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.