Irish star Blackmore can beat the boys and seize top jockey crown at the Cheltenham Festival


Rachael Blackmore concedes she sometimes takes a step back to reflect on the progress of her career and asks herself: ‘Is this really happening?’

If she can scarcely believe her remarkable success in the last couple of seasons, goodness knows what she will be thinking if this week at the Cheltenham Festival goes even half as well as many are predicting.

Wins on A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase and Minella Indo in the Grade One Albert consistent supply of quality rides when Blackmore linked up with De Bromhead’s stable in County Waterford last summer. 

Blackmore boasts an enviable book of rides including Notepad, Honeysuckle and A Plus Tard

De Bromhead will provide most of Blackmore’s best rides at the Festival, including Gold Cup hope Monalee on Friday and today’s Arkle Novice’s Chase favourite, Notebook.

De Bromhead also trains Honeysuckle, the deliverer of the biggest domestic win so far for Blackmore, but last year’s Festival wins still have pride of place in her heart.

‘If you’d told me a couple of years ago, “You’ll ride two winners at Cheltenham,” I’d have said, “Oh my God, I’ll retire! That would be the best day ever”,’ said Blackmore who, as a teenager, attended the Festival with friends.

‘Last year, there was pressure going into it. I had one or two rides in the previous two years, but with the book of rides I had, it was a different kettle of fish.

The jockey can scarcely believe her remarkable success in the last couple of seasons

The jockey can scarcely believe her remarkable success in the last couple of seasons

‘It was a big relief when A Plus Tard won, and then it was elation and joy and happiness! A Cheltenham winner is such a coveted thing for any jockey, and I was lucky enough to get two of them.

‘A Plus Tard was the favourite, so going back into the winner’s enclosure on him, walking back down the chute, the crowd was ecstatic. The roar, the cheers and you can pick out people in the crowd that you know. I saw one lad I went to school with. I felt the crowd was massively behind me.

‘Minella Indo was a big, 50-1 outsider, so there was cheering and applause — but it was more polite. It wasn’t a financially backed applause!

‘It’s just a special place, to be at the top of that hill after the finish. You see the camera coming over before they interview you. That is where every jockey wants to be.

‘A Cheltenham winner brings a whole different spectrum of things, even to girls I went to school with who don’t know anything about racing. It was hard to explain to them what had happened when I was champion conditional jockey. But to be able to say, “I rode a winner at Cheltenham”, they all know Cheltenham, even if they’re not into racing. It’s on the TV news. They could comprehend that as being a big deal.’

Those school friends should Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival saw Blackmore emulate Gee Armytage, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh — the only other women jockeys to ride two winners during Festival week.

Henry De Bromhead will provide most of Blackmore’s best rides at the Festival this week

Henry De Bromhead will provide most of Blackmore’s best rides at the Festival this week

BLACKMORE’S BEST FESTIVAL RIDES

TUESDAY

CAPTAIN GUINNESS

(Supreme Novices ’ Hurdle) 

Only raced twice, but exciting prospect having won once before finishing second to highly-rated Andy Dufresne in the Moscow Flyer Novices’ Hurdle. Improvement needed but should have it in him.

NOTEBOOK

(Arkle Novice ’ Chase )

Four wins from four over fences, including a length-and-a-half defeat of main betting rival Fakir D’Oudairies in the Grade One Racing Post Novices’ Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. Looked a handful before winning the Grade One Arkle Novices’ Chase last month, when his slick jumping was again a feature.

HONEYSUCKLE

(Champion Hurdle/Mares Hurdle)

Never beaten, winning all seven races with Blackmore riding. Won the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, one of Ireland’s key races in December, landing the Irish Champion Hurdle, fighting back after throwing away the lead at the last. Hurdling needs to be slicker today.

WEDNESDAY

MINELLA INDO

(RSA Chase)

Was a 50-1 shot when winning the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival but is the second favourite for this test after jumping well to win a Beginners’ Chase at Navan from a solid opponent. Jumps well and will not lack for stamina.

