The Gordon Elliott controversy cast a black cloud over horse racing in the build-up to the Cheltenham Festival, with the trainer’s ban threatening to overshadow the biggest meeting of the year – the event that brings the sport into the national spotlight. It was going to take a real feel-good story to lighten the mood and create positive headlines in the world of horse racing, but thankfully Rachael Blackmore provided a ray of sunshine to scatter the clouds.
Blackmore’s six winners at Cheltenham saw her become the first woman to win the leading jockey accolade at the Festival, as she also became the first female jockey to triumph in the Champion Hurdle thanks to her fine performance aboard Henry De Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle. Six winners represent a remarkable showing at the Prestbury Park meeting – a tally bettered only by Cheltenham legend Ruby Walsh – and it’s the stuff of dreams for the 31-year-old from County Tipperary.
“I can’t even comprehend being leading jockey – it’s crazy stuff,” Blackmore said after the Festival. “It’s phenomenal. It’s been brilliant. Henry De Bromhead is an incredible trainer. I’m just part of that team and getting on those horses. I’m still in the bubble of it, so I haven’t had a chance to see the outside world but I’ll do that over the next few days.”
Blackmore and De Bromhead have proven to be an outstanding combination of jockey and trainer. Four of the Irishwoman’s six winners were on board De Bromhead-trained horses, and although the 48-year-old was pipped to the top trainer award by Willie Mullins, he was still the standout trainer of this year’s Festival, emphasised by the latest horse racing odds.
The week began in fine style for Blackmore, with her victory on Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle setting the tone for what would become one of the best four days of her life. It was a sensational performance in the day one showpiece by both Blackmore and the unbeaten mare, and it’s clear that the win gave Blackmore the confidence to go on and take the Festival by the scruff of the neck.
Although Blackmore shies away from the spotlight when her position as a role model for young female jockeys is brought up, there is no doubt that many girls will have been inspired by her achievements in the sport. It is a relatively recent development that female jockeys are given the chance to race against men at the same level, but Blackmore’s success achievement has chipped away at the glass ceiling a little bit more. Before this year, no woman had ever finished in the top three of the Champion Hurdle or the Gold Cup, but Blackmore did both, and will rue her decision not to ride Gold Cup winner Minella Indo, instead finishing second on A Plus Tard.
Blackmore’s resolve was plain to see throughout the Festival. She fell four times during the meeting’s four days, proof if it was needed of the hard-hitting nature of horse racing, and the talent it demands to succeed at the highest level. But Blackmore picked herself up and dusted herself off every time, and then went and ran another winner. She might not like the publicity, but she has done a lot to lift the gloom that surrounded the sport prior to the Cheltenham Festival. Racing has a new heroine.