Sunday March 20 2022, 12.01am, The Sunday Times
Anyone searching for the magical source behind Rachael Blackmore’s latest riding triumph in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday should have a look at the very first success on her honours board. It was around a soggy, rain-swept stubble field 18 years ago in County Kerry and a 14-year-old Rachael was riding a pony called Tommy.
It was only the pair’s second venture into the Irish pony racing circuit and they were so unfamiliar with the scene that today’s sporting superstar remembers considering herself and her parents as “blow-ins from Tipperary”. Yet unfamiliarity didn’t deserve contempt, for Rachael and Tommy had run lots of races against her brother and sister on the three-generation family farm at Killenaule, within hacking distance of the somewhat more sophisticated horse world of Aidan O’Brien’s stables at Ballydoyle. That’s when the kids were not helping with the cattle and sheep — one of whose lambs a younger Rachael had taken to church, fully harnessed as companion to her first communion.
“She was very competitive,” says Jonny Blackmore, with the sort of smile only an older brother can give, “and she did not have much patience back then.” The shaky family camcorder has some splendid records of what that competitive impatience could do. Best of them all is a treasured memory of that first day around the Kerry stubble, where on the final circuit the race was led, as expected, by a grey pony ridden by a 13-year-old Paul Townend, son of a local trainer and, from the commentator’s increasingly anxious tones, clearly expected to deliver.
Forget the expectations. Round the closing turn the little 14-year-old in the blue-and-white-striped silks and unaccustomed racing saddle, galvanised the family pony to pip the favourite on the post to a crescendo of disbelief from the highly professional public address. Eighteen years on at Cheltenham on a still sunny Friday evening, Paul Townend was for the second time crowned leading rider at the Festival. Much earlier, in the thick fog of the morning, he reflected on that first encounter with his one-year senior rival. “Yes,” he said, “and she got up my inner to do it. Must have been age before beauty.”
The record of that original windswept afternoon is but one part of a wonderful Ross Whitaker documentary “Rachael Blackmore: A Grand Year” which was originally shown on ITV last Monday and which, if you haven’t seen it, is something you should treat yourself to on Catch Up.
It provides by far the best insight yet into what has become one of the most uplifting and ground-breaking phenomenon in the whole world of sport. For here is the helmet-togged mini-equestrian with her already obvious love of the horse. Here, the super-athletic farmer’s daughter vaulting over the cow stalls. Here, the understanding parents who, when told that their 25-year-old daughter had decided to try her hand as only the second professional female jump jockey in 40 years, didn’t attempt to dissuade her but thought “that after six months she would see sense and get a real job”.
Here, too, the long-standing obsession with horses and race-riding. “I was mad to get going but I couldn’t find a way in,” she says. “I was after ringing up anyone for rides and practised getting my pitch out in one go.”
It famously didn’t work with the trainer ‘Shark’ Hanlon until Rachael, tipped off by her then and now long-time partner Brian Hayes, enlisted Davy Russell’s support, to which Tiger Roll’s Grand National winning pilot says, “I hate to see talent going to waste”, before joking, “but I didn’t realise that I had created a monster.”
Hanlon became the grow bag for the Blackmore talent which, on the recommendation of the brothers Eddie and Michael O’Leary, has been nurtured to Champion Hurdle, Grand National and now Gold Cup-winning glory by Henry de Bromhead. While a huge part of this success must be ascribed to the trainer’s cool decision-making and equine understanding, there is still truth as well as self-deprecation in De Bromhead’s oft-repeated assertion “we are lucky to have her”.
Much of the credit for Rachael’s good sense and grounding must go to her parents Charlie and Eimir, who provided such a balanced upbringing that Eimir resorts to extreme measures when the family WhatsApp group becomes drowned out with tributes to her older daughter. “My brother could boil an egg,” says Rachael, “and she would put it in.”
But there is something special in our midst, which by the very nature of its occupation cannot stay with us for very long. No less authorities than Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy speak of her race wisdom and her toughness, but perhaps the most intuitive comment should be left to Willie Mullins, who collected his ninth Cheltenham Festival trainers’ title on Friday. “Horses respond to her,” says Mullins. “She communicates with them to get down and gallop.”
That’s what Tommy the pony did and what A Plus Tard responded to so splendidly at Cheltenham. Long may it continue. For we too, are also lucky to have her.