Rachael Blackmore becomes first woman to win the top jockey title at the Cheltenham Festival
What a week for Rachael Blackmore – six Cheltenham Festival wins in total, five at Grade One level, including a Champion Hurdle, and a top jockey title to boot.
Blackmore had long ago proved her capabilities in the saddle, but four glorious days in the Cotswolds saw her demonstrate her full repertoire – making every yard on Allaho in the Ryanair Chase, pulling off a sublime waiting ride on Telmesomethinggirl and proving she can more than handle the pressure in steering home hot favourite Honeysuckle on Tuesday.
Tactically astute and as strong as any in the finish, Blackmore is the complete package who has smashed the boundaries for women in racing with her virtuoso performance in the Cotswolds.
Daughter of a dairy farmer and a school teacher, she is something of an accidental trailblazer.
Just the second woman to hold a professional licence in Irish National Hunt racing, Blackmore’s star has been firmly in the ascendant since she took the plunge and made the switch from the amateur ranks in March 2015.
She had ponies as a child in County Tipperary, but did not hail from a racing family – and after harbouring early hopes of being a vet, she eventually gained a degree in equine science, combining her studies with riding out and competing as an amateur.
Blackmore rode her first winner for John ‘Shark’ Hanlon at Thurles in February 2011, and it was the trainer who encouraged her to make the leap – providing her with a first professional victory too at Clonmel on September 3, 2015.
That short-heard triumph for Most Honourable in the lowly Woodrooff Handicap Hurdle was to prove the springboard for what has been an already exceptional career.
A first major success came aboard Abolitionist in the 2017 Leinster National Handicap Chase – a season which also saw Blackmore become the first female champion conditional rider in Ireland, with 32 winners to her credit.
Lucy Alexander had completed the feat in Britain a couple of years earlier, but with less racing in Ireland and a system which allows only amateurs to compete on the lucrative bumper circuit, Blackmore’s decision could easily have backfired.
However, it has been one-way traffic since that landmark title – with some of the best trainers in Ireland queueing up to make use of Blackmore’s services, resulting in the 31-year-old finishing in the top three in the Irish championship for the last two seasons.
A link-up with Henry de Bromhead has undoubtedly been her most valuable association to date, and the top trainer has had no hesitation in giving her the leg-up on his stable stars.
With a handful of Grade Three and Two victories already under her belt, Blackmore first struck Grade One gold aboard Minella Indo in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham two years ago, giving her a second Festival win after A Plus Tard had triumphed earlier in the week.
She had 12 top-level victories on her CV at the start of this year’s Festival – with the bulk of those provided by supermare Honeysuckle.
Much like weighing-room rival and fellow female pacesetter Bryony Frost, who has such a rapport with Frodon, Blackmore and Honeysuckle are on the same wavelength.
They are now unbeaten in 11 starts together – and while two Irish Champion Hurdles will no doubt have a special place in the rider’s heart, her achievement in winning the Cheltenham version should not be underestimated.
To be the first woman to win in the race’s near 100-year history is quite something – but when you consider its position as one of the crown jewels of the National Hunt sphere, you really start to appreciate the leap Blackmore has made.
A seven and a half-length success aboard Bob Olinger in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle provided more proof of her Festival Midas touch, with another triumph then gained when Sir Gerhard prevailed in the Champion Bumper.
She suffered three falls in the intervening races, but was evidently unfazed come the next day when riding from the front to claim a 12-length Ryanair Chase victory on Allaho and then piloting Telmesomethinggirl to a convincing win in the Parnell Properties Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.
And it was all so nearly capped with glory in the biggest race of them all, the Gold Cup, as only Minella Indo – the horse she could have ridden – proved too strong for A Plus Tard.
Blackmore may not relish any fuss being made of her gender, having previously said: “I think if you’re a jockey, male or female, you have to work just as hard.”
She added this week: “I’m genuinely just so overwhelmed by these last few days. It’s all about the horses you’re getting on, and I just feel so lucky to be riding for the people I’m riding for.
“I can’t comprehend that I’m the leading rider – it’s a bit surreal.”
But there is no doubt that she has put in the hard yards, with the shattering of another glass ceiling a fine reward for a quiet pioneer of the jumping world.