A ruthless winning machine on the track but a shy, quiet and unassuming person as soon as she dismounts: Rachael Blackmore has turned into a major star not only of the horse racing world but far beyond it.
The 5ft 8ins dairy farmer’s daughter who has earned plaudits from the likes of Sir Anthony McCoy and Ruby Walsh never thought she could make it as a professional jockey but has gone on to smash records to cement herself as one of the top athletes in the UK and Ireland in her trade.
The 32-year-old, from Killenaule in County Tipperary, recorded the most victories at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival with six wins. She became the first woman to claim the accolade. Only Ruby Walsh has ever ridden more at a single festival – with seven. At the same festival, Blackmore became the first woman jockey to win the Champion Hurdle – on Honeysuckle on the opening day.
After 12 months of the Cheltenham Festival being largely confined to links with criticism for its packed stands in the early days of Covid, Blackmore came along and put the sport on the front and back pages for the right reasons again. ITV Racing host Ed Chamberlin said at the time that she had “ridden to racing’s rescue”.
Waterford trainer Henry de Bromhead said: “She just kept winning on our horses and our owners were keen to use her so she rode herself into the job. Aren’t we lucky to have her? They broke the mould after her.”
Possibly the only mistake Blackmore made at Cheltenham 2021 was the Gold Cup decision to ride A Plus Tard over Minella Indo, which pipped her mount to the big win. But she is back for more this week and will be targeting the Gold Cup on Friday to add to her trophy cabinet, along with another Ruby Walsh trophy for the leading jockey.
She said last year: “It’s unbelievable (to be leading rider). I share a house with Patrick Mullins [son of Irish trainer Willie] and he’s got a McCoy trophy, so we’re now going to have both AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh on the mantlepiece!
“It’s phenomenal. I can’t even comprehend being leading rider in Cheltenham. Getting an award from AP McCoy in the shape of Ruby Walsh – that’s crazy! It’s been a brilliant week. Henry de Bromhead is just an incredible trainer and I’m just part of that team and getting on those horses. I just walked into the weighing room there and saw my mother on ITV – I don’t know how that happened! I was hoping I’d get one winner – every jockey thinks like that. When you get one, it’s some weight off your shoulders and everything is a bonus then after that.”
Just a few weeks after her Cheltenham exploits, baking enthusiast Blackmore became the first woman jockey to win the Grand National on Minella Times. Sir AP McCoy, a 20-time champion jockey, tried to contextualise her achievements, saying: “She is a great credit to herself and racing has been very lucky to have her. It went through a difficult time and she put it on the front pages. Why have we never had a woman driving a Formula One car? It’s even more mechanical than a racehorse. She has been able to do what no other female has been able to do in any sport.”
After the race, Blackmore was over the moon and, as she often does, bats away questions about being a woman in a male-dominated sport, saying: “I don’t feel male or female. I don’t even feel human, I feel unbelievable.”
The achievement clearly took a little time to sink in. “It’s probably something that will sink in when you’ve got grey hair and you can enjoy what happened,” she said in an interview. “I suppose when I came home [from Aintree] and I was driving through my home town of Killenaule and I could see posters in the windows of people’s homes with my face on them, it really resonated then what my personal achievements meant to the people where I’m from. But it’s a constant, revolving wheel and as a jockey you’re looking forward. It’s always: ‘What’s next?'”
So, where did it all start for one of racing’s most successful poster-girls?
Well, Blackmore grew up on a dairy farm and helped her dad milking cows on weekends. She rode horses from a young age – her first pony race win came at age 13 – and competed as an amateur jockey during college before turning professional in 2015 after graduating with a degree in equine science from the University of Limerick, having harboured ambitions to become a vet.
Her first professional win came in September 2015 aboard Most Honourable and only two years into her professional career, she became the first woman to win the conditional riders’ championship in Ireland.
Since making her debut at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019, Blackmore has won nine races at this elite event in the horse racing calendar. In addition to her six wins in 2021, she won twice in 2019 and once in 2020.
“I always wanted to be an amateur jockey and ride in races, but I never envisaged the professional jockey route. It was not a career I thought would work out for me,” said the Killenaule native.
Away from the track, Blackmore lives in County Carlow, Ireland, with her jockey boyfriend Brian Hayes and fellow jockey, Patrick Mullins, where Rachael is a fan of baking chocolate Coca Cola cake.
“It is a great house to live in and it is in a really good location in Leighlinbridge. It is close to all the race tracks in Ireland,” Blackmore told The Laughs of Your Life podcast. “We don’t talk about racing half as much as people might think, it is just a normal house when we come home.”
As for her family and hometown, they could not be prouder. Blackmore’s mum Eimir, a school teacher in Tipperary, publicly pondered whether her daughter would be buying her dad a new JCB after her success.
She previously told ITV Racing: “It’s been an absolute fairytale, it’s incredible. The amount of support she’s getting locally, my phone has literally melted. I understand that she won the first race, so my husband Charles is just wondering. He needs a new JCB – is there a lovely smart one there? She might treat him to it.
“I avoid watching it when I can. It’s very hard when it’s your own child. When I’m home here and I’m not in work I will maybe watch the last three fences or whatever. She was always very keen and she was competitive with her older brother, anything that he jumped, she wanted to jump.”