Venetia Williams – Grand National Focus

Getting involved with horse racing on any level is anything but a formality. The spiraling costs that are involved and somewhat ‘closed shop’ nature of the sport , often means that many with a passion for racing are always outside looking in, rather than actively involved. Add being a woman to that already tough road, and some would argue that it becomes even more difficult to make it. Racing isn’t quite as much as an old boys club as it used to be, but it’d be naive to imagine that element doesn’t still exist in the minds of some. Still, whether jockeys, trainers or owners, the glass ceiling is starting to shatter and we have the likes of trainer Venetia Williams to thank for that.

Venetia Williams has the distinction of being only the second woman – after Jenny Pitman in 1983, and again in 1995 – to train the winner of the Grand National. In 2009, her nine-year-old, Mon Mome, ridden by Liam Treadwell, was driven clear to beat the 2008 winner, Comply Or Die, by 12 lengths. In so doing, he became the first 100/1 winner of the Grand National since Foinavon in the infamous renewal of 1967, when a mêlée at the smallest fence on the National Course gifted the winner an unassailable lead. So while many of us are scouring through tips for 2020 Grand National Festival, Williams has walked the walk, and in spectacular fashion.

Prior to winning in 2009, Mon Mome had finished tenth of 15 finishers, beaten 58 lengths, behind Comply Or Die in the National the previous year but, nevertheless, fared best of the 13 runners that Williams had saddled in the race in her 14-year training career up to that point. However, when asked about her chances of winning in 2009, she said, “They [Mon Mome and stable companion Stan] should both manage on the ground and the fact that I’ve got two to line up at the start is exciting enough, so anything is possible.” Ironically, Stan fell at the fence now called “Foinavon” on the first circuit, but anything was, indeed, possible.

Venetia Williams’ association with the Grand National started over two decades earlier in 1988 when, as an up-and-coming amateur rider, she had her one and only ride in the iconic steeplechase aboard 200/1 outsider Marcolo. In the days before the landing zone at Becher’s Brook was levelled, Marcolo fell at the formidable obstacle, knocking Williams unconscious in the process.

The eventual winner, Rhyme ‘N’ Reason, also blundered at the same fence, slithering down on his haunches before making a dramatic recovery. As Williams later recalled, the Racing Post ran a series of photographs showing his recovery which, quite by accident, also showed her coming a cropper in the background.

Williams is a rare breed, and no doubt she appreciates that other women, such as the aforementioned Jenny Pitman (winning with Corbiere in the 1983 Grand National, and Royal Athlete in 1995) paved the way for her success. They both dared to do what hadn’t been done, to train a Grand National winner, despite the challenges and naysayers that paved the way to that lofty goal.

Nigel Twiston-Davies

Nowadays, farmer-turned-trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies operates one of the most successful National Hunt yards in the country. From his base at Grange Hill Farm in Naunton, Gloucestershire, he has sent out over 1,500 winners, including 17 winners at the Cheltenham Festival and two Grand National winners.

Formerly a moderately successful amateur rider, Twiston-Davies learned his trade under the auspices of Fred Rimmell, Kim Bailey and David Nicholson, before starting training, under permit, in 1981. He saddled his first winner, Last Of The Foxes, at Hereford the following year, but agricultural recession finally forced him to abandon his farming interests and, in 1989, he took out a public training licence.

In 1992, Twiston-Davies saddled his first winner of the Scottish Grand National, Captain Dibble and, in 1994, his second, Earth Summit. Four years later, in 1998, the latter would complete a notable career treble by winning both the Welsh National and the Grand National. However, it was his second Grand National winner, Bindaree in 2002, which renewed his appetite for National Hunt racing and caused him to abandon plans to wind down his training operation and return to farming. His notable Cheltenham Festival winners include Imperial Commander in the Ryanair Chase in 2009 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2010, Blaklion in the RSA Chase in 2016 and Ballyandy in the Champion Bumper in the same year.

