Champion jockey contender Blackmore still uneasy in the limelight

Modest Tipperary woman has proved her mettle during her rise to the top of Irish racing

Rachael Blackmore.: “I don’t want to change anything. I cannot believe how well it is going so I just want to remain on a low profile.”  Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Rachael Blackmore.: “I don’t want to change anything. I cannot believe how well it is going so I just want to remain on a low profile.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

In the darkest, pokiest corner of Punchestown we can find, Rachael Blackmore takes her seat and submits to the awfulness of it all.

Given the choice, you’d be reading about someone else here. You wouldn’t know who she is and or how she got here or where she’s going. If she had her way, the only place her name would be printed would be on a racecard.

This aversion to the spotlight is perfectly natural for any normal human being but desperately unfortunate for someone currently duking it out at the top of the standings in the jockeys’ championship.

Having led the table for most of the summer, Blackmore has spent the past fortnight chopping and changing positions with Paul Townend at the top, with the pair of them several lengths clear of Davy Russell in third place . However hard it is to keep pace with the established stars of the weigh room, it’s quite impossible to do it in secret.

“Oh god, I hate this,” she groans, good-naturedly and half-heartedly.

“I don’t know why I do. I used to be okay with it but I’m not anymore. I think I just have a fear of these things. I don’t know why.”

So let’s leave her there for a bit, a ball of nerves trying to tiptoe through life at the top of the racing game without anyone noticing.

Let’s talk instead about numbers, those impervious, unfeeling bastards that care nothing for her fretting. After yesterday’s card in Cork, Blackmore lies one winner behind Townend, 45 to his 46.

Of the other jockeys in the weigh room, only Andrew Lynch has raced more this season – his 313 runners contrasting with her 287. She has 30 runners on the flat to her name as well.

The numbers say a few things about her that she wouldn’t say for herself. One, all jockeys work hard to get rides – but nobody works harder than she does.

On The Final Furlong podcast last week, occasional Irish Times pundit Tony Keenan pointed out that she has ridden for 132 different trainers in the past two seasons. For comparison, Davy Russell’s number over that stretch of time comes to just over half that amount. Ruby Walsh’s total is 20.

Two, and this is where she gets queasy, she is a genuine mould-breaker. The jumps season still has seven months to go and already she has passed Nina Carberry’s record of 39 winners by a female jockey.

Given a reasonable run of health, it is fair to presume she will obliterate it by the time we’re back at Punchestown next May. Over the whole of last season, only seven jockeys rode more winners than she has done in the first five months of this one.

Small world

And look, she gets it. She does.

She was at the 20x20 conference in Dublin last Monday morning where the need for visibility in women’s sport and sportswomen was the theme of the day.

She hears that kind of thing and part of her feels bad for not doing a bit more to raise her profile. She doesn’t see what she’s doing as being especially remarkable but she understands it when people look in from the outside and tell her she’s wrong.

Here’s the thing, though. Irish racing is a small, small world. Slice it and dice it and the jumps side of it is smaller still. Drill right down and there are, give or take, five owners and five trainers that everyone wants to be riding for.

Since the start of the summer, Rachael Blackmore has had an established link to one in either category, riding Gigginstown Stud’s horses for Henry De Bromhead.

That’s her world right now and the ecosystem within it must feel so delicate to someone not named Walsh or Russell or Townend or Geraghty. Little wonder she’s nearly paranoid about saying a word out of place.

“I just think people might be bored of reading about me,” she says, oblivious to the fact that so few people outside her small corner of the world have so much as heard her name.

“I’m just always thinking, ‘Aw, look, people have heard it all by now. I have nothing new to add to my story. I don’t have any big revelation to tell you’. I feel like I don’t have anything new to say. I just want to keep everything the same because it’s working for me at the minute – do you get me?

“Like, I am delighted – I am. I don’t want to come across as ungrateful that someone is taking an interest. I don’t want to change who I am. I don’t want to change anything. I cannot believe how well it is going so I just want to remain on a low profile, don’t look at anyone and maybe they won’t notice that I’m doing well and getting all these rides and just hopefully it stays going.”

