6 March 2005

In the tack room of Richard and Carrie Ford’s Cheshire stables is a photo of the late superbike hero Barry Sheene with the motto `Don’t wait for your boat to come in, swim out and meet the bloody thing’. Next month Carrie and their scrawny little chesnut Forest Gunner set out for the Grand National. Victory would be the greatest sporting story ever told.

It’s not that improbable for unlike all previous 12 Grand National rides for women – Rosemary Henderson’s fifth on Fiddlers Pike in 1994 being the best of them – they are among the favourites in the betting, and the tale of Carrie and Forest Gunner already takes some beating.

Last April 32-year-old Carrie and 11-year-old Gunner won the Liverpool Foxhunters Chase over the Grand National fences only 10 weeks after Carrie had her first baby, Hannah. After she and husband Richard had embraced in the winner’s enclosure, Carrie announced she was hanging up her boots for good, adding the proviso: “Jumping these fences was easier than childbirth”.

But Forest Gunner’s two efforts this season, firstly another over those same Aintree fences last November and then a big-race success over a gruelling 3½ miles at Haydock a fortnight ago, have changed the lady’s mind. Substitute jockey Peter Buchanan won’t be available for the National; Carrie is as fit as a flea and knows Forest Gunner better than anyone. Owners John and Barbara Gilsenan are keen for her to ride. Husband Richard doesn’t have a leg to stand on as his spare-time pursuit is blazing round nearby Oulton Park at 120mph on a 800cc Kawasaki. Only Hannah hasn’t been consulted.

All the principals were gathered round the coffee table on Tuesday morning. It is six years since 76-year-old John Gilsenan finally sold his dairy herd three days before the BSE crisis crashed the price of livestock. “I asked Barbara if she would like a Mercedes,” he says, “but she said we had always had a Ford [the Mondeo outside was continuing proof], why not fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and buy a racehorse.”

The Gilsenans look at each other at the wonder of what was to follow: the trip to local former jockey Reg Crank to see two horses in the field, the purchase of the older, cheaper one for pounds 4,000, (the other one proved to be star hurdler Iris’s Gift), the future Forest Gunner’s wild early days before the ongoing racing saga that has now seen eight wins, five of them under the frizzy-haired, elfin-faced little figure now pouring the coffee.

Of course, the Grand National is steeped in such tales. Richard Ford himself won the Foxhunters Chase in the climax of a dozen hard-knock years as a grafting amateur jockey and this April, as last, he will watch his wife tackling the great Aintree fences, standing by Red Rum’s grave. But misty-eyed romance should never obscure the brutal reality that horse and rider are due to face. The best place to discuss that is in the saddle. Out there she is very much the jockey, not the mother.

Ten minutes later, Carrie leads half a dozen of us out of the spick-and-span barns and boxes once occupied by Robert Sangster’s first trainer, the `handicap king’, Eric Cousins. At 5ft 5in and 8st 10lb, she rides short and neat, unremarkably poised and professional. It is her four-legged partner that shakes you. Forest Gunner may be 16 hands, but there is nothing of him, no muscle on his narrow neck, no gleam in his washy chesnut coat. He’s the sort of horse you see down at the start and ask the rider in sympathy “what on earth is that?”.

“Yes, we call him the white-faced freak’,” says Carrie. “He was a bit crackers when he first came here and is still a bit buzzy, but he is fine if you let him do his own thing.” On cue, Forest Gunner jig jogs expectantly but the hand that Carrie puts on his neck is one of assurance not nervousness. Between now and Grand National day whole forests of quaking newsprint will be wasted on the fearfulness of her Aintree challenge. See her on a horse and understand.

Carrie first rode when she was two. She has been through most of the disciplines but racing has been her obsession. In point-to-points she has been six times champion of the North West, under rules her 18 wins have won the ladies’ championship. She even first met her husband in a point-to-point. The training system they are creating is on what is now her father’s farm and Forest Gunner is a horse of all their lifetimes. She and he have already conquered the Aintree fences together.

Working with the stable’s 30 incumbents and training half a dozen point-to-pointers herself has made her fitter than ever. It would be not wanting to ride Forest Gunner at Liverpool that would be unusual.The challenge for  her and Richard is to get the horse to Aintree on April 9 at peak fitness. We trail through a woodland ride, hack past a gravel lake and then spin round a 330-yard oval enterprisingly dug deep into the earth to reveal cushy natural sand. We do three circuits one way, pause briefly for breath in the centre before doing three the other, pause again and then do two more, fairly drilling up the straights.

The horses have not been strained but they have done a considerable standard work-out. When we have finished and Richard is talking about heart-rates and his interval-training technique, a chord strikes in the memory. It strikes again when we see Forest Gunner indulging in a sand-roll after exercise.

Twenty-two years ago I remember another unprepossessing chesnut stripped down to marathon-runner leanness and his trainer speaking more intensely about training than anyone before or since. It was Bregawn, the horse who had led that unique Cheltenham Gold Cup 1-2-3-4-5 for Michael Dickinson. Surprise, surprise; the most searingly formative seasons of Richard Ford’s much-travelled apprenticeship were under the wing of Michael’s matriarchical mother, Monica, at the stables of her son-in-law Tom Tate. Forest Gunner won’t lack fitness at Aintree and after proving his stamina with a best performance last time, he has a professional as well as a romantic chance at Aintree.

Back in the house, Richard agrees to pull out the video of Carrie’s victory in last year’s Foxhunters with the private admission “my heart was breaking my chest by the time she got to Valentine’s and I guess it will again”. We gather round the television and you gulp at the immensity of what Carrie has done and is to do. “People said I looked blocked out,” said Carrie, “but whether it is Aintree or a silly race at Sedgefield I always try and get a focus. I don’t want to sound hard but once I got to the races I shut out all thoughts of what Hannah might be doing. Afterwards, I was happy to say I would stop both for her and for Richard. It will be the same this time.”

If the scenario on the screen gets repeated in April it will also be the sort of thrill that causes commentators to choke on hyperbole. For Forest Gunner is a front-runner and goes into those National fences with sure-footed precision of almost Red Rum dimension. He and Carrie will be centre stage. The world may not be ready for this.

Carrie will be. Later she will be a loving mother for her daughter. But first she has an appointment to pass her riding medical and then, just in case we think she has forgotten the `swim out and meet the bloody thing’ dictum, she will do her own training session in the local pool.

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