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National treasure

There is a pivotal point in the 2021 Randox Grand National, after the horses have embarked on their second circuit and crossed the Melling Road, one circuit and 16 fences behind them, another circuit and 14 more fences to go.  They jump the first fence on the second circuit, and Minella Times is one of several horses who are still travelling well, his rider, Rachael Blackmore, still motionless in the saddle.

Just in front of Minella Times, Lord Du Mesnil jumps a little to his left.  He doesn’t hamper Minella Times, but he does move across in front of him.  If you are watching closely, you can see that Nick Scholfield is giving Lord Du Mesnil a squeeze, that he isn’t travelling too well.  And if you can read these things, you can tell that he is probably not going to be able to maintain his prominent position for much longer.  Rachael Blackmore has a little look over her right shoulder, nothing immediately behind her so she moves her horse a little to his right, out of Lord Du Mesnil’s slipstream.  

By the time they get to the next fence, Lord Du Mesnil is tiring, he starts to drop back through the field.  By then though, Minella Times is past him, he has left him in his wake with an economy of effort, without expending energy unnecessarily.  Still in his rhythm, still travelling smoothly, and still, although nobody knew it at the time, on his way into the history books.

There are many qualities that set Rachael Blackmore apart as one of the best National Hunt jockeys of her generation, and one of them was encapsulated in that moment.  You’re riding in the biggest race in the world, under the gaze of millions, you ride your horse but you also ride the race.  A razor-sharp awareness, you see what is happening around you, every instant, you assimilate it all in real time as you race and you act accordingly, all the while conserving energy.  Everything smooth.  If you jam on the brakes and put the accelerator to the floor, you are using energy that you will probably need at the end of four and a quarter miles.

Even before she won the Grand National last year though, Rachael Blackmore was box office.  Six winners at the Cheltenham Festival and the leading rider award will do that.  If she was the best-kept Irish secret before Cheltenham 2021, she blew that out of the water in four remarkable days with the sporting world watching.

We saw a range of her talents too at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.  We saw her tactical nous, her versatility.  From the front on Allaho in the Ryanair Chase and jumping, getting her horse into his racing rhythm from early and letting him roll.  From the rear on Telmesomethinggirl in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, allowing her settle and delivering her late.  Stacking them up on Sir Gerhard in the Champion Bumper and on Quilixios in the Triumph Hurdle, and kicking at the right time, with enough in reserve to get up the hill.  And Honeysuckle.  Just allowing Honeysuckle do what you know Honeysuckle always does, absolute confidence in her horse, 15 times now together and 15 wins.

In trainer Henry de Bromhead, Rachael Blackmore has the perfect accomplice.  They seem to share common traits, humble in victory, accolades deflected, gracious in defeat.  But underpinning everything for both is a steely determination, a shared will to win, with a depth of thought and a methodology in place to maximise the chances of success.

The falls and unseats don’t make the headlines, of course, but they are inevitable.  If you are riding horses over obstacles for a living, the falls are part of it.  Plan Of Attack and Balko Des Flos and Eklat De Rire at Cheltenham last year.  She had a tough looking fall off Embittered in the Grand Annual, the second last race on the Wednesday, then she went out on Sir Gerhard and won the last.

At this year’s Cheltenham Festival last month, she and Telmesomethinggirl were brought down when travelling well at the second last flight in the Mares’ Hurdle.  You winced as she hit the ground and bounced.  Literally, bounced up into the air as hooves pounded around her.  A half an hour later, she was up and going down to the start on Champion Green before the Fred Winter Hurdle.

As well as her physical toughness, there is an emotional strength about Rachael Blackmore, a mental resolve.  If there was one pebble in her shoe as she walked out of Cheltenham in 2021, leading rider, six winners on the board and history in her bag, it was that she didn’t win the Gold Cup.  That she finished second on A Plus Tard, a length and a quarter behind Minella Indo, also trained by Henry de Bromhead, whom she could have chosen to ride.

She probably didn’t think about that every minute of all 364 days that ran to this year’s Gold Cup, but you know that it was on her mind, maybe sporadically, maybe during quiet moments.  And you know that she thought deeply about how she would address that anomaly this year.  That’s what winners do.  What she did last time didn’t work, she figured, so she would do it differently this time.

She was patient on A Plus Tard in the 2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup, she waited in behind horses, and she waited again.  Then, when she could wait no longer, she asked her horse for his effort, and he delivered that turn of foot that his rider knew he possessed.  A Plus Tard cut loose up Cheltenham’s final punishing incline, putting 15 lengths between himself and his rivals by the time he got to the winning line, recording the widest winning margin in a Gold Cup in almost 30 years.

Rachael Blackmore is a female rider of course, and therein lie the firsts: first female to turn professional in Ireland in years, first female ever to win the conditional riders’ championship, first female jockey to win the Gold Cup, first female jockey to win the Grand National.  But you don’t need the sizzle, because she is all substance.  Twenty-five Grade 1 wins on the board, and the first jockey to win the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup in the same year since AP McCoy achieved the feat in 1997.

Next Saturday at Aintree, all things being equal, Rachael Blackmore and Minella Times will bid to win the Randox Grand National again.  It won’t be easy, JP McManus’ horse is 15lb higher in the handicap than he was when they won it last year, and Tiger Roll is the only horse since Red Rum in 1973 and 1974 to win back-to-back renewals of the Grand National.  That said, his trainer Henry de Bromhead reported him to be in tremendous form last week, and you know that he will be primed for Saturday’s race.  You also know that he will get all the assistance that he needs from his rider.

© The Sunday Times, 3rd April 2022