Thing is, people have noticed.

They noticed when she turned professional back in 2015, the first woman to do so in Ireland since Marie Cullen back in the 1980s. They noticed when she won the conditional riders’ championship in 2017, the first female rider ever to do so. They noticed when she kept grafting, turning up to ride work at the yard of anyone who would have her, confounding any notions they might have had.

Another face

The story of her success this season is bound up in the link with Gigginstown. You can work hard every hour of the day, you can be an expert with your timing, you can be a demon in a finish – but if you don’t have the horses, you’re just another face in the crowd.

De Bromhead has had a brilliant summer, lying third in the trainers’ championship. Blackmore has ridden around a third of his runners and half of his winners. It couldn’t have clicked better for either of them.

“Eddie O’Leary suggested using her back in May,” De Bromhead says.

“We were kind of chopping and changing quite a bit last season between various jockeys and it was hard to get consistency. I was looking for someone who was a bit older, who had a bit of experience, who had had to work their way through the ranks and suddenly she ticked all those boxes. And then, most importantly, we had a bit of luck together and with luck and winning comes confidence and it has taken off from there.”

At Punchestown last Wednesday, the pair of them teamed up for a double, the novice hurdler Milliner surprising them both by winning the first and Sub Lieutenant taking the feature race later on.

Back at the end of August, she was rated a 100/1 shot to win the jockeys’ championship. That double on Wednesday saw her cut from 16s down to 10s. It’s still probably unlikely but it’s not out of the question.

And really, when it comes down to it, that’s what Rachael Blackmore’s story is. She’s a jockey who has come from a non-racing background to mix it with the best in the business against everyone’s predictions – her own included.

The last time The Irish Times interviewed her back in 2015, she told a story about beating Townend in a pony race when she was a kid.

“That was my claim to fame,” she said. “I was 13 or 14 I’d say. I beat Paul a nose – the pony’s name was Tommy, his pony was called The Grey Dancer. The video is so funny to watch. I’m so terrible looking and he is so polished, even then. You could easily pick out the one who was going to be champion jockey and who wasn’t.”

Yet here she is. In with a shout, working away at a life she could never have imagined. That day we met three years ago, she was still doing a college course part-time, still half-presuming she’d have to go and get a proper job eventually. There was no roadmap set out for her to get where she is today; she’s been her own driver and navigator all the way.

So it’s not quite that she doesn’t want to jinx it all by talking about it, although there’s a bit of that she says. It’s more that she is right in the maw of it now, with limited time and headspace for the fripperies that go alongside and no particular inclination to put her energies into making room.

“I would definitely love to talk about it all when it’s all over but I don’t want it to be over, you know?” she laughs.

More pressure

“If you told me three years ago that I would go to Punchestown on a Wednesday and ride two winners for Gigginstown and Henry De Bromhead. And if you’d told me I’d be riding two-year-old winners for Willie Mullins. And that an English horse would come over and win a big pot and I’d be the jockey they’d ask for [as happened with Bedrock in Tipperary a couple of weeks ago].

“If you’d told me all that, I’d have said I’d be beyond happy if I ever got to that sort of level. I would have told you that I would be so content and happy. If you had told me that I would be champion conditional jockey, I would have been like, ‘Oh my God, I’ll retire. That will do me. I’ll be so happy with that out of my career’.

“But the truth is, you’re not. When you’re doing well and people say you’re doing well, your main thought is, ‘Right, I have to stay going well now because people are saying I’m okay.’ It feels like there’s that bit more pressure. It’s like you’re never fully happy. It’s strange that way.

“It’s not actually as enjoyable as I thought. That sounds wrong – enjoyable is the wrong word. . Like, today is a great day – two winners, brilliant.

“But tomorrow is Tramore and you start clean again. Tomorrow could be a bad day and today is wiped away. Racing never stops coming at you. You definitely should enjoy the good days, everyone says that. But you have to move on quickly too.”

Just now, there aren’t many moving as quickly as she is. And though she’d rather we didn’t make a fuss about it all, it is her misfortune to be cursed with talent and laid low with success.

Not that she’d thank you for a cure, all the same.

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