CARRIE Ford will get up at about 7.30am on Saturday, April 9. The first thing she will do is give her 14-month-old daughter her early morning bottle, before passing her to one of her friends for the day. By 10am, she and her mount, Forest Gunner, will be on their way to Aintree, Liverpool, to compete in the most prestigious and intimidating horse race event in Britain - the Grand National.

If she succeeds in winning, Carrie, who weighs nine stone and is 5ft 3-and-a-half ins tall - only one-and-a-half inches taller than the National's biggest fence, The Chair - will be catapulted into the record books. There have been 12 Grand National rides for women, but so far the highest placed female jockey has been Rosemary Henderson, who came fifth on Fiddlers Pike in 1994. The first woman to complete the Grand National course was Geraldine Rees on Cheers, in 1982.

Those in the know believe that Carrie, who lives outside Chester, is the first woman to have a real shot in the race. To begin with, Carrie and Gunner are no strangers to the huge spruce fences at Aintree, having won the Liverpool Foxhunters' Chase together over two-and-three quarter miles of the Grand National course last year - astonishingly only ten weeks after she gave birth to daughter Hannah. After hugging her trainer husband Richard, the tough 33-year-old declared that "Jumping these fences was easier than childbirth".

But on Saturday, she will have to go twice around the demanding Grand National course - with the eyes of the world on her and Gunner.

"I was very lucky with the Foxhunters' because he was foot perfect that day," she recalls. "He got into a good rhythm and felt fabulous. But the difference on Saturday is that as well as another lap to go, there will also be a lot more horses involved. I can only say that the first time I rode them it was exhilarating and a fantastic experience."

The chestnut Gunner stands 16 hands high and is aged 11. He is a lean, mean fighting machine with plenty of spirit - the kind of diminutive horse you make Hollywood films about when they go on to prove all their detractors wrong. Around the stables, Gunner is commonly known as "the little white-faced freak," which may seem harsh to some, but is a term of endearment.

"It's because of his breeding and his physical make-up," laughs Carrie. "He was actually only bred as a point-to-pointer. You would probably just walk past his box, he's not a striking individual, but his heart is as big as a bucket."

Carrie was born in Derbyshire and started riding when she was two years old. In point-to-points, she became six times champion in the North West, and she went on to become one of the country's leading women riders over jumps.

She had actually retired at the end of the 2003 season, before being tempted to ride Gunner in the Foxhunters' last April. She retired again, but a year later, and with none of the preferred jockeys available, Carrie seemed like the logical choice to partner Gunner in the National, knowing the horse better than anyone else. Owners John and Barbara Gilsenan were also keen for her to ride and husband Richard is backing her too. They will all be there to support her on Saturday, standing next to Red Rum's grave as Carrie tackles the grizzly course.

"Obviously Richard is a little bit anxious but he has been fully supportive," she says.

They are all in no doubt as to the daunting task ahead. In the ultimate test for horse and rider, Carrie and Gunner will face 30 fences over an arduous four-and-a-half mile course. Each of the 16 fences, including the infamous Becher's Brook, will be jumped twice - apart from The Water Jump and The Chair - the latter of which has a six foot wide ditch on the take-off side. She will be one of 40 competitors.

The Grand National, which was first run on Tuesday, February 26, 1839, is one of the rare sporting events in which amateurs can take on professionals. One of the biggest doubters Carrie and Gunner will be delighted to prove wrong is leading trainer Ginger McCain, who won the National three times with Red Rum and once with Amberleigh House, last year.

Ginger recently said of Carrie: "Horses do not win Grand Nationals ridden by women. That's a fact. Carrie is a grand lass, but she's a brood mare now and having kids does not get you fit to ride Grand Nationals.

"Good luck to her and they have a very good horse, there's no question of that. But to go four-and-a-half miles around Aintree you have to be a top-class professional. We will discount Forest Gunner."

Carrie shrugs off the comments and says philosophically: "I know Ginger fairly well, I used to ride out for him, and I think his comments were pretty much tongue-in-cheek, although I can understand people who aren't used to Ginger being outraged.

"If anything, it has just made me more determined."

She says the sport has become more open to women over the years from the days when there were no lady jockeys. All the courses have changing rooms for the ladies and some of the best are at Aintree.

"It's a tough sport," she says. "But you're not aware of any sexism, there are no ill feelings."

Fitness-wise, Carrie has been riding out up to five times a day and for the last few weeks, has upped her aerobic work in the gym, running and swimming. She also works out on an "equasizer", a mechanical horse which enables her to practice her finishes. Like any competitive animal, Gunner's fitness is always a concern, but she says he too is in good health.

Driving her on is her determination to be the best she can be and the knowledge that this will be her last race, or so she says.

"Basically if I only get as far as the first fence I will have given it my best shot. For me, that will be it."

After retirement, there will be time to focus on raising Hannah. Before then, there will the biggest ride of her life. The race starts at 3.45pm and by 4pm, she will know if she has made history. On Friday, bookies had her odds at 14-1, joint fourth favourite.

Asked how to sum up her chances, she struggles to find the words.

"I can't let myself imagine what it would be like to win," she says determinedly. "The only thing I can think about is past experience and that I've been lucky to have a horse like him. Put it this way, given the chance, I wouldn't swap him for any other horse."