The Grand National is ‘electric’ – Laura Toogood talks to racing’s wonder woman Katie Walsh
I first met Katie Walsh at the Junior European Eventing Championships in Belgium back in 2002. Although our teams were competing against each other, there was plenty of friendly banter between the Irish and British riders.
Not only was Katie among the most approachable and affable competitors, but you could instantly tell that she was a natural horsewoman and born to ride cross-country. With an incredible seat and flair for speed, she would fly around the most challenging courses with ease on her mount, Stoneybrook.
We most recently bumped into each other at the Crabbies Grand National Weights Luncheon in the Royal Opera House and despite her tremendous success, Katie remains down to earth and just the same. As the world knows after her impressive performance at the Grand National where she finished third, Katie hung up her eventing boots a while ago and switched to racing.
Her eyes sparkle whenever she talks about her sport and her roots are steeped in the horse world, “I loved eventing and some of my best memories are from eventing, but my heart has always been in racing due to my family”. She is of course referring to her father (racehorse trainer Ted Walsh) and brother, who is one of the top jockeys in the sport and also her guiding star, “I really look up to my brother, Ruby. He is a great jockey who I really admire and the person I call for advice”.
The family influence has been hugely significant in her path to glory and her destiny was almost mapped out from day one, “I have been involved with racing since I was a baby. From the moment I could walk, I was down in the yard with the horses. It is in my blood”.
Her blood was certainly up when she found herself on the start line for the first time at the National. Waiting for the starter’s gun to sound makes even a spectator’s heart pound and the hair stand up on the back of your neck. As a jockey, this must be vastly magnified.
However, Katie’s cool and collective nature shone through, “I was definitely nervous but I was mostly excited. I wanted to seize the moment and take it all in. Getting to ride in the Grand National is such an achievement and I didn’t want to let the experience go over my head. I suppose I felt some pressure to do well, and I was nervous about that, but then as soon as you begin, all the nerves disappear.”
Katie often finds herself to be the only woman on the start line and much is made of the fact that there are few female competitors in the sport. However, there are plenty of women behind the scenes in what – perhaps wrongly – appears to be a male dominated world. She explains, “There are a lot of women involved in racing right across the board, from vets, to grooms to stewards and people do not realise this.”
Regardless, the industry continues to invest significantly in this aspect of the sport and Katie is actively involved in this element, “I am really looking forward to taking part in the Grand Woman’s Summit on Ladies Day at Aintree this year. It is taking place on the morning of Ladies Day 2015 and will be a celebration of women in horseracing, sport and business. It will provide special guests with a discussion surrounding the challenges faced by women in sport and improving the gender balance in horseracing and business. Rose Paterson who is Chairman of Aintree Racecourse will also be there. She is the first woman Chair of a UK racecourse, which proves my point that there are a lot of women involved in all aspects of horseracing”.
While many women may not have an interest in getting ‘hands on’ with the sport, there is still much to enjoy away from the stables, “Festivals like the National and Cheltenham attract young people because they are glamourous, exciting and fun days out. When it comes to women in particular, events like Ladies Day at Aintree are great for showcasing the ability of women in the sport. They help show young women that with enough talent and hard work they could do it too.”
Whether you want to ride, support or simply be a spectator, there is every opportunity to become involved in one of racing’s premium events next month. I always remember my late grandmother putting £5 each way on a grey horse in the National – the colour of the horse was far more important to her than its form or the odds!
This is what the National is all about. Everyone can feel part of the race and join the jockeys and horses on their journey as they tackle some of the biggest fences on earth.
This year, Aintree features in our British Summer Social Season Guide for the first time. Katie believes it should be on everyone’s radar, “The National is just class – it is one of the best days in racing. It is like going to the FA cup final or Wimbledon and is watched all over the world. You just can’t compare it to anything else. It’s electric.”
Katie couldn’t have picked a better word to describe the occasion. The “electric” atmosphere is something for everyone to experience and hearing her talk so passionately about her sport is enough to tempt anyone to try a day at the races.
So, it is time to book your place at Aintree, wait for the hairs on the back of your neck to rise and hopefully there will be a grey horse running this year too for that £5 each way bet.
Katie’s Horse of a Lifetime
“The horse Seabass who I rode to finish third at the Grand National is a favourite of course. I had a horse called Battle Front who I won a lot of races on as well as Never Compromise and 1,000 stars – the trouble is any horse that has been good to you becomes a favourite!”
Katie’s favourite race track
“Aintree and the Grand National is obviously a favourite along with the Cheltenham Festival. In Ireland I love riding at Leopardstown and Punchestown.”
“Shutthefrontdoor, Balthazar King, Prince de Beauchene and Owega Star are the ones I think will be out there at the front this year. If they all run on the day of course! You never know with the National as the starting horses can change right up to the last moment.”
Read the British Summer Social Season Guide here. The Aintree Festival takes place in April and more information can be found here. Ladies Day is on the 10th.