THURSDAY

Romped home by 16 lengths in the two-and-ahalf mile novice chase on day one last year and has unsurprisingly held his own in higher grade since, including a three-and-three-quarter-length win from Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown at Christmas. Tackles this race instead of contesting the much hotter Champion Chase.

A PLUS TARD

(Ryanair Chase )

Winner of her last three races and showed a good turn of foot to land a mares’ race at Fairyhouse in January. Has improved with every run.

MINELLA MELODY

(Mares ’ Novices ’ Hurdle)

FRIDAY

Unlucky to lose unbeaten record over hurdles when falling at the last in the Spring Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown last month. The best of the Irish juvenile hurdlers on paper, but they face a strong British defence.

ASPIRE TOWER

(Triumph Hurdle)

One of the leading contenders after his second to Latest Exhibition at Leopardstown last month.

COBBLERS WAY

(Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle)

Twice a runner-up at the Festival, was only beaten a head by Delta Work in last month’s Irish Gold Cup. Solid place claims for a gelding who always gives his all.

Those three were hugely competent, trailblazing amateurs whose exploits advanced the cause of female jockeys. Blackmore, 30, is professional and taking things to a new level.

Last season she doggedly pushed champion jockey Paul Townend throughout the campaign before finishing second in the Irish Jump Jockeys’ title race with 90 wins.

This season, backed principally by trainer Henry De Bromhead and the Gigginstown Stud of owner Michael O’Leary, Blackmore already has five Grade One successes in the bag.

These include becoming the first woman to ride the winner in the Irish Champion Hurdle, on the hugely talented Honeysuckle, who she partners today in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

Lizzie Kelly and the infectiously enthusiastic Bryony Frost, Blackmore’s British counterparts, have both won Grade One races and scaled the heights of landing a winner at the Festival, but neither have come close to emulating the scale of success enjoyed by the County Tipperary native.

Such is the strength of the book of rides Blackmore has over the next four days that she is 5-1 to be the meet ing’s top jockey, not something that has been cons idered before in the male-dominated, jump jockeys’ weighing room.

At 9st, Blackmore should be too slight to be a jump jockey. But she has punched way above her weight and the racing crowds in Ireland have taken her to their hearts. Blackmore has become a face of racing in Ireland, helping to fill the void created when Ruby Walsh retired last year. While reluctant to wave the gender flag, Blackmore understands why what she is attracting so much interest.

‘It is tiresome within the racing bubble because I don’t think it should be a “thing” any more,’ she said. ‘But I fully get why it’s a thing outside the bubble because racing’s a male-dominated sport.

‘At the end of the day, the horses are doing the running. We are just on their backs steering them. It would be different if a female sprinter was beating Usain Bolt.

‘But in saying that, I do see why the greater media have interest and that’s great, too, because it’s bringing interest into racing.

‘I get that it would be massive to win a Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle. It would be pretty massive for me too!

‘My initial feeling wouldn’t be, “Ah, this is so big for women in racing”. But I’m not oblivious to the fact that it is a big deal. It’s just not something I’m thinking about now.

‘Henry doesn’t care, the owners don’t care, no one I deal with cares. I’m just lucky to be in the sport like that.’

What makes Blackmore’s success more remarkable is that her life plan did not include becoming a professional jockey, a move she did not make until she was 26.

‘When I was in school I wanted to be a vet,’ Blackmore said. ‘But my academic results weren’t good enough. Being a professional jockey wasn’t what I wanted to be.

‘I wanted to ride winners but as an amateur jockey. That was the dream, but it has gone to a whole new level.’ 

When, in March 2015 and backed by trainer John ‘Shark’ Hanlon, Blackmore became Ireland’s second woman professional jump jockey — Maria Cullen who rode in the 1980s was the first — her expectations were low.

