Rachael Blackmore: ‘Am I happy? It’s unbelievable. But I want more’

The Grand-National-winning jockey on an incredible year

Rachael Blackmore and I are supposed to meet in person, but a few days beforehand, her PR calls with a slight change of plan. The interview will now have to happen over Zoom, because Blackmore has been invited to go to Royal Ascot. As excuses go, that's a tough one to quibble with.

We talk a day later, when she is back in Co Carlow, where she will have to quarantine for the next few days.

Ascot felt like a return to some kind of normality, though in reality, there has been little normal about this extraordinary year for Blackmore, in which she made leading jockey at Cheltenham and three weeks later, rode Minella Times to victory in the Randox Grand National.

Horses are beautiful, intelligent animals and I get to work with them and get to share incredible days with them. It's just… it's fantastic

This was her first time riding at Ascot, where she finished fifth in her race on Cape Gentleman. What’s it like? Blackmore answers in what I will learn is her trademark unpretentious, down-to-earth manner. Previous interviews invariably describe her as “unassuming” or a “reluctant hero” but she’s not so much self-effacing as not about to get caught up in the hype. “It’s very Royal Ascot, you know what I mean? Everyone pulls out all the stops. It’s proper kind of fancy. There was 12,000 people there. So there was a bit more of an atmosphere, and it was nice to kind of feel people around you again.”

She was riding on the flat, unusually for her. “It’s class that my weight is light so that I can dabble in both.” Some flat jockeys have to put themselves through “torture” to keep their weight to nine stone. Luckily for Blackmore, “it’s never something I have to worry about. So you know, I can eat what I like. So it’s a great privilege, I can tell you.”

Throughout the interview – to mark her new role as an ambassador for Design & Craft Council Ireland’s Made Local initiative, and which she takes on her phone in her kitchen – she refers frequently to luck and her sense of privilege as a jockey. “We’re so lucky to be involved in the sport we’re in. I get to do this as my job,” she says, sounding almost incredulous. “It’s an incredible position to be in. Horses are beautiful, intelligent animals and I get to work with them and get to share incredible days with them. It’s just … it’s fantastic.”

A love of animals and the outdoors has been a constant since her childhood, but she never imagined a career as a jockey. Now almost 32, she grew up in Killenaule, Co Tipperary, the middle child of three. Her father Charles is a dairy farmer and her mother Eimir is a teacher. The desire to scale new heights goes way back: Eimir once described how Rachael was escaping from her cot even before she turned one. The Blackmore kids were always outside, playing sport, messing around on horses, taking part in Pony Club events and hunting. "There would always have been horses around."

Were there early signs of competitiveness? “I was normal-competitive I think. If we were playing a game of football in school or whatever, I’d always make sure there was someone keeping score.”

It was that low-key competitive streak that first got her into riding. Her older brother was the first to have a pony of his own. “And then, like any younger sister, I just wanted to copy what he was doing.”

We went out far too much – possibly why I kept failing and whatnot. I don't think I ever had the academic aptitude to ever get close to being a vet, unfortunately

But her daydreams were never about being a jockey. “I always wanted to be a vet growing up. I did my Leaving Cert, and had veterinary down as my first choice, but I was never going to get anywhere close to the points needed. I wasn’t academic. I was dyslexic. I wish I was better in school.”

Being Rachael Blackmore, she went for it anyway. “I went and did science in UCD first of all. I kept failing maths, so diverted down to equine science [at the University of Limerick]… My first two years in UCD, I had the proper college experience, had a great time up there with my friends, great memories. We went out far too much – possibly why I kept failing and whatnot. I don’t think I ever had the academic aptitude to ever get close to being a vet, unfortunately.”

“But look,” she adds, with that famous capacity for understatement, “the way things worked out anyway, at least I was able to do something else.”

In truth, she had “always wanted to be a jockey, to ride in races, to be an amateur, but it was just never something I thought I could have as a career.”

That changed after a conversation with Carlow based trainer John “Shark” Hanlon, not long after she graduated from college. Then 25, she had finished college after a few bumps along the way and found herself “at a major crossroads. I was at a point where, you know, I had to get a real job at this stage. Riding as an amateur wasn’t going to cut it.”

Hanlon put a proposal to her. “Why don’t you give turning professional a try and see does that kind of ignite things? He had a yard full of horses that was going to be able to support me. And I said, sure I’ve nothing to lose, I’ll give it a try. I was a bit taken aback obviously, because it’s just not something that I thought I could do. I didn’t feel I was good enough to do it.”

