Rachael Blackmore - breezing over racing’s hurdles with quiet determination

Jockey picked up unstoppable, unparalled momentum during a peerless golden year

Rachael Blackmore became the first women to win the Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty

Rachael Blackmore became the first women to win the Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty

 

Usually reticent when it comes to the media, Rachael Blackmore still has a happy knack when it comes to a good quote.

In April she had barely pulled up Minella Times after her groundbreaking success in the Aintree Grand National when coming up with the perfect line - “I don’t feel male or female right now. I don’t even feel human.”

It touched on being the first woman to ride the winner of the world’s most famous steeplechase but summed up how it was about much more than that. Just a few week before Blackmore had ended the Cheltenham Festival as top rider with six winners including the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle.

If any single success sums up Blackmore’s pioneering exploits this year in forever changing the face of National Hunt racing then it was probably that victory.

On the biggest stage, in a championship race, riding a hot favourite, and with pressure at its most intense, she delivered not only in style but almost with a sense of inevitability.

It’s the sort of assurance only the very best possess. If 95 per cent of competent jockeys win on the best horse then the cream are employed to get it right when it counts. Honeysuckle’s victory rubber-stamped Blackmore’s place among the elite.

Even the idea of such an outcome would have seemed incredible only six years before when she turned professional in a final desperate attempt to get chances of any kind of winner.

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle enjoy and enduring, winning partnership. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle enjoy and enduring, winning partnership. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

A sport with centuries of presumptions about women lacking the strength and physical toughness to compete at the very highest professional level didn’t so much have a glass ceiling as one made of titanium strength tradition.

Yet Blackmore turned a chink of opportunity into the sort of momentum that in the comparative blink of an eye has tipped that culture on its head.

It is an incomparable legacy and one the 32-year-old from Killenaule in Co Tipperary is determined to expand in her own understated way.

Quiet determination

Quiet determination has been Blackmore’s calling card throughout.

Hers is far from not the usual racing tale of a successful jockey from a family steeped in racing with thoroughbreds on tap.

Her father, Charles, farms. Her mother, Eimir is a teacher. A younger sister, Charlotte is a law graduate while her older brother Jonathan works in graphic design.

It’s an environment recognisable to many where emphasis is on education rather than risking life and limb on the back of a horse.

Sure enough Rachael Blackmore, who is dyslexic, went to university. Doing a science degree in UCD she found passing maths exams a problem so switched to graduate in equine science at the University of Limerick.

Throughout, though, the dream of riding as an amateur jockey never went away though.

Her first winner was Stowaway Pearl at Thurles in 2011. It hardly provoked a torrent of success. Four years afterwards and it was trainer ‘Shark’ Hanlon who suggested she had little to lose by turning pro and seeing what happened.

If her landmark accomplishments took place behind closed doors there’s little doubt about popular regard for Blackmore.

Most Honourable was her first winner in the paid ranks at Clonmel in September 2015. This time it generated momentum. She started to get chances. More importantly she availed of them.

Naturally light and able to claim a weight allowance, Blackmore became a popular option for owners and trainers eager to win and blind to the gender of the person delivering that success.

In 2017 she was the first woman to be crowned champion conditional rider, the jumps equivalent of champion apprentice. At 27 she was the oldest new kid on the block and, crucially, armed with high-powered support.

Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team started to use her extensively. The Ryanair boss’s brother Eddie recommended her to trainer Henry De Bromhead. Soon racing had a new dream-team.

Cheltenham

In 2019 Blackmore rode her first Cheltenham festival winner, A Plus Tard. At the same meeting was a first Grade One success on the 50-1 shot Minella Indo. At the end of that season only Paul Townend was ahead of her in the jockey’s championship. Both Ruby Walsh and Davy Russell trailed her.

Townend again beat her to the jockey’s title in Ireland in the 2020-21 season but it is a relative footnote to a breakthrough campaign that saw her crowned top jockey at the all-important Cheltenham festival but most of all enter the broad public consciousness in the Grand National.

The extent of the impact can be gauged by how on Sunday night she is up against Novak Djokovic, Max Verstappen and Tom Brady for the BBC’s world sports star award. The Irishwoman is favourite to win the public vote.

If her landmark accomplishments took place behind closed doors there’s little doubt about popular regard for Blackmore. At a time when racing has come under scrutiny for all the wrong reasons she has become the face of the sport.

Winning the Grand National on Minella Times was Rachael Blackmore’s finest moment of 2021. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Winning the Grand National on Minella Times was Rachael Blackmore’s finest moment of 2021. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

None of which appears to have turned her head towards celebrity in any way, something the precarious nature of her job might explain. A fall in Killarney in July left her with fractures to her hip and ankle. Within 100 days she was back in action and typically without fuss.

Like it or not there’s going to be lots of fuss this weekend.

Having picked up Horse Racing Ireland’s Hero award on Wednesday, she is also odds on to crowned RTÉ’s sports personality of the year on Saturday night.

Then there’s the chance to land the odds once again and become the first woman to land the BBC gong since Simone Biles in 2016.

It is heady company and it comes with the sort of rapturous acclaim that brings to mind Cary Grant’s old line about how he too wished he could be Cary Grant.

In fact, after the National, such was her incredulity at what was happening, the woman of the hour exclaimed “I can’t believe I am Rachael Blackmore.”

It was another perfect line that summed up the breadth of her remarkable accomplishments this year.

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