Rachael Blackmore has changed the course of Grand National history and put a smile on the face of the sporting world, but she has done even more than that. She has told us to grow up, to judge riders on their merits not on whether they are male, female or any other gender.
No more the adjective “woman” in front of the word “ jockey.” No longer the surprise that she could inspire horses to do more than others could, could think through a race quicker than rivals might. She is indeed the wonder that keeps on giving but to appreciate her you have to realise that she is a grown up.
She is no soaring teenage superstar. She is 31-year-old graduate who didn’t ride her first winner as an amateur until she was 21, didn’t turn professional until three years later and had only ridden 12 winners by the end of the 2015-16 season and is a stone lighter than most of her male rivals. History now knows how it took off from there, 32 wins and champion conditional rider next season, and then three years ago the link up with Henry De Bromhead with whom she has gone to the Cheltenham and now Aintree stratosphere. There was slowness in the early trajectory but it was also the key.
In racing, as in all sports, early triumph can be a poisoned chalice. Expectations go too high in performer and spectator alike. Rachael never had great expectations and having to help milk 100 odd head of cows, she did not have airs and graces either. But she loved horses. There is a lovely picture of her aged about six on her pony out hunting. She also got to love winning when she got a taste of pony racing. She wasn’t big and she wasn’t stupid. She always knew that it would have to be mind over muscle. These last few weeks at Cheltenham and Aintree are a shock but if one had read the runes they should not be.
For two seasons back Rachael was second in the Irish jockeys championship with 90 winners and no less than 615 rides. She might be slight but this proved she was also steely. Many of us shared AP McCoy’s opinion that while women jockeys might be as skilful as their male counterparts, they would not stand the sheer physical attrition that going for a championship involves. Indeed Katie Walsh whose third on Sea Bass in the 2012 was the nearest one of her sex had come to winning the Grand National, has said that neither she or her super talented sister in law Nina Carberry, wanted to attempt it. But Rachael has made AP and all of us realise that Ms Blackmore has broken the mould.
It is not as if she has avoided disaster. Amidst all the euphoria of her astonishing treble on the second day at Cheltenham it is often forgotten that she also took two thumping falls before getting back to win the last by totally outwitting her rivals with a master class of waiting in front in the Champion Bumper. She is light, she is lithe but something else was very evident at Cheltenham. She is determined to be a winner.
We saw it in victory, especially when she kept her rivals penned in before striking clear to win the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle, but we saw it even more clearly in defeat. After she finished second in the Gold Cup to Jack Kennedy on Minella Indo, the Henry de Bromhead horse she had rejected in favour of stable mate A Plus Tard, her immediate gracious congratulations to 21-year-old Kennedy who had 44 winners to her six in her first professional season, could not hide her disappointment. She was gutted. McCoy loved that. “The best fun, the point of the game,” he always says, “is winning.”
People will want to compare Rachael with the flat race sensation that is Hollie Doyle, but they have very different techniques. Holly is a tiny but power muscled little dynamo who has put on 15lbs to make 8 stone and sinks deep and around her horses. Rachael is a natural 9 stone who perches rather upright and depends on the skilful steering and judgement which was so evident in the inside route she took yesterday. She is the ultimate proof that the horse does the running and it is up to her to make its mind up.
The game is not only to the strong. The mind of the female sex should never be seen as weak. Rachael Blackmore has given us all a lesson. At a time of national mourning how great to have her show that the horse world, and in particular the Grand National, can be a passport to happiness. That’s because, quite simply, she is the brightest star in our firmament.