It was the greatest Grand National of them all and at its heart was a rider who has reminded us of an eternal truth. Whatever hand the fates have dealt you, it’s how you use it that makes the difference. Rachael Blackmore does not hold all the aces but she knows how to play her trumps.
Her three highest are composure, decision making and determination, and all three were central to Minella Times’ triumph on Saturday along with that most essential but most unpredictable of cards, the sporting joker that is Lady Luck.
Rachael’s composure in this Grand National build up was utterly awesome. This is the one event at which the whole world is watching and the National Velvet potential of a first female victory that always whips the media into a lather was doubled in Rachael’s case as she came fresh from being the first of her gender to be leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival. Every microphone, every notebook would be heading her way. Those unfamiliar with her must have felt the pressure would be unbearable, those who had seen her unfailing courtesy and good sense at Cheltenham did not worry. Rachael would be Rachael and bring her full deck to the table.
As ever, early background is crucial. Growing up as a farmer’s daughter in Tipperary with her mother as a teacher there was always plenty for idle hands or minds to do. Rachael may have been mad on her ponies but there was a 100 odd herd to help with the milking and her education stretched on to an Equine Science and a Business degree. Rachael Blackmore is a glorious exception to the current thinking that you cannot succeed in top professional sport unless your whole being has been consumed by it from before your teenage years.
She was keen all right. There are pictures of her competing with Paul Townend on the pony racing circuit just as she has duelled with him these past three seasons for the Irish jockeys’ championship. But the limits to her time and riding opportunities meant that the year younger Townend had already ridden 100 winners by the time she had her first success in 2011 and indeed the next five seasons only yielded 11 more before she turned professional and became champion conditional just four years ago.
In hindsight that slow start proved a major bonus. It tested her enthusiasm without giving her young self the over exposure that so often breaks the spirit as well as the bones of the latest would-be superstar over-faced too soon in their career. By the time Rachael took off she was a graduate in her mid-twenties, knew plenty about life, about racing and indeed about her own physique.
That last point is crucial because at 9 stone, Rachael is a good 15 to 20 lbs lighter than most of her rivals. She is never going to outmuscle them. She is going to have to outthink them, keep that composure and understand the four legged athlete beneath. Her horsemanship also depends more on mental than physical gifts. She does not have the deeper-seated balance that made John Francome and Ruby Walsh so smooth into and over a fence. She lacks anything like the ferocious punch with which AP McCoy used to hurl a horse at a fence. Her body position is a bit upright and she has to cajole more than commit.
But that’s her method, her composure keeps her calm and then, as in all sports, the key is the decisions you make with the shots you have got. With 40 runners plunging around to an inevitable false start, every degree of Rachael’s coolness was needed and once the tapes had gone up they were clear in the tactics she took.
Amongst the hundreds of millions watching around the globe was the now Spanish domiciled Richard Dunwoody who besides winning on West Tip in 1986 and Minnehoma in 1994, was placed in 8 of the 14 consecutive nationals he rode between 1975 and 1999. “She found her space up the inner,” he said admiringly yesterday morning. “She was always in position A. She kept him jumping and when he was getting tired, she held him together and on that long run-in didn’t go for everything until she got to the elbow. That’s the thing about her. She keeps it simple.”
There can be genius in simplicity but consistent success in anything, let alone in something as brutally demanding as raceriding, cannot be achieved without a deep inner fire of determination. That’s what fuelled Minella Times finishing drive on Saturday. That’s what has sustained Rachael through those early empty seasons and has seen her come back mentally unscarred from the crashes inherent in the game. It underpins the work ethic so praised by trainer Henry De Bromhead and with which she has made her own luck to be in today’s giddy position.
But another sort of luck is also in play. It’s that moment in a sporting life when all the stars seem to align, when the swing is sweetest, when the ball seeks the middle of the bat, the bounce goes your way. For Rachael Blackmore it happened at the 12th fence yesterday. Inside her was the well fancied Any Second Now, in front an old horse called Double Shuffle who had never fallen in 8 seasons on the track. But, unaccountably he did now. What’s more he rolled left slap in front of Any Second Now arguably hampering him all of the 8 lengths he was off Minella Times at the finish.
Why did he fall? Why did he roll left rather than right? What had caused Rachael to move slightly out just beforehand? That’s not card playing, that’s the roll of the dice. She knows that it will not last. She is well aware that there will be times when the ground comes up to bite her and in a few years time she may opt for the needs of maternal life. But in the meantime her intelligence, charm and unique skill set in the saddle have given us the Aintree day the world has waited for.