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Rachael Blackmore

Rachael Blackmore remembers her first Galway Festival winner: Camlann for Shark Hanlon in the Martinstown Opportunity Hurdle in 2016.  That was just two years ago, when she was a conditional rider who could claim 4lb against fellow conditionals.  It seems like a lifetime ago.

Two years on, on the cusp of another Galway Festival, and Rachael Blackmore’s world has a very different shape to it. 

She didn’t know it at the time, but when she won on Camlann at Galway in 2016, she was building the momentum that would take her to the 2016/17 conditional jockeys’ championship.  The first female in the history of Irish National Hunt racing to be crowned champion conditional.

“That was one of the best moments of my life,” she says now, as she sits easily in her chair in the restaurant at Limerick races, body-protector and boots, an hour and a half before the first.  “To be up there, champion conditional, on the same podium as the champion jockey Ruby Walsh.  I have always looked up to Ruby Walsh.”

She could have stopped there, she could have hung up her boots, her name etched in history, but she didn’t.  She kicked on again last season.  Before June was out last year, she had ridden out her claim.  

It was a big achievement, another milestone, but it sent her headlong into the deep waters of open competition.  From that point, she had no claim, she had no competitive advantage over Ruby Walsh or Barry Geraghty or Davy Russell.  Lots of young riders flounder at that stage of their careers, but Blackmore thrived.

She went back to Galway last year and won a big handicap hurdle on Ballyegan Hero for John Joe Walsh, and she won another valuable handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse in December on Davids Charm for the same John Joe Walsh. 

She won a big handicap chase at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown last February on Patricks Park for Willie Mullins, and she won the Grade 3 Michael Purcell Memorial Novice Hurdle at Thurles three weeks later on Blow By Blow for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown House. 

These are important winners as she proves to some of the top trainers and owners in the country that the faith that they have shown in her has not been misplaced.

She ended last season with three big winners at the Punchestown Festival, two of them for Willie Mullins, and 34 winners in total for the year, two more than her conditional jockeys’ championship-winning season.  And in the deep waters of open competition, she finished 11th in the jockeys’ championship.

This season, she has kicked on again.  She is the clear leader in the jockeys’ championship.  A treble at Tipperary last Sunday, the first treble of her career, all three for another top trainer in Henry de Bromhead, took her to 26 winners for the season, and sees her seven clear of her closest pursuer going into Galway.

“I can’t believe how well it is going, to be honest,” she says.  “I’ve been very lucky, people have been very good to me, and my agent Garry Cribbin has been great.  I just want to keep my head down and keep doing as well as I can do.”

Luck is one thing, you need the bounce of the ball in most walks of life, but you also need to have the talent to run with it when the ball bounces your way.  There is no doubting Blackmore’s talent, and there is no doubting her work ethic.  She has grafted her way to where she is today.  No leg-ups.  Step by step, foothold by foothold, she has climbed her way inexorably to the top of the jockeys’ championship.

“My family didn’t have any major connection to racing when I was growing up,” says the Tipperary native, “but there were always horses around on the farm.  I hunted with the Tipperary Foxhounds and I rode in Pony Club and I evented.  I loved riding.” 

She couldn’t have thought then she could make her living as a professional jockey.  These days, you don’t think of her as a female jockey, you just think of her as a jockey, a highly talented jockey who competes on level terms with the other highly talented jockeys.  But she is a rarity in Ireland, a professional female National Hunt jockey.  What do you want to be when you grow up?  A jockey.

“Actually, I wanted to be a vet.  I didn’t get the points in my Leaving Cert to get into veterinary studies, so I did science in UCD instead.  I struggled with the Maths there though.”

Candid as you like.

“So I switched and did Equine Science at Limerick University.”

It was during her time as a student at Limerick that she was introduced to Shark Hanlon.

“Davy Russell put in a word for me with Shark, I got the ride on Stowaway Pearl in a lady riders’ handicap hurdle at Thurles, and we won.  That was my first winner, that was the start of it.”

That was February 2011.  She rode for four years as an amateur.  Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh have proven that the girls can compete with the best of the boys, but neither ever turned professional.   Indeed, no female since Maria Cullen in the 1980s had turned professional. 

But Blackmore struggled to get going as an amateur.  There was a trickle of winners in bumpers and point-to-points, but just a trickle.  Then in March 2015, Shark told her that there would be more opportunities for her if she turned professional.  It was a decision that was not easily made, but she figured she didn’t have much to lose.

It took her a little while to get going too as a professional.  She waited six months for her first winner as a paid practitioner, Most Honourable in a handicap hurdle at Clonmel, who got home by a short head.  Relief.  Great to get the first one on the board.

It started as a trickle again.  She had just six winners in Ireland in 2015/16.  It took a while, but people gradually started to recognise her talent.  She was afforded more opportunities, she got on better horses, and the trickle became a steady stream.  The rides and the winners now flow, and she faces into Galway this week with justified optimism.

“I hope to have some good rides at Galway,” she says.  “I hope to have a good ride for Henry and Gigginstown in the Plate and I ride Davids Charm in the Hurdle.  He won at the meeting last year and he improved to win at Fairyhouse in December.  It’s obviously a wide open race, but he goes there with a chance.”

She kicks on again.

© The Sunday Times, 29th July 2018