It would be unfair and untrue to describe Rachael Blackmore’s arrival in the public conscience as being one of a meteoric rise, given that she rode her first winner in 2011, but it’s certainly the case that her win in the 2021 Grand National, coming just a few weeks after she was crowned Champion Jockey at Cheltenham, ensured her name will be etched into the history books for many years to come.
Blackmore has not just broken through the glass ceiling but absolutely shattered it, becoming the first woman to win the Champion Hurdle at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival week and also the first female jockey to win the Grand National. Her success is something that cannot be argued and will undoubtedly act as an inspirational for women considering a career in horse racing for years to come, but who is she?
Blackmore’s Early Years
Born and raised in Killenaule, County Tipperary, Rachael Blackmore is the daughter of a farmer and a teacher. She grew up on a dairy farm, she is different from many jockeys insomuch as she did not grow up in a racing family. Instead, she began riding horses at a young age, taking advantage of the fact that there were ponies on the farm to ride them whenever possible and taking part in point clubs, hunts and races.
Given that her younger sister became a lawyer and her older brother a graphic designer, it’s not outrageous to suggest that she is the odd one out in her family. She always wanted to be a jockey, however, even if she ‘never envisaged the professional jockey route’. Her first win came as a 13-year-old in a pony race in the Irish city of Cork, defeating Paul Townend, who would himself go on to become a successful jockey.
Getting Her Break
The big break for Blackmore in terms of her shift into horses came in 2011 when she won the Tipperary Ladies’ Handicap Hurdle at Thurles on the back of Stowaway Pearl. Shark Hanlon was the trainer of the horse, the victory of which saw Blackmore begin to dream of riding on a more regular basis. Even so, there were four more years of amateur riding before she chose to turn professional in March of 2015.
As an amateur rider she rode seven winners, plus 11 in point-to-point races, so her career had hardly been prolific before she turned pro. Her first win as a professional also came on a horse trained by Hanlon, Most Honourable, winning at Clonmel in September of 2015. That was the start of a gradual but constant improvement for Blackmore, who became the first won to be named Conditional Riders Champion in Ireland in 2017.
Starting To Get The Bigger Races
It took until 2018 for Rachael Blackmore to take part in the Grand National for the first time, riding Alpha des Obeaux for trainer Mouse Morris. A 33/1 chance, the horse and rider met their match at The Chair, a fence that has taken many competitors down over the years of the Grand National’s existence. A special moment for someone who remembered watching the race as a seven or eight-year-old at her friend’s house decades before.
She rode her first winner at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019, taking A Plus Tard across the finish line before anyone else in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase. That was a horse trained by Henry de Bromhead, who also trained Minella Indo, upon whom Blackmore won her first Grade 1 winner in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Chase. She soon became the stable jockey of the Knockeen, County Waterford-based trainer.
Blackmore & Cheltenham 2021
Though her win in the Grand National will forever go down in history, her performance during the 2021 Cheltenham Festival may well have been the catalyst for what was to come. Having ridden her first Grade 1 winner in Ireland on the back of Honeysuckle in the Mares Novice Hurdle Championship at Fairyhouse in April of 2019, she also won the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle with the horse in 2020.
It was Honeysuckle that provided Blackmore with another first in 2021 when she became the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle on the back of the horse. Wins in the Champion Bumper on Sir Gerhard, the Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle with Bob Olinger, the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle on Telmesomethinggirl, the Triumph Hurdle with Quilixios and the Ryanair Chase on the back of Allaho saw her become the first female jockey to win the Ruby Walsh Trophy for the Leading Jockey at the Festival.
Trailblazing In The National
Female jockeys weren’t allowed to take part in the Grand National until the 1970s, which is why the 1944 film National Velvet, starring Elizabeth Taylor and based on the novel by Enid Bagnold, was seen as a work of pure fantasy to many. In the film and the novel, 12-year-old Velvet Brown won the Grand National on a horse called The Pie but was then disqualified on a technicality, showing that even when the win in fiction women still had a tough time in racing.
Charlotte Brew became the first woman to break the trend and take part in the race at Aintree Racecourse, riding in the 1977 Grand National on the back of Barony Fort and able to do so because of the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act two year earlier. Brew took Barony Fort around the 27th fence, at which point the horse refused and the pair were unable to complete the race.
It took another five years for a woman to complete the course, which was achieved by Geraldine Rees on the back of Cheers in 1982. It’s fair to say, therefore, that a female winner of the race has been a long time coming. Blackmore herself achieved something special in 2019 when she finished tenth with Valseur Lido, another horse trained by de Bromhead and rated as a 66/1 outsider.
