Rachael Blackmore poised for Cheltenham success story

Unbeaten Honeysuckle and A Plus Tard among rides in top races for top jockey

 Rachael Blackmore after victory on Honeysuckle in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham lasat March. Photograph:  Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

Rachael Blackmore after victory on Honeysuckle in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham lasat March. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

 

A sport on the ropes from the reputational battering it has suffered in recent weeks could get no greater boost than for Rachael Blackmore to flourish at next week’s Cheltenham festival.

She has prospered before at jump racing’s greatest fixture, the pioneering jockey winning three times in the last two years.

A Plus Tard landed a handicap in 2019 and days later Blackmore became the first woman to ride a Grade One winner over hurdles at the festival when the outsider Minella Indo sprang a 50-1 shock in the Albert Bartlett.

Last year saw Honeysuckle get the better of a thrilling head to head with Benie Des Dieux in a Mares Hurdle. To many her jockey’s daring rails move on the turn-in looked like the difference between victory and defeat.

The condescending tag of ‘female jockey’ has long since been binned as Blackmore’s spectacular career-path continues to underline how no allowances are given or expected when competing in the saddle.

The finishing post is oblivious to gender.

The woman herself prefers to swerve such considerations. The 31-year-old is uncomfortable being viewed through an overtly political prism, preferring to be regarded simply as a successful professional. That she has succeeded so spectacularly in doing so is likely to prove her greatest legacy.

But a sport beleaguered by a glut of negative press could do with a timely morale-booster right now, an opportunity to advertise the best of itself.

Blackmore and the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle are the poster combination of this festival, boasting a perfect unbeaten 10 out of 10 career record together, and are favourites to land Tuesday’s Unibet Champion Hurdle.

If the Grand National remains jump racing’s greatest shop-window, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup its ultimate prize, then the Champion Hurdle is the third leg of jump racing’s unofficial triple crown.

For Blackmore, winning would be the greatest single victory of a career boasting over 300 winners. The significance of a woman riding the winner of such a championship event is incalculable, an image to endure.

Typically, the woman herself doesn’t indulge in such considerations. As cautious out of the saddle as she is bold in it, there can’t be an unhatched chicken she has ever contemplated counting.

Yet her confidence in the mare is total.

It’s hardly surprising on the back of an Irish Champion Hurdle success last month that was a step up again on anything Honeysuckle had previously done.

There wasn’t an iota of doubt in Blackmore as she sent the Henry De Bromhead-trained star to the front soon a long way out and Honeysuckle kept stretching clear.

Sharper challenge

It put to bed any doubts about her ability to win at the highest level over two miles and suggested a horse whose progress is far from finished.

“I thought that was an unbelievably good performance, the way she quickened up. And we know she stays. She ticks a lot of boxes,” Blackmore says.

Significantly the prospect of two miles around Cheltenham’s Old course, a sharper challenge than the New track used on Thursday and Friday at the festival, doesn’t concern her.

“It is [sharper] but on what she showed the last day I don’t mind what track we’re on to be honest,” the rider adds.

Should Honeysuckle win it will send the odds tumbling on Blackmore being leading jockey of the week.

An enviable book of rides for Henry De Bromhead, including A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup, will be supplemented by ‘spares’ from Paul Townend’s discards among the Willie Mullins battalions.

Friday’s Gold Cup takes place on the stiffer New Course where A Plus Tard is a leading player although his unproven stamina will be put to the test.

Having proved a revelation when tried at three miles for the first time in the Savills Chase during Leopardstown, the Cheveley Park Stud-owned horse faces an extra two and a half furlongs up the famously gruelling Cheltenham hill.

Blackmore was fourth in last year’s Gold Cup on the doubtful stayer Monalee. However she is hopeful her latest ‘Blue Riband’ contender has the class to do better.

“The Gold Cup is a different test again for him. He’s venturing into the unknown. But you’d have to be very encouraged the way he finished off the race in Leopardstown.

“To be a Grade One two mile chase winner and a Grade One three mile winner, that’s a very classy individual.

“But it’s mainly the way he was finishing at Leopardstown; that has to be encouraging the Gold Cup trip won’t be a problem to him. It’s a hell of a hill but he’s come up it in front before and I personally don’t think that will trouble him. He’s very relaxed. I think he’ll be fine,” she said.

Championship events

The last jockey to complete the Champion Hurdle–Gold Cup double was AP McCoy in 1997. That Blackmore can entertain such an accomplishment next week – perhaps more realistically than any of her rivals – is testament to the groundbreaking impact she has made over the last five years.

Should she succeed in one of the championship events, never mind two, the lack of live public acclaim at the course will be a stark reminder of the unique circumstances of this behind-closed-doors Cheltenham.

“I definitely think you can’t overestimate that atmosphere at Cheltenham when crowds are there. It’s such a special place because of the people and the atmosphere.

“But there are certain horses it will definitely work in their favour not having crowds there. I don’t think there will be a disadvantage to anyone but it might help some horses.

“As jockeys though we’re just delighted to be there in the first place,” she said.

Racing as a whole could find itself particularly delighted that Blackmore is there.

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