‘I was not full of confidence but I had nothing to lose. I was a 7lb claimer and I thought I would never lose my claim if I stayed amateur. A couple of people were saying, “I don’t know if you are doing the right thing”, because it was strange for someone who was extremely average as an amateur to turn professional.

‘I suppose when those people were negative towards the decision that I made, it did make me love to prove them wrong.

‘It wasn’t a woman thing. I wasn’t like Jane Mangan. When she was an amateur, she was talented, very good in a finish and sharp. If she had said she was turning professional, no one would have batted an eyelid.

‘I needed to improve with more practice. That’s just what I got when I tuned professional. Straightaway I got more rides, that allowed me to improve.’

Blackmore improved at a rapid rate. The woman who had ridden only seven winners under rules in eight years as an amateur rode her first winner as a professional on Most Honourable at Clonmel on September 3, 2015.

The following season she was crowned Ireland’s first woman champion conditional jump jockey, with 32 winners.

A door was opened to a more  consistent supply of quality rides when Blackmore linked up with De Bromhead’s stable in County Waterford last summer. De Bromhead will provide most of Blackmore’s best rides at the Festival, including Gold Cup hope Monalee on Friday and today’s Arkle Novice’s Chase favourite, Notebook.

De Bromhead also trains Honeysuckle, the deliverer of the biggest domestic win so far for Blackmore, but last year’s Festival wins still have pride of place in her heart.

‘If you’d told me a couple of years ago, “You’ll ride two winners at Cheltenham,” I’d have said, “Oh my God, I’ll retire! That would be the best day ever”,’ said Blackmore who, as a teenager, attended the Festival with friends.

‘Last year, there was pressure going into it. I had one or two rides in the previous two years, but with the book of rides I had, it was a different kettle of fish.

‘It was a big relief when A Plus Tard won, and then it was elation and joy and happiness! A Cheltenham winner is such a coveted thing for any jockey, and I was lucky enough to get two of them.

‘A Plus Tard was the favourite, so going back into the winner’s enclosure on him, walking back down the chute, the crowd was ecstatic. The roar, the cheers and you can pick out people in the crowd that you know. I saw one lad I went to school with. I felt the crowd was massively behind me.

‘Minella Indo was a big, 50-1 outsider, so there was cheering and applause — but it was more polite. It wasn’t a financially backed applause!

‘It’s just a special place, to be at the top of that hill after the finish. You see the camera coming over before they interview you. That is where every jockey wants to be.

‘A Cheltenham winner brings a whole different spectrum of things, even to girls I went to school with who don’t know anything about racing. It was hard to explain to them what had happened when I was champion conditional jockey. But to be able to say, “I rode a winner at Cheltenham”, they all know Cheltenham, even if they’re not into racing. It’s on the TV news. They could comprehend that as being a big deal.’

Those school friends should  be keeping an eye on the news this week.

When Blackmore won the Irish Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle, it even made the sports bulletin on the BBC’s 10pm news slot, the kind of exposure that the sport is not guaranteed any more.

Blackmore has other chances this week but, understandably, Honeysuckle has a special place in her heart. She has never lost in seven races riding the mare.

Her run in today’s race and clash with Benie Des Dieux, another top-notch mare trained in Ireland, is one of the week’s most anticipated contests.

‘It’s very hard to say anything negative about Honeysuckle because she’s done everything I’ve asked,’ Blackmore said. ‘She can be grumpy in her stable and she’s unassuming at home, but she’s extremely tough and has a big heart to get the job done.

‘It’s some position to be in. I was looking through some of my rides last night and, God, it’s an unbelievable position to be in. They are serious rides.

‘At the same time you’re trying not to get too hyped up and wrapped up in it. It’s easier said than done, because all people want to do is talk about Cheltenham. I suppose I am a bit older and wiser to life.’

Blackmore was planning to chill on Monday night with friends.

The eve of Cheltenham is a time for calm, but Storm Rachael could be about to hit the 2020 National Hunt Festival.

 

 

 

 



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