Tom Brady, Novak Djokovic, Canelo and Co - make way for Rachael Blackmore

Jockey’s stunning success in 2021 a ray of light for racing in sport’s annus horribilis

The end of year sports awards season hits top gear this week and Rachael Blackmore’s opposition for every gong going might recall the late Norm Macdonald’s line at an ESPN show back in the day.

The great Canadian comic pointed to a young, smiling Tiger Woods sitting in the audience.

“He’s up for golfer of the year,” explained Norm. “You know who I feel sorry for - the other two guys nominated for GOLFER OF THE YEAR.

“You see these guys getting ready and it’s like ‘Honey, have you seen my tuxedo? No, not the good one, the one I wear when I’m going to get my ass kicked.”

Perhaps only time will permit proper perspective of the scale of Blackmore’s achievements in 2021.

But the line-up of those set to get their asses kicked in the world sport star award at this Sunday’s BBC sports personality of the year show gives at least some indicator of the Irish jockey’s groundbreaking impact.

The NFL's poster boy Tom Brady mightn't be recognisable to a global audience but Novak Djokovic sure is. F1's Max Verstappen isn't far off it. Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez is widely regarded as the best boxer in the world while Jamaica's Elaine Thompson-Herah is a triple-Olympic champion.

Despite all their achievements, and the commercial wattage of their combined star power, bookies reckon Blackmore is a shoo-in to join a luminous roll-of-honour.

Woods is on it, so too is Nicklaus and Bolt, Federer and Pele: Muhammed Ali picked it up three times.

Admittedly last year’s win by a Russian MMA fighter underlined how fickle the outcome of these things can be when coming down to a public vote but the odds reflect how Blackmore’s popularity is neck and neck with her accomplishments that have fundamentally changed the face of jump racing.

It’s only half a dozen years since the then 25-year-old university graduate with no racing background swapped amateur status for professionalism in a last desperate attempt to try and get on a few winners.

The fact the move got a few headlines indicated how rare it was for a woman to turn pro. Novelty alone ensured attention even if much of it smacked of little more than curio status.

But in just six years, age old presumptions and prejudices have been turned on their head. Ideas about gender and the job of riding horses over obstacles, with all the risks attached to it, have been bagged, tagged and binned forever.

Pioneering

Djokovic, Brady & Co have plenty to boast about but no comparable pioneering element that’s surely all but certain to be recognised so publicly this weekend.

That Blackmore’s profile on the back of her stunning achievements at Cheltenham, and topped off by that landmark victory on Minella Times in the Aintree Grand National, is so positive could hardly be more timely for her beleaguered sport.

The Bryony Frost-Robbie Dunne case, with all its accompanying culture war overtones, is just the latest controversy in what has been an annus horribilis for racing’s public standing. It has cemented perceptions of an insular sector eager for affirmation but resentful of any scrutiny that comes with it.

It should count its lucky stars then that its most public face right now is Blackmore.

Whether it was the revelation of how the unfortunate Viking Hoard was ‘nobbled’ with 100 times the limit of a sedative in his system, or the grisly evidence involved in the suspension of trainer Stephen Mahon over neglect issues, the sport has at times appeared set on playing reputational Russian roulette.

Jim Bolger's claims about doping being Irish racing's No 1 problem, and that a level playing field doesn't exist, continue to cast a pall of suspicion and dread over the sector. And then there was the overwhelming fallout to that notorious image of Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse.

If it is noteworthy how that story - arguably the least substantial of the lot - made the single biggest impact it still doesn’t prevent an overall impression of a sector uneasy with examination that goes even slightly deeper than the glib.

This is a sport enduring something of a crisis of confidence and battling to play catch-up in the court of public opinion. It should count its lucky stars then that its most public face right now is Blackmore.

Uplifting

Hers is a story as unambiguously uplifting as it was unlikely. It has pierced racing’s walls and entered the general public’s consciousness. Millions mightn’t know their bridle from their blinkers but they know Blackmore and how she has beaten bigger odds than any long-shot ever.

It's why she's also odds-on to win RTÉ's sports personality of the year on Saturday despite the presence of superb world and Olympic champions such as Kellie Harrington and Katie Taylor. And on Wednesday she will receive the Irish Racing Hero Award from Horse Racing Ireland.

It’s an individual prize that reflects how she was basically too big for every other category open to her. Even then it smacks of coming up short. In the wider circumstances it finds itself some may feel Irish racing might be better off dropping to its knees and giving Blackmore the keys to whatever she fancies.

However, even though it is her accomplishment, the old game is entitled to its slice of reflected glory.

Blackmore has always pointed out how success has come on the back of opportunities to show her abilities. To their credit a handful of owners and trainers presented those chances at the start and she took full advantage.

But once that crucial momentum was established it is heartening how irrelevant the gender element was to those working at racing’s coal-face. Blackmore delivered success which is always the only currency that counts in elite sport. In many ways the rest of us have been playing catch-up.

So at a time of persistently negative attention, racing can thank its lucky stars but also take encouragement from having such a story to tell in the first place.