Year the winners kept coming for Rachael Blackmore

SUNDAY TIMES

28 November 2021

Mind should always trump matter. That’s what Rachael Blackmore has accomplished over the last 12 months in the uncompromisingly brutal world of jump racing. It’s a lesson for a much wider context.

For at nine stone wet through, some 20 lbs lighter than almost all her peers, this Tipperary raised, university educated daughter of a farmer and a primary school teacher cuts a slight figure as she walks out to the paddock, but in the saddle she is a revelation. This spring she won the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle en-route to becoming leading rider at this year’s Cheltenham Festival and then topped the lot by winning the Grand National on Minella Times. In July a horrible fall at Killarney put her out for three months but last week’s victory on A Plus Tard at Haydock has shown that at 32 she is not just as good as her rivals, but better.

She is, of course, the first woman to do this in a profession where there are only two of her sex in the top 50 in either Ireland or the UK, but that’s not the point. What Rachael has done stresses how important decision making can be in sport and by extension in life itself. However hard you push, or loud you shout, counts for nothing if the move is the wrong one. In the spinning capsule of the jump race the false step can sometimes bring the instantly violent outcome of the fall but much more often is the tactical lapse that makes the difference between victory and defeat. Rachael’s secret is that she lapses less often than the others.

In many ways her achievements are even more remarkable than those of Hollie Doyle whose flat racing exploits won her last year’s Sunday Times Sportswoman Of The Year Trophy and who has followed up with over 160 winners this season. For while Hollie is still proving herself in the absolute top races and had just one ride in the classics, Rachael is an established fixture as well as feared rival. Hollie has muscled up her tiny frame to develop a uniquely forceful, close-clamped, hand-bagging method of making horses run. Rachael angles a longer body behind the mane and, sternly determined though the likes of Minella Times and Honeysuckle know her to be, there will always be a reliance on brain over brawn.

In hindsight it helped that while she was always into horses, race-riding success took a long while to come and Rachael was 27 years old and into her seventh season before she even got into double figures. She had been quietly gaining experience while completing her studies and by the time she decided to turn professional she had a clear idea of the way she would have to play things. When she then became the first female to be champion conditional many of us were still not convinced. How wrong we were.

The most important person to be persuaded was trainer Henry De Bromhead, responsible not just for her Champion Hurdle and Grand National triumphs, but of all 22 of her rides in the last fortnight. Yet top horses bring unpitying expectations, racing can forgive anything but losers, and a top jockey has to continue to deliver. “The cream,” said former Cheltenham and Aintree superstar Barry Geraghty on Thursday, “will always come to the top. What Rachael has is finesse, she understands horses better, keeps her cool, makes the right decisions. She is magic.”

But for all that she will know that the ground always comes up to eat those who go on too long and that her two inspirations Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry were both 33 when they stopped in 2018. With the De Bromhead horses good enough to drag fifty year olds from the fireside, retirement won’t beckon any day soon. But as one of three siblings, and in a firm relationship with fellow jockey Brian Hayes the day will come when Rachael Blackmore’s mind tells her that some things matter even more than mould breaking success in sport. So treasure her while we can.

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