply thought, ‘why not?’” says Sarah. However, the chance to ride over the famous fences proved so exciting that the sisters had to toss a coin to see who would take the ride – Sarah won the call.
In preparation for the ride – bearing in mind it was before race videos were readily available online – Sarah looked at as many photos as she could find and particularly planned her tactics for Becher’s Brook: “My goal was to stay out of trouble!”
On the day itself the whole family walked the course together. “It was not as daunting as you’d think because it came across as just a bit bigger than a Hunter Chase’s fences, but the fences looked more fluffy as they were so heavily dressed on top! Of course if you hit them they were rock hard inside but the dressing made them look softer so they really just looked a little bigger than we were used to,” Sarah recalls.
“I had already ridden a Hunter Chase at Aintree on another, home-bred, horse – Doris Blake – which was run on the Mildmay Course, so it was not my first ride at Aintree Racecourse but I was definitely nervous on Fox Hunters day.
“Because the Fox Hunters course was unknown to all of us – we had no prior experience of that course and I had only seen the Grand National race as a spectator at Canal Turn previously – no-one in the family really had any advice for me on how to ride the course… we were all equally facing a new challenge, so my instructions were simply to go out and enjoy it.
“I knew the horse could jump well so that gave me confidence that we could tackle this course, and the going was good to soft so it was perfect really.”
Pontoon Bridge was drawn number 17 out of 24 runners, one of whom was former Grand National winner Rough Quest. Jockeys in the race – then amateurs but now household names – included Noel Fehily, JP McNamara and Marcus Armytage.
“I was the only girl in the race that year and got changed on my own in the Ladies’ Changing Rooms. I knew a few of the other riders in the race but I was far too nervous to talk to any of them, and turned down the commentator in the Parade Ring as well – I could not chat to anyone!”
Another of Sarah’s sisters, Gemma, led Pontoon Bridge and Sarah around then Parade Ring with many other family and friends having bought tickets for the day specially to watch and cheer her on. As the horses went down to the start, Pontoon Bridge was at 50–1 in the betting – not the favourite, but not the worst odds either.
They set off and Pontoon Bridge was at the front briefly before the others swept past and he found a steady pace further back in the field. “There were 24 runners, which was the biggest field I had ever ridden against, but the course itself is so wide and the fences too, that everyone seemed very spread out, not riding upsides you, like in a Hunter Chase.
“The Fox Hunters starts on a different part of the course than the Grand National, as it is a shorter race, so we were on the far side, started with a couple of plain fences, then did a beautiful jump over the Chair, jumped the Water, a few more plain fences [the video of the race shows Rough Quest fell at the seventh with Pontoon Bridge jumping around him] and then we did a terrible jump at the eighth fence.
“It was two before Becher’s Brook and the horse got really close into the bottom of the fence and then sort of screwed his way up and over. The twist sent me out of the side door.
“I was unseated but unhurt and luckily no-one else landed on me – they were all so spread out, so it was fine. The horse did the rest of the course without me, and he was fine too.
“To be honest it was just one of those things. I thought actually if he was jumping like that then it was a relief that we hadn’t got to Becher’s Brook – he was a great jumper when the ditch was on the take-off side because then he had a ground pole to aim at, but without the ground pole he was inclined to go in too deep to his fences and that would have been a disaster at Becher’s where the ditch is on the landing side.
“I got picked up by a van containing the Radio Mersey team, and they interviewed me on the way back to the stands. I couldn’t talk before the race due to nerves, but after the fall I was yabbering away and they were delighted because everyone else they had picked up (there were about six of us in the van) had been too stunned to talk after they had fallen off, they were all half dead!”
The race was ultimately won by Elegant Lord with Philip Fenton aboard. With the adventure over, Sarah continued her point to point career for several more years before retiring to have a family.
Of course point to point (and Fox Hunters) jockeys are all amateurs so they don’t earn a living from riding: Sarah’s professional career is as a Podiatrist, so she also has some valuable advice for racegoers when it comes to being on your feet all day – especially when wearing high heels – click here for more info!
Pictured top: Sarah aboard Pontoon Bridge being led around the Parade Ring by sister Gemma, sister Katharine walking behind left. Pictured below – from the family album. Photos courtesy of the family.