Rachael Blackmore leading Cheltenham jockey in 'phenomenal' Festival

By Frank KeoghBBC Sport at Cheltenham
Rachael Blackmore won on Allaho, Sir Gerhard, Telmesomethinggirl, Honeysuckle, Quilixios and Bob Olinger
Blackmore won on Allaho, Sir Gerhard, Telmesomethinggirl, Honeysuckle, Quilixios and Bob Olinger

Rachael Blackmore said her Cheltenham Festival had been "phenomenal" after becoming the first woman to be the leading jockey at the meeting.

The Irish rider had six wins, more than the entire British training contingent.

Blackmore, 31, was the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle, with Honeysuckle, and was second on A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup, which was won by Minella Indo.

"I can't even comprehend being leading jockey - it's crazy stuff," she said.

"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."

Henry De Bromhead kisses the Gold Cup
Trainer Henry de Bromhead won the Gold Cup for the first time with Minella Indo

De Bromhead saddled Honeysuckle and became the first trainer to claim the 'Holy Trinity' of jump racing at Cheltenham, also winning the Champion Chase with Put The Kettle On before a 1-2 in the Gold Cup.

While women compete on level terms against men in horse racing, it is only in recent years their chances have come regularly in the major races.

No female jockey had ever finished in the first three of the Champion Hurdle or Gold Cup before.

Her six victories at the meeting have only been topped by one other jockey - the Festival's all-time top rider Ruby Walsh, who had seven wins twice.

Rachael Blackmore with the Ruby Walsh Trophy
Rachael Blackmore with the Ruby Walsh Trophy for leading Cheltenham jockey

Jockeys salute brilliant Blackmore

Blackmore was presented with the Ruby Walsh Trophy as leading jockey by another racing legend, 20-time champion jockey AP McCoy.

"She's been exceptional and has been for quite a long time. Her stats in Ireland are phenomenal," McCoy told BBC Radio 5 live.

"I thought given how physically demanding it is, it would be difficult for a female jockey to make that breakthrough. You need to be physically and mentally tough, but she is.

"She's the first female professional in Ireland for 30 years but has given every young girl a dream that they can compete."

Former jockey Andrew Thornton, who won the Gold Cup on Cool Dawn in 1998, said: "Rachael Blackmore is just making all the right decisions. She pulls out at the right time, pushes the buttons at the right time - it is like clockwork. It has been poetry in motion."

Inspiring a new generation

The records keep falling for women who prefer to be known as just jockeys, rather than female jockeys.

Bryony Frost, who was fifth on Frodon in the Gold Cup, was the first woman to win the King George VI Chase in December, partnering the same horse.

In Flat racing, Hollie Doyle has been setting new landmarks and was third in the 2020 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

Blackmore has been splashed over the back pages in Britain and the front pages back home. She really has come a long way from her Tipperary roots, and the ripple effect of her success is already being felt.

Maisy's Dad Thom tweeted that his daughter was inspired by Rachael Blackmore's performances. Here she is with her pony, Burt
Maisy's dad Thom tweeted that his eight-year-old daughter was inspired by Blackmore's performances. Here she is with her pony, Burt - and socks in honour of five-time Festival winner Tiger Roll

Golden victory for injury-hit Kennedy

Jack Kennedy was down on Thursday, victorious on Friday
Jack Kennedy was down on Thursday, but victorious with Minella Indo on Friday

The only mistake Blackmore made, as it turned out, was opting to ride A Plus Tard rather than stablemate Minella Indo, runner-up in last year's RSA Chase at Cheltenham.

She picked up a two-day suspension for "using her whip above the permitted level from turning in".

Few would begrudge the winning jockey Jack Kennedy his golden day - at 21, he has already broken his leg four times during his riding career.

Kennedy was flying so high afterwards, the Irish rider said he would not need a plane to get him home.

"That tops everything, without a doubt. It's definitely the best day of my life," he said, 24 hours after a shock fall on hot favourite Envoi Allen in the Marsh Novices' Chase.

"You dream about winning these races as a child."

Blackmore sportingly offered congratulations to Kennedy despite her disappointment.

Jockeys Jack Kennedy and Rachael Blackmore first-pump
Minella Indo, left, and A Plus Tard are both trained by Henry de Bromhead

A very different Festival

Masks, sanitisers and social distancing replaced the usual boisterous revelry of previous years as the fixture took place without spectators, bookmakers or racehorse owners because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Racing chiefs hoped the meeting could 'provide a shop window' for the sport after negative headlines in the build-up.

Gordon Elliott, the Festival's leading trainer in 2017 and 2018, and jockey Rob James are both serving bans for being pictured astride dead horses.

Elliott, who has helped guide Kennedy's career, missed out on six winners with horses he had trained until recently, including Quilixios for Blackmore and De Bromhead in Friday's Triumph Hurdle.

It was left to Willie Mullins to collect his seventh Cheltenham trainers' title as the Irish racked up a record 23 wins to five for Great Britain.

Even on the afternoon of the Gold Cup, news emerged of another Elliott stable employee being suspended after it was said he took the offending picture of the trainer.

Of the 402 runners at the meeting, one horse was fatally injured - Kings Temptation, trained by Ben Case, in the Cross Country Chase.

That will be one too many for racing's opponents, while its supporters will point to welfare improvements and look back on brilliant displays by winning horses such as Shishkin, Monkfish, Allaho, Bob Olinger and Tiger Roll.

Perhaps most of all, many will be happy they have a game-changer in Blackmore. You can't be what you can't see, and she has shown a woman can beat the men regularly at the top level of this sport.

"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," she said.

This dedicated and modest pioneer might afford herself a tiny smile when she sees the effect her success has been having in the wider world.

Rachael Blackmore after winning aboard Telmesomethinggirl
Five of Rachael Blackmore's six Cheltenham wins came in top-level Grade One races
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