Rachael Blackmore: Jump jockey seeking to become first female champion

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Racheal Blackmore
Rachael Blackmore, with 80 winners before racing on 20 February, was three behind leader Paul Townend in the race to be Irish champion jockey

For decades, unlike almost every other sport, male and female jockeys have competed on level terms, but in Ireland some men find themselves feeling less than equal.

Admittedly, it's a guy - former champion Paul Townend - who leads the riders' title race for the 2018-19 jumps season - but very much hard on his heels is Rachael Blackmore following a prolific run.

However, to steal a favourite phrase from the horse racing formbook, it's a case of 'pair well clear' of the pack, a group headed by Davy Russell and Mark Walsh; after an injury-hit time of it, perennial leading contender Ruby Walsh is further behind.

And, as a jockey very much in favour with aviation tycoon Michael O'Leary's vast, highly-influential Gigginstown House Stud racing operation, managed by his brother Eddie, the odds on Blackmore winning are nothing fancy.

Were the 29-year-old, who held a decisive advantage through the early months of the campaign, to end up in front when the season concludes at the Punchestown Festival in May, she'd be racing's first female professional jump jockey champion. Such a result would be a landmark for racing.

That door is surely soon to spring open: Blackmore and, in Britain, Lucy Alexander have been top conditional (National Hunt apprentice) riders; Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, both now retired, have been star Irish amateur riders; Lizzie Kelly and Bryony Frost continue to grab headlines over jumps in the UK; while Hayley Turner, Amy Ryan and Josephine Gordon have all won the apprentices' title on the British flat scene.

"The champion jockey thing isn't really a… I'll pass on that question maybe," Blackmore said shyly when asked about her championship prospects.

Rachael Blackmore
Blackmore, seen here riding at Punchestown, only turned professional four years ago

Happier to reflect upon the season so far, she continued: "I think Eddie [Michael's brother] approached [trainer] Henry de Bromhead at the start of the summer and maybe said, 'Would you use Rachael for some of our horses?' and Henry said yes.

"His horses were flying at the time, and I was the lucky one that got the leg-up on them, and that's how it started.

"I'm riding a lot for Henry - not just Gigginstown - it's a case of being in the right yard at the right time, and things are really clicking at the moment."

And it's not just the De Bromhead team with which she's clicking. Associations are close too with a long list of Irish trainers, including the two largest, Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins - indeed, she shares a house with Mullins' son Patrick, as well as her jockey-boyfriend Brian Hayes and amateur rider Richie Deegan.

It could, however, have been so different.

The middle one of three children of a County Tipperary dairy farmer and his wife, a teacher, Blackmore has an older brother who's a graphic designer and younger sister who's a law graduate.

She herself planned to become a vet so studied science, then equine science and did a business course before making the decision to concentrate on life as a jockey from the age of 26.

She said: "People say to me now 'your dreams are coming true', but I could never even have dreamt of being a professional jockey - it was so far from what I thought I could have ever achieved.

"Being a vet was what I wanted to be, but I was poor enough in academics - I kept failing maths - so that didn't happen, but I'm happy enough now."

Katie Walsh, Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore all rode in last year's Grand National at Aintree
Katie Walsh, Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore all rode in last year's Grand National at Aintree

No doubt some of that story will be told on Jump Girls, a two-part documentary being shown on television in Ireland in the run-up to March's Cheltenham Festival, in which Blackmore and other female National Hunt racing personalities feature.

The weeks before the Festival are an anxious time for any trainer and jockey involved, and although no exact plans are in place, there's no doubt Blackmore will be in high demand, especially with both Gigginstown and the De Bromhead stable well-represented.

The 28 races over the four days of the Cheltenham Festival of course don't count towards the Irish National Hunt Championship, but straight afterwards it'll be back down to business as usual at home.

That it's Paul Townend who looks her principal rival has its ironic side: they are 'old foes' in that as youngsters they competed against each other on the pony racing circuit.

"In my first experience of pony racing, I actually beat Paul, which was a big highlight for me as you can imagine," said Blackmore.

"It's quite funny watching the video back because he's so polished already - he's 12 or 13, and looks like he's going to be a champion jockey of the future, and I just look horrendous beside him, but I won anyway so that's the main thing.

"It's good rivalry and good fun."

Now really rather polished herself, perhaps history will soon be repeating itself.

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