The year of Rachael Blackmore: ‘There’s AP McCoy, Frankie Dettori - and now Rachael’

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Rachael Blackmore arrives in the Cheltenham winners’ enclosure, a home from home in 2021, beaming sheepishly, and accepts the applause and congratulations of an adoring crowd.

They are paying homage to the queen of racing, enjoying a season of all seasons that has made her a star well beyond the confines of what can be a most insular sport, shattering ceilings and rewriting history books at every turn.

Sadly, it is not March and this is not the Festival, which played out entirely behind closed doors. Blackmore is not even sitting on a horse.

Instead, the impromptu ovation, delivered by 500-odd attendees at a Jockey Club event in the autumn, is the idea of legendary jockey Ruby Walsh.

Broadcaster Ed Chamberlin picks up the story: “He grabbed the microphone and said: ‘Listen, we couldn’t give Rachael a reception in March - let’s give her one now!’

“She was rather embarrassed but she ran into the winners’ enclosure with her arms aloft and to a man and woman they roared their approval.”

Rewind to the first morning of the Cheltenham Festival, before the Blackmore show had begun, and, crowd or no crowd, scenes of such joy seemed a distant dream.

The sport was, to put it lightly, taking a hammering, already facing awkward questions over the previous year’s Festival, one of the final mass events to go ahead prior to the first lockdown, when a picture of leading Irish trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse emerged on social media and sent racing into crisis.

“It couldn’t be overstated,” says racing pundit and journalist Kevin Blake. “The atmosphere going to Cheltenham this year was incredibly toxic. I’ve never known anything approaching it. It was just horrific, it just felt awful.”

“I often talk about ITV viewers as like floating voters,” Chamberlin adds. “And it felt like we were losing them.”

I said at the time - Rachael had ridden to racing’s rescue

And then Rachael Blackmore happened, single-handedly transforming the narrative and the mood as she rode six winners across the course of the four days, five of them in Grade 1 company, to become the first woman to finish as the leading jockey at Jumps racing’s most prestigious meeting.

“I said at the time, Rachael Blackmore had ridden to racing’s rescue,” Chamberlin recalls. “She just lit up an empty Cheltenham which was a pretty desolate place.”

She did indeed illuminate the racecourse, but, frankly, the 32-year-old could probably have done what she liked with it - renamed it, remortgaged it, fitted a jacuzzi in the Royal Box - given the way she owned Prestbury Park that week.

“She was outriding pretty much everyone,” Blake says. “Dominating races, putting lads in pockets at crucial moments. It felt like you were watching prime Ruby Walsh in that she was just bossing things.”

Blackmore celebrates Champions Hurdle success with unbeaten mare Honeysuckle (Getty Images)
Blackmore celebrates Champions Hurdle success with unbeaten mare Honeysuckle (Getty Images)

That is high praise indeed for a jockey who did not really seem destined for the top until she got there. The daughter of a farmer and a teacher, Blackmore does not come from a racing family - rightly or wrongly, often thought of as a prerequisite - and had little success to show for her graft as an amateur rider before making what looked at the time a bizarre decision to go professional in 2015.

“They won’t admit it now, but people were laughing at her,” Blake adds. “It’s pretty much unprecedented. Usually, the people with the talent to get to the very top will be precocious to go with it and they’ll get noticed early. She wasn’t that way at all.”

And yet, within a month of her Cheltenham heroics, Blackmore had done something even more groundbreaking, partnering Minella Times to Grand National glory and in doing so becoming the first woman to win the most famous horse race on the planet.

The National is a different kind of big to Cheltenham, a race which doesn’t represent the absolute pinnacle in terms of equine ability, but cuts through like nothing else (except, perhaps, scandal) in the sport.

“You’ve basically got AP McCoy and Frankie Dettori and now Rachael,” says Aidan Coleman, who has known Blackmore for most of her career and finished second to her at Aintree on 100/1 shot Balko Des Flos. “Racing is a pretty small bubble in the grand scheme of things but she and AP and Frankie are the ones that have really stepped outside it and brought her to a broader audience.”

Balko Des Flos (left) chases Minella Times over the last in the National (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Balko Des Flos (left) chases Minella Times over the last in the National (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Coleman jokes that being first across to congratulate Blackmore is “probably my claim to fame”, modestly so given the big race wins on his own CV, including this year’s Champion Chase with Put The Kettle On.

That horse, as well as the first two home in the National and the Gold Cup, not to mention four of Blackmore’s Cheltenham winners, were all trained by Henry de Bromhead, who has had almost as historic a year as the jockey whose career he has helped take to unthinkable heights.

“He’s just an absolute genius of a trainer,” Coleman says. “He can be very proud of what he’s achieved himself but also can be very proud of what he’s achieved in bringing Rachael to where she is. Rachael needed Henry and Henry needs Rachael, and they’ve just been an absolutely formidable partnership.”

Speaking to people across the game, there is a sense that Blackmore’s humility does not quite allow her to appreciate the magnitude of what she has done for the sport. You got a sense of that disbelief soon after the National when she proclaimed: “I can’t believe I’m Rachael Blackmore”.

Chamberlin conducted that interview on ITV and calls it the most enjoyable of his career in racing, but it arguably did not even produce the most iconic quote of the afternoon as, when asked about the significance of her pioneering triumph as a woman, while still on horseback Blackmore breathlessly replied: “I don’t feel male or female right now - I don’t even feel human.”

I suspect it’ll be a very, very long time before we see anything like Rachael again

Racing is one of the very few sports in which male and female athletes compete against one another on level terms (at least in the UK and Ireland - in France female jockeys still receive a weight allowance), a USP of which it is rightly proud. But there is also a feeling that failing to acknowledge the challenges still faced by female riders could even be underselling Blackmore’s brilliance.

“People will frame it as Rachael is a sign of changing times and there’ll be more to come along after her to do the same,” Blake says. “I don’t know if there particularly will. She is remarkable.

“I hope I’m wrong because it’s fabulous for the sport but I wouldn’t like to underplay just how much of an outlier she is, she’s genuinely incredible. I suspect it’ll be a very, very long time before we see anything like Rachael Blackmore over Jumps again.”

On the Flat, Hollie Doyle has been blazing a similar trail, watching Blackmore from afar with admiration, until the pair’s paths finally crossed for the first time as they shared a weighing room at Royal Ascot this year. Like everyone else, she found her “pretty chilled, very relaxed”, but, like everyone else, considers her exploits anything but ordinary.

“It’s just mental, what she’s achieved,” Doyle says. “It’s not unbelievable, though, because she’s a fantastic jockey so it was going to happen, wasn’t it? For her to have done that has just broken all barriers and shut a few conversations down, hopefully!”

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Like Blackmore, Doyle has spent the last few years smashing records, riding winners at the biggest meetings and gaining fans and recognition beyond the sport, including in finishing third in last year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year vote. She calls that result “mind-blowing”, but says it’s vital that racing and its participants, male or female, are acknowledged in the mainstream: “I think sometimes the outside world can forgot how much of a sport horse racing is and how much of an athlete you have to be to be a jockey.”

As an Irishwoman, Blackmore is not eligible for the main prize, but is instead in the running for the World Sport Star award at Sunday’s ceremony, which if anything - given the names on the shortlist - brings the scale of her golden year into even sharper focus.

“To have Rachael Blackmore in amongst Novak Djokovic, Tom Brady, Elaine Thompson-Herah, Max Verstappen - it’s mad,” Chamberlin says. “Brilliantly, brilliantly mad.

“Those are some of the greatest sportspeople in history. Tom Brady... Rachael Blackmore. It doesn’t need any more than that, that says it all.”

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