THE TIMES SPORT, Wednesday 11 March
The compliment was complete. “She has,” said Ruby Walsh of Rachael Blackmore after she had outmanoeuvred Ruby’s successor Paul Townend to win the Mares Hurdle, “mastered the art of race riding.” Ruby was the ultimate Cheltenham rider. It takes one to know one.
Through all last season’s publicity when she rode two Cheltenham winners and was second to Townend in the Irish Jockeys Championship, Blackmore has resolutely refused to play up the “girl in a man’s world” angle of her achievements. She was at it again yesterday, “I am so lucky to be riding all these horses,” she said after she and Honeysuckle had slipped up the inside of Townend on the favourite Benie Des Dieux. “They have done an unbelievable job on her,” she added of the staff at her retaining Henry De Bromhead stable. “Henry has produced her in tip top shape every day she has run. I am the lucky one who gets to steer her around.”
But it’s the steering that Walsh was talking about. Because in the sometimes rather silly debates as to whether women can be the equal of men in as physical and dangerous a game as race-riding, it is too often forgotten that far more races depend on tactics than they ever do on strength since most of that comes from the horse’s legs beneath. It is in that regard that Rachael has already shown herself the superior of most men on either side of the Irish Sea and in which yesterday she was supreme.
For as Honeysuckle, Benie Des Dieux and the latter’s stable companion Stormy Island, ran down towards the final turn, Blackmore hugged the inside and sling-shotted the mare off the bend to grab an advantage that Townend and Benie Des Dieux were still half a length shy at the line. It was the eighth time that Rachael had ridden Honyesuckle and they remain unbeaten. It’s a remarkable run only matched by the astonishing upturn in the fortunes of the 30 year old, college educated, and lightweight rider who made little impression in six seasons as an amateur, but has proved that brains can beat brawn as much as practice makes perfect. What’s more, yesterday’s success came at the end of an afternoon that had started with a violent fall in the first, a disappointing run on the favourite Notebook in the second, and a well beaten fifth in the Champion Hurdle. Winning will rarely come without a price.
Tomorrow is meant to be Ladies Day but the supposedly “weaker sex” took the equine honours against their male counterparts in both the Arkle and the Champion Hurdle. Notebook’s lesser fancied stable companion Put The Kettle On winning the Arkle and the favourite Epatante taking the Champion Hurdle. Epatante’s victory was Nicky Henderson’s eighth Champion Hurdle and a fourth for Barry Geraghty who was back to his cool, masterly best despite being off from April to October last year with a leg fracture which many of us had thought would close his career.
Afterwards the 40-year old rider led the tributes. “Nicky has done brilliantly with her. There is no better trainer of a Champion Hurdler or of any Cheltenham winner than Nicky Henderson – he is unbelievable.” More specifically, Barry highlighted the thinking that had allowed the talented but highly strung Epatante to deliver owner JP McManus a record ninth Champion Hurdle on his 69th birthday. “She got lit up on this day last year and has a tendency to run with the choke out. We plugged her ears today – she settled lovely and travelled sweetly. There are always lots of decisions to be made in the run up to a race and thankfully today they went right as they can often go wrong.”
For more than 20 years Geraghty has been making those decisions correctly and watching him swing off to the start on what could easily be the hard pulling Epatante was to recall an image from a morning at Willie Mullins yard way back in 2000. Geraghty was then on his way to his first jockey’s title in place of the injured Ruby Walsh and he was up ahead of me in the string as the horses swung sharply round the all-weather gallop. It was an image of easy control and understanding. Its recall yesterday was to remind us that class is permanent and is more important than strength when it comes to handling thoroughbreds.
At Epatante’s side both in the parade and in the ecstatic scenes that always accompany the return of a Champion Hurdler was the white hatted figure of Sophie Candy who rides her every morning back at Henderson’s Seven Barrows training operation in Lambourn. Sophie is the daughter of top flat trainer Henry Candy but had never before been to Cheltenham. Amongst the bubbly scenes in the winner’s enclosure she added a splendidly insightful tribute to the mare she obviously adores. “I love her to bits,” she said of Epatante, “but she is a proper madam. In the past week I have been bitten, kicked and trodden on. That tells us she is in top form.”
Rachael Blackmore has much, much better manners. But yesterday showed the world, if it needed telling, that her top form is a that of a master of her craft.