She decided to go for it anyway. “Racing is different in the sense that turning professional or staying amateur, it’s more to do with your weight and opportunity in the yard you’re involved in. And if someone says they’re going to get behind you, you’re not going to not try that out.”

The rest is racing history. It took her six months to ride her first winner, but though others might have lost their nerve, she never did. “I was getting a lot more experience and I was improving because I was riding more. And I knew from my amateur days how hard it was to get those winners and you have to be patient. I had a HRI [Horse Racing Ireland] account, there was money going into it from my riding fees, I was starting to progress and I knew I was getting better.”

With racing, you're on a high one day and then the next day, the whole thing is upside down. So I try not to get too wrapped up in the whole thing

During the following season from 2016 to 2017, that quiet self-belief paid off. She had 32 winners and ranked as champion conditional – which means she was first among riders with less than 60 winners. “That was an incredible day for me to be honest. That really was – and still is – one of the best days I’ve had in racing.”

“One of them,” she adds with a grin. Because as everyone knows, there have been a few more since.

She’s renowned for her unflustered style on the track, and she strikes me as someone who doesn’t agonise too much. “I try not to. With racing, you’re on a high one day and then the next day, the whole thing is upside down. So I try not to get too wrapped up in the whole thing. I do worry though, sometimes. The people around me maybe know that.”

She doesn't intentionally practice mindfulness or any of the other sports psychology techniques beloved of athletes, though she doesn't rule it out either. The closest she gets is baking – her go-to recipe is a chocolate Coca Cola cake. Mostly, though, she just concentrates on the job at hand. "With Cheltenham, we'll say just as an example, there's so much hype. There's people talking about Cheltenham in January. There's the build up of expectation. You're going there with your best horses. I try and focus on the fact that it's just a horse race. We ride around Clonmel or Thurles on a Thursday afternoon; it's the same principle here. Get from A to B and be the first person to do it."

Cheltenham is “a place of massive highs and massive lows. And if something goes wrong, you just have to park it as best you can and move on to what’s happening next. If you let it affect you, it’ll go into your other rides.” It helps that you don’t have a lot of time to think.

Back to 2017. She was riding a lot for Gigginstown, and it was stud manager Eddie O’Leary who recommended her to trainer Henry de Bromhead, reportedly in the back of a taxi on the way to Aintree. “So that’s what opened the door for me and I had a bit of success. And then Henry started putting me up on some of his other horses, and it was kind of a snowball effect.”

What does she think de Bromhead would say he saw in her? “Probably not a lot. I probably had to ride a few winners for him before he could give you a judgment on that. I’d say if you asked Henry to speak about me today, I’d say he’s sick of talking about me at this stage. I feel like he gets asked about me a lot.” She laughs. “He’s an incredible trainer. The stuff that he has achieved this year – he won the three big races at Cheltenham, and the Grand National. I was part of half of that. At the end of the day, you need to be getting on the right horses, trained by the right people. I’m in a very privileged position.”

I tell her I’ve always wondered what the relationship between the horse and jockey is like. “It completely changes. With Honeysuckle, we’ve had unbelievable days together. [With] Minella Times, I was second on him on two occasions before he won the National. So you get to know horses like that. But equally you ride a winner on a horse and you’ve never ridden him before. You’d be surprised what you can get to know about a horse very quickly.”

Sometimes, she’ll call another jockey to find out a bit more about a horse’s form or personality. “Jockeys are the best people to ask about horses.” I’m surprised it’s so collegial between rivals. It is within reason, she clarifies. “If you’re in the race with them on a fancied horse and you’re riding the other fancied horse, you’re not going to be silly about it.”

There are risks. And every jockey knows them, but we just don't dwell on them. Because if you start doing that, that gets into your mind. You just keep moving forward

Later, she adds, “jockeys do all have a strange relationship. An ambulance follows us around in our job every day. Everyone knows the risks in what we’re doing.” So there’s a sense of comradeship, “but it’s also a very competitive place. You’re in the weigh room [together], [and then] you’re going out and competing against them. It’s not like you’re in the home team and you’re in one changing room, and the other team’s in another changing room. But yeah, jockeys have a good relationship. And it’s a great bunch of people.”

