By John Scally
Every year the most prestigious award for any Irish sports’ star is the RTÉ Sports personality of the Year Award. For months now the overwhelming favourite for this year’s award is a young woman from Killenaule, County Tipperary. Rachael Blackmore has long been a rising star of Irish racing.
She rode 11 point-to-point winners and seven winners as an amateur rider before turning professional in March, 2015. She gained her first success in the paid ranks when Most Honourable, trained by ‘Shark’ Hanlon, was a winner at Clonmel that September. Coincidentally Hanlon had also provided Blackmore with her initial success as an amateur rider when Stowaway Pearl won at Thurles in 2011.
Rachael enjoyed a notable winner and gained her first big success when riding the Ellmarie Holden-trained Abolitionist to land the €100,000 Download The Ladbrokes Exchange App Leinster National Handicap Chase at Naas on March 12, 2017. With an impressive 32 winners, she became the first woman to win the Conditional Riders’ title in the 2016/2017 season. Rachael rode her first winner on the Flat when taking a conditions’ race at Killarney in 2017 on the Denise O’Shea-trained Supreme Vinnie.
A Plus Tard gave Rachael her first (of nine) Cheltenham Festival success when landing the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase in March, 2019. Henry de Bromhead’s five-year-old went off a 5/1 favourite and won by an incredible 16 lengths. On the last day of that Festival, Rachael gained her first Grade 1 success when Minella Indo landed the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, becoming the first woman to ride a Grade 1 winner over hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival.
Blackmore won the Grade 1 Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival on the Henry De Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle the following year. Rachael’s first Grade 1 success in Ireland came on the de Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at Fairyhouse on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019.
She ended that season with 90 winners, gaining the runner-up spot in the jockeys’ championship behind Paul Townend and finished third to the Corkman in the 2019/2020 season which was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic. Rachael has consistently rewritten racing’s history books on a number of occasions during her career but none more so than in 2021. Her fairytale year really kicked off at the Cheltenham Festival. She took Cheltenham by storm and had an incredible six winners. Sweet dreams are made of this.
In addition to her famous Champion Hurdle success on Honeysuckle, she won the Grade 1 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle on Bob Olinger, the Grade 1 Weatherbys Champion Bumper on Sir Gerhard, the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase on Allaho, the Grade 2 Parnell Properties Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle on Tell me something girl and the Grade 1 JCB Triumph Hurdle on Quilixios. She was crowned as the Leading Jockey, the first woman to win this hugely prestigious award.
The win brought new levels of fame not just for Rachael but for her family. Her very proud mother Eimir observed: “I am delighted for her. It is absolutely wonderful. This win today will mean a lot to her. The phone is melting with text messages. People are saying she is ‘the Queen of Cheltenham’. I am delighted people are getting joy out of it. Horse Racing needs it. Normally at home, I might have the race on. I will be pottering about doing chores around the house and I will probably watch it from three fences to go. I can’t watch the whole thing.”
The day after Cheltenham Rachael was back on home soil, riding in Thurles. The following day she headed north for engagements at Downpatrick. “That’s the life that a jockey leads. We were straight back into it. When you come back from Cheltenham with winners under your belt it’s a lot easier to float around the place. It was hard to comprehend those amazing days. I was heading over with a very good book of rides.
But Cheltenham is an extremely hard place to win, we know that. It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind.” Three weeks later Rachael was a history maker once again, becoming the first female to ride the winner of the Randox Grand National at Aintree as she and Minella Times gave Hendy de Bromhead his first success in the race and owner JP McManus a second win in the iconic event.
Her achievement was hailed as one of the greatest in the sport’s history prompting President Michael D Higgins to say: “My congratulations to Rachael Blackmore on an historic achievement at Aintree. Today’s win is both a personal and sporting success and comes only a month after her ground-breaking wins at Cheltenham.”
Winning the Grand National transformed Rachael from a reluctant superstar Blackmore to a global icon. It was a big adjustment for her: “It’s still hard to process it all, to be honest. It’s been unbelievable. I was meant to fly home on Saturday night, but I missed my flight so I came home on the boat on Sunday and got home on Sunday evening. I genuinely lay awake in bed all night on Saturday.
