Having worked in the paintings department of Sothebys and as Northern Art Critic for The Daily Telegraph, what got you involved in racing?
My mother, who was Teddy Grimthorpe’s aunt, was always very keen, almost fanatically so. She was a great TV punter and once owned a horse trained by Bill Elsey at Malton. It was my mother who got me involved and used to take me to Newcastle races.
I have owned point-to-pointers and bred, owned and trained eventers. I loved the breeding side, but it is heartbreaking when it goes wrong. One foal I had to rear by hand after losing the mare; it meant a month of feeding by hand, which could be quite testing. I was four or five when I started riding and have had horses ever since. In 2005, Peter Daresbury asked me to join the board at Aintree.
You also did a stint as a member of stable staff in Newmarket. Who did you work for and what did you learn from the experience?
I spent my gap year with Gavin Pritchard-Gordon before going up to Cambridge. It was quite an education; I was 17 or 18 and learnt some interesting swear words! I quickly found out that racehorses don’t slow up the same as the horses I’d been used to riding. I remember failing badly one day when being told to take an elderly handicapper up the gallops and stay half a length in front of the two-year-olds.
It buggered off with me and we finished a long way clear with the two-year-olds trailing in our wake. After that I was put on the trainer’s pony. My favourite part of the job was first thing in the morning going on to the gallops, it was exhilarating. You quickly realised that the whole town revolved entirely round racing and horses.
Quite blissful, though I was exhausted at the end of every day and used to crawl into bed.
Are you still secretary to your husband, Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire? How do you manage to combine the job with your appointment as Chairman of Aintree racecourse?
When I took on Aintree I promised to go on working two days a week for Owen until the election. I have cut down massively on what I used to do but I didn’t want to leave him in the lurch. I have done the job for 18 years and know the constituency inside out.
I thought it would be too difficult for Owen to start recruiting someone at this stage. These days you can work on the move. I take my laptop on the train and have it with me most of the time. I work late at night and we have a lot of weekend work.
This will be your first Grand National as Chairman. In addition, you are the first woman to occupy the post. How are you enjoying the role so far?
It is a privilege and thrilling to be involved in what is the greatest race in the world. There is an amazing team at Aintree; they are very dedicated, very enthusiastic and real professionals. This year we are delighted with the standard of Grand National entries; we’ve got a previous Gold Cup winner, a Hennessy winner, seven of the first eight finishers from last year.
The overall quality of the race is very strong. We also have a four-week gap between Cheltenham and Aintree, which helps our festival hugely because there is time to recover. So that means over the three days we should have very, very strong races.
How do you visualise the Crabbie’s Grand National as it’s seen through the eyes of the nation?
When I saw the Channel 4 programme Gogglebox, with real people sitting on a sofa watching the National last year, I thought that’s exactly how most people see the race. They were sitting on the edge of their seats, hiding their eyes, looking again and saying, “Oh my God”. It was unpredictable, thrilling, terrifying. That’s how the race comes across to most people. And that’s why we have such a vast worldwide audience.
I suppose I am biased but I don’t see any other sporting event that is comparable. A Wimbledon tennis final can be very exciting but it can last for five hours. The ten minutes of the National is short, but it’s pure adrenalin.
Is there any way you can make Grand National day an even bigger attraction for the British public?
After the war Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister, asked to have the Grand National moved from a weekday to a Saturday because it stopped the nation and affected GDP. Not much work got done and it showed up in the national figures. I reckon we still have that effect, but because it’s on a Saturday the country doesn’t come to a halt. It’s huge already and we aim to keep it that way.
We’ve invested significantly in improving facilities for people who don’t go racing very often. There are 1,500 more seats down the west end of the course, more bar facilities, chill out areas, a pop-up pub, and for the first time a big team of ‘Race Makers’ all over the course; they are there to make it more fun, more interesting, though not necessarily to give you a winner.
There are other innovations like pre-ordering your drinks from the stand with a new app, and it might even be possible to have drinks delivered to your seat in the grandstand.
You have said you aim to “continue to use the latest science and experience to bring home both jockeys and horses safely”. How do you propose to do that?
The changes we made after 2012 were basically a new fence core, changed from timber to plastic, a massive new irrigation system, a unique wash-down area [the only one in the country] and some levelling of the fence landings. These were undertaken after extensive research and consultation right across racing, and also beyond racing with the other equestrian disciplines such as eventing.
We will continue to monitor the effect of these changes and build up the data on every race run over the Grand National fences. We believe there should be a considerable period of stability while the changes bed in and we evaluate them. Only 18 out of 40 finished last year, which we feel shows that we haven’t made it too easy. Tough but fair is what we’re aiming for.
What did you learn from the success of Aintree’s recent ‘free-entry day’ and in what way will it benefit the racecourse?
We think it earned us plaudits for giving something back to our local community. We are part of the Liverpool community and we want them to realise that’s how we see ourselves. We also wanted to introduce first-timers to racing, people who never contemplated going racing but lived down the road.
