Motor

Irishwoman becomes only the second jockey ever to ride six winners at a single Cheltenham

We were sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel a couple of Decembers back, chatting over lunch at the Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year awards.
Rachael Blackmore had won a monthly award March, of course but it being the Friday before Christmas, she was spending the day riding out for three different trainers and couldnt make it to Dublin for the afternoon. Her parents went in her place and we passed a fun afternoon gassing away about her.
They were bubbling, as of course they ought to have been. The fact that she wasnt there to roll her eyes at them meant they all but broke out the baby photos. Her dad Charles was nearly purring remembering the gift Ruby Walsh gave her the year he was champion jockey and she was champion conditional.
But it was her Mam who gave up the really good stuff.
Shes so organised, Eimir Blackmore laughed. If she ever rings me to say shes going to call in, I panic and start tidying the house in case she gives out to me!
Anyone listening to Walsh and Tony McCoys punditry on ITV all week will see exactly what Rachael Blackmores mother was talking about. The two greatest jockeys of their generation fell over themselves in race after race to demystify what was separating her from the rest all week. Race-riding is not an exact science but it demands organisation above all.
Blackmore won six different races in a variety of different styles. She won from the front, she won from sitting handy, she won scything through the field. The one thing that linked, say, Sir Gerhards slow-slow-quick ride in Wednesdays Champion Bumper and the cool sit-and-pounce job on Quilixios in Fridays Triumph Hurdle was the fact that Blackmore was always in control of what happened, regardless of position.
There were no heroics, no get-up-on-the-line muggings. She was never flustered, never threw the kitchen sink in desperation to get one final bead of sweat out of her mount. When you have the best horse in a race, your job is about finding the right position, making your move at the right time, judging the right speed. Thats what the homework is, thats where all the planning goes. She won her races with all the fuss of a street-pollster ticking off boxes on a clipboard.
Rachael Blackmore on Quilixios comes home to win the JCB Triumph Hurdle on the final day of Cheltenham. Photograph: Mark Cranham/Inpho
Of them all, the front-running demolition job on Allaho in Thursdays Ryanair Chase was the most thrilling. She pushed the pace from flagfall and kept the revs up in front, causing good horse after good horse to cry enough in behind. Six horses had to be pulled up in the race, unable to go at her pace. Thats one more than in the previous four Ryanairs combined.
There are few more heinous crimes a jockey can commit than to ruin a horses chance by going off too fast in front. An hour earlier, Harry Skelton had bolted off into the clear blue yonder in the Marsh Chase on Shan Blue and his ultimate reward was a fifth-place finish and general derision from all commentators. If youre going to do it, you better measure it and you better be right.
On Allaho, Blackmore judged it all to perfection. There was such swagger to that ride, such definitive confidence both in her own ability and that of the horse she had under her. In person, she is such a contained character. Its not that she is reserved, exactly. More that she is careful, respectful and avowedly unshowy.
Five years ago, as we finished up her first interview with The Irish Times, she asked that we wouldnt use a big picture of her in the paper. It wasnt an affectation, she truly didnt want to be seen to come off as a big shot.
Yet on Allaho on Thursday, she rode a race of pure chest-beating dominance. She basically told the rest of the field that they would have been better off staying at home in their box. You couldnt but punch the air to see her express that side of herself on the biggest stage possible.
If nothing else, maybe this week will mark the last time Blackmore is underestimated. On Tuesday lunchtime, before a twig had been jumped, you could still back her at 12/1 to be the leading rider at Cheltenham. By Friday morning, you couldnt get anything bigger than 1/6. Bookies odds are never watertight proof of anything but they do give a sense of what people are thinking.
In basic probability, the maths of those odds say that her likelihood of winning the week went from around seven per cent to a shade over 85 per cent in the space of the first three days. She won five races in the meantime a shift like that suggests at least some of those winners must not have been expected.
So did she pick up a handful of winning spare rides along the way? Did she win a few races against the head, taking advantage of bad luck in running for better-fancied horses? Were any of her rivals stood down or did they suffer a few bad falls? No, none of these things happened. In fact, she had the most falls of any jockey through the week she had four, nobody else had more than two.
Rachael Blackmore after winning the National Hunt Award at the 2019 Horse Racing Ireland Awards at the Burlington Hotel. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Blackmore simply won on the horses on which she had the best chances of winning. All six of her wins came on favourites and second favourites. There were no big surprises. Honeysuckle and Bob Ollinger had headed the market for their races since mid-February.
Sir Gerhart, Allaho and Quilixios were strong fancies for their races from even further out, albeit Blackmore was only a confirmed booking at the start of the week. Telmesomethinggirl was maybe a value bet if you were having a guess on Monday night but by the off on Thursday, she was, as they say, well-found in the market.
The week ends with her becoming only the second jockey ever to ride six winners at a single Cheltenham. Walsh is the only other one to have done so he twice managed seven. Nobody else has ever beaten five. Yet she was 12/1 on Tuesday. For all the big talk about racing being a non-gendered pursuit, its hard to imagine a male jockey with that book of rides lined up going off such a generous price.
She will be public property now, unavoidably so. Her patience for all the questions about being a woman in a mans world has long since worn thin but she will know she has a few weeks of that stuff ahead of her.
It will grate with her but she will know escape is impossible. Much as she wishes otherwise, its hard to ride six Cheltenham winners without people noticing.
In a thoroughly uncharacteristic submission to publicity, she did a fashion shoot for The Irish Times magazine a couple of years ago. While the photos were being taken, Eimir Blackmore admitted that the one thing she chastises her daughter for is the fact that she didnt turn up to UL on the day they were handing out her Equine Science degree she wanted to ride in a race instead and so there is no photo.
My mantelpiece is bereft, she sighed.
Not any more its not.