I was completely exhausted and got into bed thinking I was going to have a great night’s sleep, but I just could not shut down. I’ve been catching up on sleep ever since! I just couldn’t believe what had happened, I suppose. Your adrenaline would still be up and you’d be thinking about what was one of the biggest days of my life, so sleep just wouldn’t allow!”
Although Rachael is well used to big-race success, she confessed that the feeling of winning the National was different to anything she has experienced before.
“It’s a very exciting race to be part of. I’d ridden Minella Times before, and he’s a beautiful horse to ride who jumps really well, so I was looking forward to going over the National fences with him. There’s a lot of anticipation in the build-up to the National. It’s so unique – 40 horses and 30 jumps.
I suppose excitement was the overriding emotion on Saturday morning. You know very quickly if a horse is taking to the fences or not, and Minella Times absolutely took to them. After we jumped two or three fences, I knew he was really enjoying himself, and we got a fantastic passage around. Once you’ve got over The Chair and the water jump, you can kind of take a breath then as you’ve got over everything and you just have to go and do it once more!”
While Minella Times appeared to have victory in safe-keeping up the run-in, it was not until he passed the post that Rachael let herself believe she had secured the most momentous of wins. “I could hear the commentator saying we were four lengths ahead, and I knew my horse wasn’t fading under me – he was going to stay galloping to the line. That is when I had the realisation that it might happen – and a few strides later it did happen. The feeling was just complete elation. It’s slightly different to Cheltenham – where you’re riding Honeysuckle in a Champion Hurdle, she’s favourite, and there’s a good bit of pressure attached to it.
“Going out in the Grand National, I didn’t feel any pressure. There’s not the same expectation, because everyone involved knows the amount of luck that’s involved. After Honeysuckle, my initial feeling was more relief, and then joy, whereas after the National it was complete joy straightaway.”For once Rachael did not find it so easy to keep her emotions in check on Merseyside. “I probably was (emotional) afterwards, but it’s the Aintree Grand National – it’s such a big race. That’s not to say they’re not big races at Cheltenham.
But Cheltenham is four days, with extremely important horses running every day – you can’t really allow yourself to kick back on Tuesday evening and enjoy the day, because you’ve a very important day the next day. After the National, Aintree was done. I had a ride in the bumper, but it’s just different.”
Rachael is keenly aware of her good fortune: “I am so lucky to be riding these horses for Henry. This is so massive. I had such a beautiful passage around. Minella Times jumped fantastically and didn’t miss a beat anywhere. I couldn’t believe it, jumping the second-last – I don’t know, it’s just incredible. When I hit the rail and I heard I was four lengths in front, I knew he was going to gallop to the line, but we all know what can happen on the run-in here. When I crossed the line, I don’t know how I felt – it’s incredible.”
She continued: “This is the Aintree Grand National. I was completely blown away. Henry de Bromhead trained a one-two there, which is just incredible. That can’t be forgotten in the whole scheme of things. It’s great to win it in these colours, too. It’s always a privilege to ride for JP McManus, and to win it for him is unbelievable. They’ve had a tough year, so hopefully this can make things a little easier. This is a massive deal for me personally, not the fact I’m a female. The thing that hit me when I crossed the line was that I’d won the National, not that I’m the first female to win the National. I’m just delighted.”
Racing legend Tony McCoy said: “Look it’s a brilliant thing for horse racing that she’s won. She’s an amazing rider and she proved that at Cheltenham, but to win the biggest horse race in the world is great for the sport. It’s great for her, but it’s brilliant for the sport as well. It gives every young girl hope of winning the biggest race in the world and winning any race for that matter – she can do it all. It’s a brilliant achievement and JP will be delighted. To win this race is very special and for her to do it on one of his horses is great.”
Among those who have congratulated Rachael on her National triumph were tennis legend Billie Jean King and Ringo Starr, drummer with The Beatles. As a female jockey, Blackmore was keen to play down the gender angle, adding that Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry before her had already pushed through the glass ceiling. “When I came into racing, Nina and Katie had already broken that for me. They never made a big deal out of it. I just continued on with their ethos. I feel inside of racing it’s not a big deal. On the outside world it is. We’re lucky to be involved in a sport where gender isn’t an issue and I’m very grateful for racing in that sense.”