We wanted to show off the course in advance of April. There were a lot of people who had never been before, a terrific amount of local publicity and there was a great buzz around the 30,000 crowd.
You have mentioned sponsorship as a key area for the racecourse. What are your hopes in this area?
We have our main sponsor, Crabbie’s, who are terrific and absolutely get the point of the Grand National. We also have some new sponsors, but on a broader level we have a new Regional Sponsorship Director, Phil Hardman, who is focusing on building up sponsor partnerships across other Jockey Club courses.
It is beginning to show encouragingly bigger dividends for all parties involved. It would give sponsors a more fruitful relationship with Aintree, our other courses and racing. We value our bookmaker sponsorship as much as anyone. They play a huge role and are very generous.
What does Aintree mean to you and what is your biggest fear for the race with the biggest worldwide audience?
It is the ultimate test of bravery, skill and stamina for both horse and jockey. I have a concern that small politically-motivated animal rights groups try to use our race to further their extreme aims, which is to end all racing worldwide.
They use our race for publicity because it has such a massive audience. This is in contrast to the animal welfare charities, who do superb work and with whom we work very closely.
You raised £120,000 for charity when you and your husband completed the 1,000km Mongol Derby in 2011. What did you learn from the experience and can you count the times it took you through the pain barrier?
You discover in the end it is a mental test rather than a physical one, a case of mind over matter. The first three or four days are agony, everything hurts and your body starts to give up, so it’s a case of keeping yourself going mentally. Because we had been pledged a huge amount of money, every time you felt you couldn’t carry on you suddenly think to yourself: “What about the money. What about the Royal Irish Regiment. They had three soldiers killed in Afghanistan.”
We were riding 14 hours a day and there wasn’t a lot to look forward to at the end of the day, just a tent and no running water. You went through the pain barrier several times a day. One day I was bucked off, got back on, was bucked off again and got kicked and dragged along.
When we changed horses (after every 25 miles) my next horse put both feet in a hole and turned over with me. That evening I was feeling very sorry for myself. It’s not something I’d do again, I’m not that stupid!
You have a passion for hunting. Can you describe the excitement and satisfaction it gives you? Comparable to jumping a Grand National fence, perhaps?
I’ve hunted since I was a child and still get the adrenalin buzz, but I am definitely less brave these days. I have never jumped a Grand National fence and certainly wouldn’t be brave enough for that. But I do enjoy all my hunting friends and the social side more and more, plus the view of the countryside from the horseback.
I hunt with the Wynnstay on the Cheshire- North Wales border and love watching the landscape change between November and March.
What horses do you have at home and how often do you ride? Do your three children join you?
We have three ex-eventers, which are now hunters. I ride two or three days a week. Our three grown-up children Felix, Ned and Evie, are all in London but would ride when they are here.
Aintree is hosting the inaugural Grand Women’s Summit in April? What’s the aim of this get-together and do you think women are represented appropriately in racing?
It takes place on the morning of Ladies’ Day, which we are relaunching on the Friday of the National meeting, and the theme will be all about aspirations. What we hope to do at the summit is begin with a discussion about women in sport and business. The aim is to encourage more women to get involved in racing because there still aren’t enough women in the sport.
We want to share our experience with women and Beth Tweddle, the world champion gymnast, will be sharing her sporting experiences with us. Katie Walsh, our Ladies’ Day ambassador, will host a Grand National course walk. We had 44,000 on Ladies’ Day last year and are hoping to improve on that.
You are one of very few women to be a member of the Jockey Club. What does this position involve and how often do you meet?
For me, it is an honour. We meet four times a year and it is a very good opportunity to keep up with all the Jockey Club business, the racecourses, Jockey Club Estates and all the issues around racing. Individual Jockey Club members have a massive store of knowledge and experience, and I just pick their brains. I have a lot to learn.
As the wife of an MP, how involved will you become in the run-up to the general election?
I have organised and run the last four general election campaigns for my husband. This year I’ve had to take more of a backseat but I have sorted his itinerary for him and set the whole thing in motion, but I cannot commit to the day-to-day stuff.
Normally, I’d be out all day knocking on doors. Hopefully I can do more of that after the Grand National.
Your daughter Evie is a medal-winning event rider. How would feel about her, or any of your children, taking part in the Grand National?
I’d be terribly proud, obviously on the edge of my seat, but above all proud. When Evie is eventing I get very worked up, can hardly bear to watch, but then there is this feeling of great pride in what she is doing.
Are racing politics even more complicated than national politics? Do you see a way forward through the many disjointed racing factions?
They are complicated. But, while I am not involved in the governance of racing, I think there are signs of the racing industry coming together at last, speaking with one voice and trying to map out a long-term, sustainable funding arrangement. Everybody realises that this needs sorting and there are signs of speaking with one voice, which will make racing stronger when it comes to lobbying the government.