The Markel Champions Challenge has been held for a couple of years now, with the aim of raising money for the Injured Jockeys Fund. In the most recent outing, the likes of Sir Tony McCoy, Ryan Moore and Richard Johnson – regarded among the top jockeys on the planet (although, McCoy has now retired – squared off against an all-female team, featuring Bridget Andrews, Josephine Gordon and Lizzie Kelly.
While it’s just for fun, albeit with some bragging rights among an ultra-competitive group of jockeys and ex-jockeys, watching how jockeys contend with show jumping is intriguing. Indeed, it’s a rude awakening for those racing fans who wrongly suggest show jumping is too slow. The level of control needed for show jumping is beyond what jockeys experience, even if they are fearless.
Of course, good horsemanship is going to come to the fore, but at times in the training in the lead up to the event some jockeys may have wondered what they got themselves into. Lizzie Kelly, who acquitted herself well at the show, managed to “demolish the barrier” with her horse in a training session in early December.
Kelly, however, is an interesting character, one whose fame is starting to transcend the sport of horse racing. She is a trailblazer in an era when the sport is having a dialogue about the role women play in it. In a way, show jumping and horse racing share a similar problem with gender equality, namely that female participation tends to be heavy at grassroots level, yet women are underrepresented in elite events.
26-year-old Kelly has made a huge effort to redress that balance. She is the first female jockey to win a Grade 1 race in Britain in 2015, as well as becoming the first woman to win Europe’s richest handicap race – the Betfair Chase – in 2016.
Indeed, Kelly’s experience of show jumping might stand her in good stead when she tackles the Grand National on Saturday evening. Her horse, Tea For Two, is the kind of enigmatic horse that can drive riders crazy, regardless of what equestrian discipline you are involved in.
Tea For Two is actually the horse that Kelly rode to gain that first ever Grade 1 victory in 2015, but the 10 year old can be tempestuous and has thrown her from the saddle a couple of times before. He’s a massive 80/1 shot for the Grand National after some erratic form, but Kelly really believes in his chances.
Even if Kelly doesn’t ride to that glass-celling breaking victory many in the sport of hoping for, this could be a history-making Grand National. Tiger Roll, the red-hot favourite at 7/2, is being tipped to be the first horse since the legendary Red Rum to win consecutive Grand Nationals, a feat that has almost felt impossible in modern times. Stiff opposition will come from Anibale Fly (10/1), Vintage Clouds (12/1) and Lake View Lad (14/1, odds Bet365), all of whom who can be backed with a Grand National free bet from top bookies.
However, there was a sense of a real momentum shift at the Cheltenham Festival last month, with some big races going to female jockeys. You can’t use the term destiny in any sport – because it is superseded by determination and hard work – but one shouldn’t rule Kelly out of this most historic race. Indeed, perhaps some of the new skills she picked up at the Olympia Horse Show will help her guide the fiery Tea For Two over those daunting Aintree obstacles and on to victory in the 2019 Grand National.