Minella Times was the 11/1 fourth favourite when the 2021 Grand National got underway, with Blackmore riding him to perfection. The National is a race that will always involve a fair dollop of fortune, but Blackmore worked hard to get her horse into the position she wanted him in after three jumps and then kept him there. She kept him in rhythm and then sprang when the leader, Jett, fell back into the pack two from home.
Once Minella Times was out in front there was little chance that Blackmore would allow that lead to slip, with the second-place horse, Balko Des Flos, also being trained by Henry de Bromhead. Katie Walsh was the female jockey that had come closest to winning the race before Blackmore managed it, finishing third on Seabass in 2012. The only shame for Blackmore was that Covid-19 protocols meant that there were no crowds at Aintree Racecourse to witness her historic achievement.
Rachael Blackmore doesn’t consider herself to be a ‘female jockey’ just a jockey. Nevertheless, her success has come in the face of decades of sexism that has been endured by women in the horse racing industry. Despite being one of only a few sports in which men and women are able to compete on an even playing field, female jockeys still struggle to ride the same level of talented horses as their male counterparts.
As recently as 2005 Ginger McCain, the trainer of Red Rum, said, “A female jockey will never be able to win the Grand National”. Shark Hanlon, the trainer that gave Blackmore the rides during the early part of her career, admitted that some of the owners that he worked with ‘mightn’t have been very happy’ upon being told that he wanted to give their horses to a female jockey to ride in the 2010s.
It’s why Blackmore’s success in 2021 at both the Cheltenham Festival and in the Grand National is so important. It shows owners that female jockeys are more than capable of success if given an opportunity to showcase their talents, it proves to trainers that they don’t need to keep picking men to ride their horses and it is a shining example to girls and women around the world wanting to get into horse racing that there is a place for them.
What Next For Blackmore?
It’s fair to say that Rachael Blackmore will be one of the most sought after jockeys in the industry after her success in 2021, not just by trainers and owners looking for someone to race their horses but also by the media hoping for someone unique and interesting to showcase the sport. They might well be disappointed in Blackmore, given that she is a somewhat modest person and not someone that wants to blow their own trumpet.
Her world is populated with people from racing, given that her boyfriend Brian Hayes and her housemate Patrick Mullins are both successful jockeys in their own right. Henry de Bromhead will certainly be pleased that he has Blackmore in his stables, given the extent to which other trainers are almost certainly going to want to persuade her to ride for them, but his decision to give her some big names in the key races should keep them at bay.
In terms of what comes next, the answer is likely to be ‘awards’. Hollie Doyle, the flat jockey, came third in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards last December, with many thinking that Blackmore will be a shoo-in for the Overseas category of that award in 2021. There’s also a strong shout that she will be crowned Irish Sports Personality of the Year when RTE hold the event in the coming months.
Bookmakers are also reportedly slashing the odds on Blackmore appearing in Strictly Come Dancing in the next three years, which is a far cry from the young girl who wanted to become a vet and never thought she’d be able to ride horses professionally. Were she to be named the BBC Sports Personality World Sport Star of the Year, she would join a list that includes the likes of Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali, Cristiano Ronaldo and Roger Federer.
Can She Get An Honour?
The fact that Blackmore is from Ireland and is therefore not British means that she will not be able to receive an honour from the Queen. Sir Anthony Peter McCoy was able to be given his knighthood because he’s from Northern Ireland, but Blackmore being born in Ireland mans that she can only receive honorary titles in the future. That doesn’t mean that it should be ruled out, of course, with such titles having been given to the likes of Plácido Domingo, Magnus Magnusson and Spike Milligan.
Whilst an honorary Damehood might seem a bit far-fetched at this point, it’s possible that she might be considered for an honorary Order of the British Empire at some point. Only British nationals can receive such an award officially, but the Foreign Office can put citizens of countries without the Queen as their head of state forward for such an honorary award, so that’s something that Blackmore might well have in her future.
She is also an ambassador for Kildare Village in her native Ireland, with the shopping outlet being the sponsors of the 20×20 Campaign that promotes more women in sport. Blackmore herself is somewhat modest with her own ambitions, saying,
“This is a job I love doing. I don’t set myself massive goals for the future. Racing is a very unpredictable sport, so I take it week by week. It keeps you grounded because you are up there one minute, and the next sitting at the back of the fence.”
Whether Blackmore likes it or not, her success at Cheltenham followed up with victory in the Grand National means that she will be a role model for females in the sport for years to come. She might not like to say as much herself, but she is a trailblazer in a sport that has far too few women at its top end and she will offer encouragement to the next generations of female jockeys that hope that they too may one day win the Grand National.