Cheltenham Festival: Rachael Blackmore’s historic Gold Cup victory provides something beautiful and raw for sport to treasure

Friday March 18 2022, 9.00pm, The Times

You would not think she could better it, but she has. Last year’s six winners at the Cheltenham Festival, followed by the Grand National, gave a new dimension to sporting history. Tuesday’s second Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle confirmed it, but as Rachael Blackmore rocketed A Plus Tard clear to a runaway Gold Cup triumph, you still had to rub your eyes in disbelief.

It was much, much more than that she was the first woman to win jumping’s most coveted prize and the first jockey to land the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle in the same year since a young AP McCoy back in 1997.

It was Cheltenham with warm spring sunshine, a massive cheering crowd come to celebrate their return from last year’s echoing Covid emptiness.

Terrible things are happening to the east of us, but here was something unique, raw and beautiful for all to treasure in the memory. For this was a ride that brought out the best of racing and of Blackmore. On the face of it, this looked a highly competitive renewal, with only Santini and the Scottish fairytale horse, Aye Right, impossibly priced outsiders in the 11-runner field.

Sure, A Plus Tard did finally start a 3-1 favourite, only narrowly preferred over Galvin, who had outsmarted him at Leopardstown. Last year, Blackmore had opted for A Plus Tard over stable companion Minella Indo, only to be outgunned on the run-in.

Minella Indo was fancied to repeat the dose and Protektorat, Royale Pagaille and even the talented but accident-prone Asterion Forlonge had their supporters. There was no way this should be easy.

In the morning, Blackmore had spoken of how she had got her tactics wrong against Galvin, and while professionally tight-lipped about plans to turn the tables on him and Minella Indo, she gave every smiling indication that she had them. In the Gold Cup, we would see them soon enough. After three fences, she had only two behind her. At both Leopardstown and in this race last year, A Plus Tard had looked to be the weaker finisher. This time she would keep his powder dry.

It takes more than 6½ minutes for a Gold Cup to be run, incidentally this 6min 41.75sec winning time was 3½ seconds faster than last year, and the duration of the contest gives plenty of time for doubts to fester.

A Plus Tard is not a spectacular jumper and one could only register that Blackmore still had him tacked on at the back of the bunch on the first circuit, while Asterion Forlonge belied his dodgy record with a soaring clear round up front, with Santini and Aye Right.

As things finally got shaken up at the top of the hill, it was Royale Pagaille, Al Boum Photo, Protektorat and most of all, Minella Indo, who impressed. A Plus Tard was in touch, but would have running to do. Swinging in towards the second last there were six horses spread across the track, with Minella Indo threatening to go clear and A Plus Tard struggling to get space to race from the outside.

Much is rightly made of Blackmore’s judgement of pace and mid-race wisdom, but chances still have to be seized, and it was a little dervish in the saddle that now drove A Plus Tard forward. Fifty yards before the fence, she was clear in pursuit of Minella Indo. He had been going the better, but now we could see the powder that had been saved. A Plus Tard took the last with the better momentum and then Blackmore lit the fuse. Unlike last year or at Leopardstown, she had a horse with full lungs beneath her. A Plus Tard’s hooves bit hard and strong all the way to the line, Blackmore an insistent, hunched-up figure in the blue with white sash Cheveley Park silks that have brought so much honour to the Thompson family. The gap to the flagging rivals expanded in a way rarely seen at Cheltenham as A Plus Tard clocked an astonishing sub 15-second final furlong up the hill.

Of course, it was a fantastic training performance by Henry de Bromhead to land the Champion Hurdle/Gold Cup double two years in a row and Blackmore was swift in tribute. “I’m so lucky to be getting to ride these kind of horses,” she said. “And you can’t do this without the horses. Being attached to Henry’s yard is incredible. These are such special days and I wouldn’t swap the Grand National for anything, but this is the Gold Cup. You have all these plans for how things are going to work out and racing doesn’t let that happen, but that’s happened for me today.”

If A Plus Tard is lucky in his jockey and trainer, so racing is very fortunate in these twin ambassadors. “It’s amazing,” De Bromhead said. “It’s the team at home that’s brilliant. She’s a brilliant rider and I say it over and over, we’re so lucky to have her. This is stuff you dream about.”

It was on a wet afternoon 18 years ago that Blackmore rode her first winner, getting up the inside of this week’s Festival top jockey Paul Townend in a pony race in County Kerry. Afterwards, she told the interviewer: “I just can’t believe it.” She was saying the same thing in front of the sun-baked Cheltenham arena here.

But if she can’t believe it, we can.

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