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First woman to ride in Grand National battled barrage of sexism to blaze a trail

When Charlotte Brew sat in the saddle in 1977 as the first woman to ride in the Grand National it wasn’t just the huge fences she had to overcome.

There were many in the racing community, and in the public, who thought she shouldn’t have been there.

Ginger McCain, who trained Red Rum to win his third National in that historic race in 1977, summed up the opposition succinctly.

He insisted that women should not be allowed to ride in the world’s most famous steeplechase “under any circumstances”.

Charlotte was 21 when she became a trailblazer for female jockeys, riding Barony Fort in the National on the legendary Aintree course in Merseyside.

Her big day ended in disappointment when the 200-1 outsider, which she had received as an 18th birthday present, refused at the fourth last.

But the outcome didn’t matter. She had broken down yet another gender barrier, helped transform horse racing and had become an instant celebrity.

Now, 44 years on, Charlotte says laughing: “Even now it seems incredible such a big thing was made of it.”

But it was a big thing… and a string of women have followed in her ground-breaking wake.

Seven have claimed top 10 finishes in the National, with the highest being Katie Walsh who was third on Seabass in 2012.

Charlotte, 65, says the time has come for a woman to win the great race. Rachael Blackmore, Bryony Frost and Tabitha Worsley are set to be at the starting line on Saturday.

Charlotte says: “Every year it gets a little closer. It has to happen sooner or later. Rachael Blackmore is doing so well. She is so tough and professional.

“Byrony Frost will have a big ride and Tabitha, perhaps the least well known, is an extremely good rider.”

Charlotte earned her place in the race after finishing fourth in the Foxhunters’ Chase, run over the National fences, the previous year.

“It was a dream to qualify for the Grand National. I could not believe it,” she says. But her joy turned to dismay when she faced a barrage of sexism.

“Those who were antagonistic were very antagonistic. I had a lot of trouble from David Nicholson, one of the leading trainers, and from Julian Wilson, the BBC commentator. They were very vociferous.

“I was only young and not confident at dealing with anything like that, whereas now you’d just say ‘p*** off’.”

But Charlotte, who lived in a village in Essex, received plenty of support from some of the biggest names in the sport, including trainer Fred Winter and BBC pundit Richard Pitman.

On race day she had to get changed in a tiny bathroom “miles away” from the men, where a sign on the door said “Lady Jockey”.

Charlotte says: “Richard Pitman did not like that. He crossed it out and wrote ‘Charlotte Brew’. He was very kind.”

None of the officials alerted Charlotte when it was time to enter the parade ring.

She wandered outside alone in her silks and fought her way through a mass of spectators.

“There was a crowd around the paddock and I could hear people saying ‘where is the lady jockey?’, and I was standing right behind them. I couldn’t get through to get on the horse.”

Of the race, she says: “It passed in a bit of a blur. The crowds were great… they cheered like mad.

“As I went over the water jump I remember race commentator Peter O’Sullevan saying ‘Charlotte Brew is still going’ and the crowd all cheering.

“I’ve got a photograph of myself jumping the water jump and you can see people throwing their hats in the air.”

Weeks later, the Daily Mirror treated her to a VIP flight to the US on Concorde.

She sat alongside the reigning world light heavyweight boxing champ John Conteh, who was also a guest of the newspaper, for the day trip.

Charlotte says: “It was such a generous thing for the Daily Mirror to do.

“It was one of the most exciting days of my life. I’ve still got all my memorabilia from the trip. I’ve got everything, all the menu cards and a copy of the Daily Mirror with us all on the front.

“They laid on a reception at a hotel the night before and there was a huge banquet. It was amazing.

“We got on Concorde and… we had champagne all the way there and we had a reception in Washington.

“We had a bus tour then we were back on Concorde and home for supper almost. It was absolutely amazing.” Charlotte competed in the National again in 1982 but she was unseated at the third fence.

The mum-of-three, now Charlotte Budd, runs a catering business from her farm in Somerset, where she also trains horses for point to point races.

She has been riding since the age of seven and has no plans to stop. “I still love it. I ride every day but I don’t ride in races, I’m much too old,” she says laughing. “The only time I feel quite normal is on a horse nowadays…

“I do wedding catering and sometimes I’m busy but we always try to watch the National.”

There will be no such distractions on Saturday so she will watch the race on ITV at 5.15pm. And if Rachael, Bryony or Tabitha triumphs, a roar from Somerset will be heard all the way up at Aintree.

“If one of the girls wins I will definitely open the champagne. It could easily happen. It would be the most exciting thing in the world.”