Dozens of Irish horses live in the racecourse stables during the Cheltenham Festival and early each morning they need to be ridden out to the middle of the track to stretch their legs and get a pick of grass before the punters flood into the grandstands. Rachael Blackmore’s total involvement on day two of the 2018 Festival was riding in those canters at dawn before driving 100 miles east to Huntingdon for one mount, a winner in a handicap hurdle for female riders.
Such is the gritty reality for jockeys, most of whom would go a lot further than 100 miles if there was a winner at the end of it, however unglamorous the contest. But the Huntingdon trip, recalled by Blackmore’s friend and housemate Patrick Mullins, illustrates just how much the 30-year-old’s fortunes have changed.
There is no question of her being anywhere else but Cheltenham this week. From her arrival on Sunday night until the last race on Friday, she will be close to the beating heart of the action, as Blackmore has an excellent book of rides in the best races, including the favourites for the Arkle Trophy and the Ryanair Chase. The days of toiling over to Huntingdon in pursuit of £4,000 are long gone.
“She works very hard and there wasn’t a lot of reward for a long time,” reflects Mullins, son of Willie, the champion jumps trainer in Ireland. On the day of Blackmore’s excursion to Cambridgeshire, Mullins had a more enviable gig as jockey on the vaunted Douvan, well fancied for the Champion Chase. Since Douvan took a crashing fall, it could be argued she had much the better day, but all jockeys want to be wanted when the biggest prizes are on offer.
Mullins recalls: “When I moved in with her and her boyfriend, Brian Hayes, myself and Brian would have been going racing most days. Rachael wasn’t. She used to do a lot baking on those days, which was like her way of punching the wall.”
The rolling pin doesn’t see so much action these days but, as Mullins remembers it, Blackmore’s baking was “too good. I used to spend a lot more time in the sauna back then”. An extra pound here or there is nothing to Blackmore, however, as she can readily weigh out at only nine stone.
What made the difference for her was a conversation between others in the back of a Liverpool taxi just weeks after the 2018 Festival, when the trainer Henry de Bromhead was casting about for a stable jockey and Eddie O’Leary, one of his principal owners, mentioned Blackmore. Since then it seems hardly anything has gone wrong for the new team, who paired up for two winners at the last Festival and have been bagging Grade Ones for fun in Ireland this season.
Blackmore’s life has changed. Having been worried that it was a mistake to give up her first plan of being a vet, she is without question the most successful female jockey Britain or Ireland has ever produced. She has been signed up as ambassador to the bookmaker BetVictor and has picked up other gigs outside the sport, like her role representing the luxury shopping outlet Kildare Village. “Describing myself as a model might be a massive push,” she says, inclined to play down everything except her commitment to the day job.
Reticent in talking about herself, Blackmore has a particular antipathy for questions about what it means to be a female jockey. Asked about her happy situation, she says: “Henry’s got a serious class of horse now. I’m extremely, extremely lucky to be getting the opportunities on them. I’m just ready to get cracking at it now.”
She seems happiest discussing horses, so we fall to considering her mounts this week, and immediately the fondness she feels for Honeysuckle, her Irish Champion Hurdle winner, shows up. “She’s very special. She was extremely tough at Leopardstown, to battle back after the last like she did. This is her first trip to Cheltenham and hopefully it goes well.” She runs in the Mares Hurdle rather than the Champion because the extra half-mile is reckoned to be a big help, though it means taking on the intimidating Benie Des Dieux.
Captain Guinness (“One to keep an eye on”) starts the rider off in Tuesday’s Supreme, followed by that impressive jumper Notebook in the Arkle. He nearly blew his chance last time by bolting down to the start, which Blackmore is determined not to let happen again. “I’m just going to be more awake on him this time, more in anticipation of him doing that, whereas the last day I wasn’t expecting it.”
Her winners from last year are both back. Minella Indo tries his hand at chasing in the RSA while A Plus Tard is expected to tackle the Ryanair rather than the Champion Chase. “The way he finished up the hill last year was unbelievable. I think he’s progressed since then.”
Minella Melody in the Dawn Run and Aspire Tower in the Triumph have fairly obvious chances. Monalee, her Gold Cup mount, is further down the betting but Blackmore points out that the fancied Delta Work beat him by just a head last month.
It could be a very big week for a jockey whose success has been thought-provoking for Mullins: “Her main asset is, she’s fantastic at getting horses to settle and she’s fantastic at getting horses to jump. Every time she’s got an opportunity, she’s taken it. Since she got in with Henry, she hasn’t missed, it’s been bullseye after bullseye.
“I’ve probably gone from trying to give her advice to asking her advice. And it raises some questions. I was thinking about strength and Rachael is a nine-stone girl and yet she’s as good as anyone. You see her win plenty of tight finishes and you see her able to settle up strong horses. It’s changed the way I think about riding.”