Rachael Blackmore named Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year 2021

Jockey became first woman to win Aintree Grand National with Minella Times in April

Friday lunchtime at the Shelbourne Hotel, and such is the range and calibre of the starring cast at the 18th staging of The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year awards that in the end the overall winner comes down to the only one to go where no woman in the world has gone before. Enter Rachael Blackmore.

On many levels it was an unprecedented year of success for Irish women in sport, on the national and international stage, more often than not dominating the sporting headlines, and still after the avalanche of firsts and emergence of rising stars, Blackmore stands alone.

Indeed Blackmore recorded several historic firsts over a three-week period, her naming as the February monthly award winner actually coming before that, after winning the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Honeysuckle. Turns out that was only one small step in her giant leap of a year.

A month later, the 32-year-old had become the first woman to claim the leading jockey title at Cheltenham, as well as the first woman to win the Champion Hurdle, again aboard Honeysuckle, with whom she’s clearly established a winning partnership.


Then, in April, came the achievement of a lifetime, the first woman – and there can only ever be one first here – to win the Grand National, steering home 11-1 outsider Minella Times to win the world’s most famous steeplechase by six and a half lengths – the first woman winner in the race’s 172-year history.

Famously telling a television audience of millions in the aftermath of that win “I don’t feel male or female right now, I don’t even feel human” Blackmore made it into the Shelbourne to reflect further on her unique year, most of the 18 other monthly winners, including two joint winners, representing 12 sports, accepting their awards by virtual means.

“It’s been such an incredible year for sport and particularly for women in sport,” she said. “To be nominated is fantastic but to win an award like this, it’s so special, it really is. When you look at the people you are up against and their achievements. It’s hard to comprehend that you’ve come out on top of that, it’s unbelievable.”

Asked by host Des Cahill is she has any favourite moment, Blackmore replied: “Look, it’s been such an incredible year, I could never have envisaged anything like this ever happening in my career. The standout I suppose has to be Aintree, that feeling when I crossed the line in the Grand National, I’d never experienced anything like it, it’s such a special race. Look, winning the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle is right up there as well, she’s such a special mare, so look, I’ve been so lucky. Hopefully it will continue.”

It wasn’t all plain riding, and a bad fall in July at Killarney, Blackmore was out injured for three months, which did afford her the chance to observe the achievements of some on other monthly winners, including Tokyo Olympic gold medal winner Kellie Harrington.

“I broke my ankle and my hip on opposite legs, which made it a bit more challenging at the start for sure but that’s the life of a jump jockey and there’s no jump jockey out there who thinks they aren’t going to get injured. That’s probably the only guarantee we have – and you know you’re just hoping it’s never too serious. And look I’m back now, that’s the main thing.

“It did mean I got to enjoy more of the Tokyo Olympics, I was setting my alarm to get up to watch Kellie’s fight, it was a great buzz, and hearing all their stories from the Olympics has been great too.”

In any other year, Harrington – the overall winner in 2018 – might well have won the award again, still her reflections on 2021 will always be equally special: “It was life-changing for me, but it was also uplifting for the rest of the country, which is more that I could ever have dreamed of, or expect.”

The 2021 Outstanding Achievement Award went to nine Team Ireland women who between them won seven medals at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer: Harrington, gold in boxing; Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty, who won bronze in rowing; Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal, who won two gold and one silver Paralympics medals in track and road cycling; and swimmers Ellen Keane and Nicole Turner, who won Paralympics gold and silver medals respectively at the Paralympics.

The trophy was accepted in person by Lambe and Keane, the Paralympics swimmer highlighting again that range and calibre of stars.

“It is lovely to see that all nine women are being recognised, because you honestly couldn’t pick out one performance here, everyone had such a good Games, and such a good year, and especially the year that was in it, have to go through all the lockdowns, then reach the podium, nine times, is an amazing thing, and I’m so honoured to be able to be here to accept this award, with Eimear, on behalf of the rest.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics