Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Grand! by Sheena Wilkinson

On Saturday 10th April 2021, Irish jockey Rachael Blackmore made history by becoming the first female rider to win the English Grand National. As a racing fan, I've followed Rachael's career ever since watching her ride at Ballinrobe in County Mayo, one August evening. Last Saturday  I watched her ride a beautiful race on Minella Times, with the sensitivity, courage and judgement that are so characteristic of her style.  It's a race where anything can happen, and though it was looking increasingly positive for Minella Times and Rachael, I hardly dared breathe until they were over the last, and even then it was a long run to the line. I've often screamed a horse home, but never as fervently as I did on Saturday; I don't mind admitting that I was ugly-crying and hyperventilating. Rachael plays down her gender, but in that moment she crossed the line, she must have known that she was carrying the dreams and beliefs of so many pony-mad girls.

I'm no longer a pony-mad girl. I'm 51; it's eight years since I've owned a horse, and about the same time since my last horse-themed book (Too Many Ponies) was published. But as I screamed for Rachael I was eleven again, scraping up pocket money to pay for occasional riding lessons and covering exercise book after exercise book with blue-inked pony stories. Because my two dreams were to have a pony and to be a writer. The girls in my stories had everything I didn't -- houses in the country, knowledgeable parents, and ponies, ponies, ponies. When I did come to have pony books published they were very much at the gritty, rescued-horse and modest dreams end of the spectrum: nobody in my books wins the Grand National.

Of course I'd ridden the National many times, in my reading. And won it too, thanks to Enid Bagnold and K. M. Peyton. Most of the pony books I read were set in the more prosaic worlds of county shows and village gymkhanas, but to eleven-year-old me, stuck in a Belfast housing estate, these were as out of reach and exotic as Aintree. More so in fact: the racing was on TV in my granda's house every Saturday; in a way, Becher's Brook and the Canal Turn were more part of our lives than Chatton Show where Jill's ambition was to win the Grade C jumping or Finmory, where Jinny rode her chestnut Arab over the Scottish moors.

National Velvet  I found an eccentric, challenging read -- I wanted to love it more than I did, and came to appreciate it more as an adult.

I was an adult too when K. M. Peyton's Blind Beauty, the ultimate rags-to-riches, heartbreaking horse story, was published; that book too climaxes in a (spoiler alert) Grand National win. 

But the ultimate Grand National novel for me is K.M. Peyton's The Last Ditch which came out when I was sixteen. The premise is, on the surface, as preposterous as most racing stories -- but then the sport, in real life, is full of such stories too -- two eighteen-year-old boys, Jonathan and Peter, are drifting/ running away with nothing more than an old hearse and a racehorse that's in training for the Grand National. There's a love triangle, a baby and a lot of drama, and the story culminates in -- but that's a spoiler I'd never share. Enough to say that when you think K.M. Peyton has wrung the last bit of emotion out of her readers, she hits you with more. 

I still reread these books, fence by fence, even though I know what's going to happen. When I watched the Grand National on Saturday I had no idea what would happen, and though I've already watched the replay several times, I know that nothing will ever compare to the moment when I -- a 51-year-old author, but also an eleven-year-old pony-mad kid, roared for Rachael and Minella Times. 


Nick Garlick said...

Lovely post. There's something about horses that always knocks me silly, so I will be buying ALL the books you mention. (I've only ever seen the film of National Velvet.)

Jane Badger said...

Love The Last Ditch - and like you, I appreciated National Velvet much more when I read it as an adult. I loved it as a child, because horses, but as an adult I could see far more of what was going on beneath the surface.

Kaye said...

I watched the National every year as a child, I remember Red Rum winning 3 times, I went to meet Rag Trade at his stables, I was the original pony mad child... Did I ever think a woman would win the National..... never, what an amazing rider she is 🥰