How Rachael Blackmore rode to the rescue of racing at Cheltenham

Figcaption How Rachael Blackmore Rode To The Rescue Of Racing At Cheltenham
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

I n a pivotal week for jump racing, with this tough old sport looking battered at the start of an eerie Cheltenham Festival, a glorious mix of exhilaration and history came to the rescue. There was also a giddy sense of Irish magic in the English countryside as Rachael Blackmore and Henry de Bromhead dominated the Festival and lifted spirits with their understated brilliance.

De Bromhead became the first trainer to win the big three races – the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup – in the same week. But Blackmore, the 31-year-old from County Tipperary, has been the story of the Festival, after riding six winners in magnificent style.

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She came close to clinching the Gold Cup as well but Minella Indo, the winner, was ridden by Jack Kennedy, a 21‑year‑old jockey who has overcome a bleak series of injuries. His moving tears after the race were a reminder that Blackmore had chosen to ride A Plus Tard instead of Minella Indo, a horse she knows so well.

Her disappointment should be eased by all her earlier success as she also made history by becoming the first woman to end up as Cheltenham’s leading jockey. Blackmore has changed the narrative of racing so profoundly this week that she has given new life to a sport that was on its knees.

Racing has reeled from the impact of the pandemic and its mistaken decision to allow the Festival to take place in front of packed crowds last year just as Covid-19 took its distressing hold on the world. But even that error could not match the horrendous publicity last month when a photograph of the renowned Irish trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on top of a dead horse emerged. It was then followed by a video of Rob James, the Irish amateur jockey, jumping on the back of another dead horse. The fallout has been catastrophic.

Those of us who love jump racing know that, at its best, it is a gritty and thrilling spectacle like no other. The characters and the crowds, the stories and the drama, make it riveting. But for most of the year it operates on the fringes – toiling away on dangerous yet obscure terrain and only really bursting into the wider public consciousness at Cheltenham and the Grand National.

Yet racing has the capacity to look terrible. When there are fatalities on the track, and horses have to be put down, understandable grievances are always aimed at the sport – which is why the Elliot photograph was so disastrous.

So much, as a consequence, depended on Cheltenham this week. Racing got lucky, despite the lockdown, and the Festival has gone as well as anyone could have hoped. The sun has shone and Blackmore has provided euphoria and history. She, more than anyone, has helped racing move out of the dark shadows to find renewed hope and light.

Jack Kennedy (left) is congratulated on winning the Gold Cup on Minella Indo by Rachael Blackmore who was second on A Plus Tard. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Her mother, Eimir Blackmore, a school teacher, was interviewed before the Gold Cup and, watching her daughter on television at home in Ireland, she said: “It’s been an absolute fairytale. It’s incredible … my phone has literally melted.”

Blackmore lit up Cheltenham on the first day when she and Honeysuckle won the Champion Hurdle in an imperious display. It was the first time that a landmark Festival race had been won by a woman. She has won a Grade One race every day of the Festival and she began Friday afternoon by riding Quilixios to a flawless victory in the Triumph Hurdle. But, as if to underline the hazards of jumping, Blackmore also suffered four falls during the course of the week.

Of course there was a residue of sadness that such significant moments unfolded in front of deserted grandstands. The usual Cheltenham roar was replaced by a silence broken only by the isolated cries of delight coming from the small Irish contingent. They are rightly besotted with Blackmore’s composed brilliance.

On Friday afternoon Eimir Blackmore spoke of her pride that her daughter, who has become the new face of racing, “has given people a bit of a lift at this awful time.”

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Blackmore herself reacted wryly after the Gold Cup. “I just walked into the weighing room and ITV was on, and I saw my mother. I don’t know how that happened. Look, they’re getting a great kick out of it at home. It’s brilliant.”

She seemed genuinely moved when reflecting on her week. “It’s phenomenal. I can’t even comprehend being leading jockey at Cheltenham. That’s crazy.”

Her fierce drive, however, was obvious when she was asked if it had been hard to pick the right horse to ride in the Gold Cup. Blackmore groaned and said: “I just made the wrong one – that’s all I know.” She also conceded, in her typically dry way: “I can’t be complaining too much.”

Asked how her life might change now Blackmore, who loathes publicity, sounded briefly uncertain. “I’m still in the bubble of it now. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But she has such resilience and resolve it is almost certain Blackmore will not crumble in the face of her new role as the apparent saviour of jump racing. She is due back on her normal beat on Saturday afternoon and is riding at Thurles. Racing, especially after this miserable last year, is lucky to have her.

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