Sue Smith

Not to be confused with East Sussex trainer Miss Suzy Smith, Mrs. Sue Smith is married to former champion show jumper Harvey Smith and based at Craiglands Farm, near Bingley, West Yorkshire. Mrs. Smith first took out a public training licence in 1990 and saddled her first winner, the cheaply-bought African Safari, in the Hurst Park Novices’ Chase at Ascot in November that year. However, she is probably best known as the trainer of Auroras Encore, who sprang a 66/1 shock when winning the Grand National in 2013; in so doing, the 11-year-old made Mrs. Smith just the third female trainer, after Jenny Pitman and Venetia Williams, to win the race.

Surprisingly, in her lengthy career, Mrs. Smith has yet to saddle a Grade One winner, but has numerous Listed, Grade Three and Grade Two victories to her name down the years. She has won the Grade Two Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock four times, with The Last Fling in 2000, Arctic Jack in 2004, Cloudy Too in 2016 and Wakanda in 2019, the Grade Three Racing Post Plate at the Cheltenham Festival, with Mister McGoldrick in 2008 and both the Grade Two Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr and the Grade Two Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham, with Midnight Shadow in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Of course, these are just a handful of over 1,000 winners Mrs. Smith has saddled and, although into the veteran stage of her career, she maintains a hungry enthusiasm for the game.

Tom Lacey

Tom Lacey is based at Cottage Field Stables, in the tiny village of Woolhope, in the Ledbury district of rural Herefordshire. Formerly a successful amateur jockey, with 27 point-to-point winners to his name, Lacey learned his trade breaking in, schooling and re-schooling National Hunt horses under the auspices of the late Captain Charles Radclyffe and as a pupil assistant trainer and head lad.

Lacey started training, in his own right, in the 2012/13 National Hunt season and, after a low-key start – he failed to break into double-figures in his first four seasons – increased his seasonal tally to 21 winners in 2016/17. His ‘breakthrough’ season, though, was 2017/18, in which he saddled 39 winners, including Vado Forte in the totepool Sussex Champion Hurdle at Plumpton, Jester Jet in the Grade Three Alder Hey Children’s Charity Handicap Hurdle at Aintree and Thomas Patrick in the Grade Three Betway Handicap Chase, also at Aintree, and amassed over £359,000 in total earnings.

In 2018/19, Lacey recorded two more high-profile victories at Listed level, courtesy of Glory And Fortune in the EBF Stallions & Cheltenham Pony Club at Cheltenham and Jester Jet, again, in the Mares’ Hurdle at Warwick. All told, in the last five National Hunt seasons he has saddled 107 winners from 527 runners, at a strike rate of 20%, and has recorded an impressive level stakes profit of 101.4 points.

Warren Greatrex

Warren Greatrex is based at Uplands Stables in Upper Lambourn, near Hungerford, Berkshire – the yard made famous by eight-time champion National Hunt trainer Fred Winter – which he has occupied since 2012. Formerly assistant trainer to Oliver Sherwood, with whom he spent nine years, and private trainer to Malcolm Denmark at nearby Weathercock House, where he spent a further three seasons, Greatrex moved to Uplands with a dozen or so horses but, in the interim, has increased the size of his string to eighty or more.

In the 2018/19 National Hunt season, Greatex saddled 38 winners, 20 fewer than his best ever seasonal tally of 58 winners, which he achieved in 2016/17. However, thanks in no small part to a Grade One win, in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton, and a Grade Two win, in the Ladbrokes Novices’ Chase at Newbury, on British soil by his stable star, La Bague Au Roi, he enjoyed his most lucrative campaign yet, with total earnings in excess of £563,000. Indeed, La Bague Au Roi, who also won the Grade One Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown, was his first Grade One winner on home soil since Cole Harden – officially rated 164 in his prime and, arguably, his best horse ever – won the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2015.