Before we speak, I watch a RTÉ interview between her and Ruby Walsh. "You get falls," he says. "If you're riding to win, you're always riding on the edge." It's not something she likes thinking about (our interview happens hours before the tragic death in an equestrian accident of 15-year-old Tiggy Hancock). "There are risks. And every jockey knows them, but we just don't dwell on them. Because if you start doing that, that gets into your mind. You just keep moving forward."

Her tally of injuries so far is relatively minor. “Collarbone, nose, few concussions, wrist. Look, compared to some people, I’m extremely lucky and I hope I can keep it like that.”

She's had an incredible year, and achieved things she could never have imagined. Does it make her happy? "As I said, I'm in a fantastic position now, but you know, you always want to stay there. Obviously it makes me happy. But if you'd told me a couple of years ago I'd be leading jockey at Cheltenham and I'd win the Grand National, I'd say, I will yeah . I'll be so happy I'll retire.

“But you always strive to want it again, or want more. I don’t know. Am I happy?” She considers this for a nanosecond. “I am happy. It’s unbelievable. But you’re always wanting it again. I want more I suppose.”

Before the interview, her PR and someone else who knows her both suggested that she might prefer not to be asked again about “females in horse racing”. Reading some of the coverage of her, it’s easy to see why all the “first woman to” headlines might get a bit tedious. But being the first woman to be leading jockey at Cheltenham and ride the winner at the Grand National are no less historic for all the coverage it gets.

She is gracious when I bring it up anyway. “I know why it’s a question. And it’s fantastic to be the first person to do anything. It’s an honour. There’s so many women that had to do incredibly brave and unbelievable things to make the world a place where I could win the Grand National and it not be a big deal. So I don’t want to lose sight of that fact. But when I crossed the line, it didn’t hit me, Jeez, I’m the first woman to do this. That’s not what hit me. So look, I think that’s testimony to the world we live in now that just didn’t come into my head.”

She was struck, starting out, by how Katie Walsh and Nina Carbery never made much of gender. "They were achieving massive things – Cheltenham winners, Irish National winners. And I never once heard them mention gender, so I just followed suit."

How does she keep the balance between enjoying the moment and staying hungry? “I suppose I try not to let the low days get too low, and the high days get too high. But you do have to enjoy the good days too. The more frequently you ride, the easier it is to get on with it and get over something that didn’t go right. And try and make amends.”

How much of a win is down to the jockey, and how much is the horse, and how much is some alchemy that happens between them on the day? “It’s the horse,” she says immediately. “The trainer plays a massive role in getting the horse to the race fit and healthy. The jockey’s job is not to do anything to mess that up.”

Next on her schedule is the Galway Races in July, and in terms of life goals, she’s not going much further ahead. “I’m never one who massively sets massive milestones. I try and take things as they come.”

The one question she hates getting asked, she says, though “my mother and my accountant often ask me” is “what I’m going to do when I’m finished racing.” So I don’t ask.

I kind of knew about four strides from the line, I could hear the commentators and I knew I was going to win. It was just pure elation

Blackmore might have the best job in the world as far as she’s concerned, but – for someone with an eye for fashion and who reckons she has the number of every parcel delivery person in her area in her phone – the dress code possibly isn’t one of them. So she made the most of the earlier photoshoot for Design & Craft Council Ireland’s Made Local initiative, which is about celebrating creativity and helping the sector recover. She had her hair and make-up done and got to wear beautiful Irish designed clothes. “I’d love to have had somewhere to go today to kind of make use of it. But uh, no.” She won’t be going anywhere for the next few days, thanks to that quarantine.

She doesn’t do a lot of media, but this campaign appealed to her because supporting local businesses and Irish designers is “definitely something that I became more aware of through lockdown. Supporting Irish people in anything is fantastic and [especially] people in your community. Buying Irish is something that I’ve become more conscious of doing.”

She has recently picked up a few “little gems” from Irish designers. “I genuinely was blown away by the amount of unbelievable stuff that’s out there. It might take a little bit of research [to find], but then you even it’s more satisfying getting it. There really are so many talented Irish people out there doing all sorts.”

Before we wrap up, in a year of standout moments, I wonder which one stands out most. She doesn’t have to think about it. “The Grand National. Such an incredible feeling winning that race. I kind of knew about four strides from the line, I could hear the commentators and I knew I was going to win. It was just pure elation.”

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