“I don’t feel male or female right now. I don’t even feel human.”
That’s how Rachael Blackmore summed up her emotions after winning her maiden Grand National crown last year on board Minella Times. Having been thrust into the spotlight with her performances at the Cheltenham Festival, the Irish jockey went one better by winning one of Britain’s most storied horse races, etching her names into the annals of racing history.
The idea of being a female role model is not one that fits comfortably for Blackmore. She has always maintained that she is a jockey first and foremost and her gender comes second to that, but there’s no denying that she has inspired women and girls throughout the UK and Ireland with her sensational performances in the sport’s biggest races.
However, what will please Blackmore most is that she is now considered at home among the leading jockeys in the sport. Before the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, she was something of an outsider looking in, waiting for that breakthrough moment that would catapult her into the upper echelon. That was sparked when she won the Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle, and further success has arrived by the bucketload ever since. The Grand National triumph confirmed that Blackmore is now one of racing’s leading lights.
A Festival to remember
In the end, many of the sport’s top jockeys owe much of their success to the horses they are lucky enough to sit in the saddle of, and Honeysuckle will hold a special place in Blackmore’s heart forevermore after landing her a breakthrough Champion Hurdle win at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.
The Irishwoman had won races at Cheltenham before, but nothing as big as this. In doing so, she became the first female rider to triumph in one of the Festival’s showpiece races, and that single success seemed to give her a new-found sense of confidence.
The wins kept on coming that week, finishing with six in total, and before she knew it Blackmore was horse racing’s biggest story, with media coverage of her victories extending far and wide. The event was held behind closed doors, but it felt like Blackmore had the support of thousands watching on from their homes.
Of course, it helps when you’re riding some of the best horses Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins have to offer, but Blackmore’s effortless quality in the saddle earned her the prestigious Leading Jockey award for the first time.
The missing piece
Blackmore’s detractors would have said that anyone can show up at Cheltenham and ride their luck and have a sensational week of results. However, when she won the Grand National less than a month later, those doubters could only hold their hands up and admit that Blackmore was now among the best riders the sport had to offer.
In the build-up to the race, those betting on horses had become more and more interested in Minella Times’ chances. Cloth Cap had been the long-standing favourite for the race, but Blackmore and De Bromhead’s success at Cheltenham suddenly led to an influx of bets on the pair to do the business and the Grand National, and so it proved.
The 3.30 at Aintree is one of the most arduous tests a jockey can endure, and only the finest can successfully navigate their horse to victory. Blackmore’s triumph proved that she is a jockey of supreme quality, and after the glory of Cheltenham just weeks previously, this was the win that confirmed her place among the very best jockeys in the sport.
A reputation to live up to
Of course, those golden few weeks last year have created a certain amount of pressure that will follow Blackmore for the rest of her career, but that is the price of being considered one of the finest jockeys in jump racing.
Such is her popularity among fans, there will always be an expectation on Blackmore to produce the goods time after time, whether it’s in the biggest races at Cheltenham or indeed the Grand National.
So far, she seems to be handling that increased pressure just fine. A second successive Champion Hurdle victory aboard the still-unbeaten Honeysuckle has only served to elevate Blackmore’s status further, and she’ll be targeting plenty more winners before her career is out.
In terms of wider sporting context, the Grand National is the big one, as it is the race that attracts most interest from general sports fans. The fact that Blackmore has a win to her name in the Aintree showpiece means that she will always be regarded as a master of her trade, and don’t be surprised if she continues winning at the same prolific pace in the years to come.