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Dublin: 9°C Thursday 22 April 2021
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'It's an honour to be involved in a small way in the story. She's a great person and a super jockey'

It was a week where Rachael Blackmore dominated racing and soared to new heights.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates after yesterday's win in the Triumph Hurdle.
Rachael Blackmore celebrates after yesterday's win in the Triumph Hurdle.
Image: Dan Abraham/INPHO

PETER MOLONY FREELY admits it.

The career of Rachael Blackmore is not one he has been carefully monitoring for years,  tracking her progress on his racing radar.

To pinpoint when that started to change, it’s apt to go for the time around 14 November 2018 when she steered Honeysuckle to victory in a maiden hurdle on a Wednesday afternoon at Fairyhouse.

It hasn’t abated since.

And it brought Molony to last Tuesday at home at Rathmore Stud in Limerick, cheering on from the couch, willing Blackmore to glory and relying on the TV viewing experience to capture the moment she carved a slice of racing history on the biggest stage.

Molony is racing manager for Kenny Alexander, the owner of Honeysuckle who landed the Champion Hurdle as Blackmore became the first female jockey to secure that prize.

It was her opening win of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival. She finished up yesterday with six to her name and bestowed with the accolade of leading jockey for the week.

Molony had a connection to three of her successes and all week was marvelling from afar at the groundbreaking exploits of Blackmore.

“My wife is from near where Rachael’s from in Tipperary. She would know the family well. They’re a lovely family, farming and hunting and a horsey family.

“I wouldn’t have known much about her to be honest until she started riding for Henry (de Bromhead) a couple of years ago and then started riding Honeysuckle.

“But we certainly know how good she is now anyway.”

***

Pick a statistic to capture the scale of the 31-year-old Killenaule native’s achievement over the last four days in the Cotswolds.

There are plenty to go around.

cheltenham-festival-2021-day-four-cheltenham-racecourse Rachael Blackmore collects the festival leading jockey trophy. Source: PA

Two years ago Blackmore won for the first time at Cheltenham on board A Plus Tard and three days later followed it up on Minella Indo in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. In 2020 a third Festival winner arrived courtesy of Honeysuckle in the Mares’ Hurdle.

By the close of business on Wednesday she had already matched her Cheltenham career total in the 2021 edition. Then she doubled that figure over the next two days.

Thursday’s victory in the Mares’ Novices Hurdle brought her to a level occupied by AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Paul Townend, Barry Geraghty and Jamie Osborne after recording five winners at a single festival.

When Blackmore steered home Quilixios in the Triumph Hurdle yesterday, she reached a mark that only Ruby had achieved. His record of seven, chalked up both in 2009 and 2016, ultimately remained out of reach but A Plus Tard was not far off in the battle up the hill in the Gold Cup.

That was the only real blemish on her card all week. 

‘I took the wrong one,’ was her succinct verdict on the decision that had boiled down to which runner to choose for the Friday marquee event. Minella Indo triumphed as the finishing touch of a magical Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double eluded Blackmore.

cheltenham-festival-2021-day-four-cheltenham-racecourse Jack Kennedy and Rachael Blackmore after the Gold Cup. Source: PA

Still thought, it was quite a week.

20 runners produced six winners for the March days when jumps racing takes the sporting centre stages. She fell on four occasions, ending up on the turf three times on St Patrick’s Day alone, yet those knocks could not permanently stall the momentum built up.

Blackmore rode winners for Henry De Bromhead and Willie Mullins, justifying the regard of leading trainers. She was celebrating after five Grade 1 wins, only a couple of years after experiencing that feeling in a race of that status for the first time.

She finished second once, third once and fourth once but the trend was clear this week. If Blackmore got within striking distance of the line as the pressure was ratcheted up, she generally found a way not to be overtaken.

“All I can say is it’s an honour to be involved in a small way in the story,” says Molony.

“She’s a great person and she’s a super jockey. She’s so balanced on a horse.

“Horses run really well for her and jump really well for her. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Sir Gerhard in Wednesday’s Champion Bumper and Telmesomethinggirl in Thursday’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle were the other winners that Molony had a strong affiliation with. It’s one of plenty strings to his racing bow, in addition to running Rathmore Stud and being the Irish representative for Qatar Racing.

Tuesday was a landmark momemt for a man who has held a long attachment with the hurdling race of greatest prestige.

“With the Molonys, we have a bit of a love affair with the Champion Hurdle. My uncle Tim won four, the only jockey to win four-in-a-row, on Hatton’s Grace (1951) and Sir Ken (1952-54).

“My father Martin bought Bula who won two (1971 and 1972), and now we’ve won it with Honeysuckle. It’s just amazing.”

rachel-blackmore-onboard-honeysuckle-comes-home-to-win Honeysuckle comes home to win on Tuesday. Source: Mark Cranham/INPHO

He thinks back to the origins of this success story when Honeysuckle took her first tentative steps that began the unbroken sequence of dominance that has yielded 11 victories with Blackmore piloting.

“When we bought her first, we knew she had ability because she’d done it on her point-to-point. But you’re never going to know quite how far they can go.

“Then she won her maiden in Fairyhouse, was ultra-impressive that day. We started getting really excited and she’s unbeaten now.

“The only run that you could call slightly disappointing was probably this year’s Hatton’s Grace Hurdle (in 2020) and that day she wasn’t just quite fit enough.”

The partnership with the jockey has been a critical component.

“She knows Honeysuckle inside out now,” says Moloney of Blackmore.

“She knows what she’s capable of, so she’s got full confidence in her and that’s a great asset to have in a race. She’s just mad about Honeysuckle.”

The last time he was an eye-witness for a Honeysuckle success was at Cheltenham twelve months ago. Since then the experience of observing on a screen has had to be one to grow accustomed to.

“In some ways it’s easier being at home, you keep busy. If you’re at Cheltenham, you’re hanging around waiting.

“But as I said to somebody the other day, it’s first world problems really. It’s pretty amazing where we’re at. We’re not going to complain.

“All our kids are away at university, so just myself, my wife Sarah and my mother-in-law watched it, and then the lads from the yard came in.

“Henry is very cautious, he’d normally be very coy about what he’d say before a race. 

“But before Leopardstown, I actually heard him say the word ‘confident’ about Honeysuckle, I think three times in the week leading up to it. We slagged him about that afterwards.

“But he couldn’t hide the fact he thought she was improving all the time. That was good enough for me. Listen it’s a horse race and anything could happen but we were as confident as we could be that she’d do it.

rachel-blackmore-henry-de-bromhead-kenny-alexander-and-the-winning-connections-celebrate-winning-with-honeysuckle Honeysuckle's connections after the 2020 Mares' Hurdle win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s been fabulously enjoyable, we’re so lucky it’s on and we’re lucky to have the horses there running. Kenny’s a lovely down to earth man. Sort of guy when you’re working for, you want to do your best for. I just could not be more happy for him.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and never quite had a week like this at Cheltenham. It’s amazing.”

***

It was a Cheltenham Festival with a difference. The empty stands created an eerie backdrop at a location devoid of the racegoers that routinely whip up a frenzy.

On the track the environment has changed too. Ruby retired in May 2019, Geraghty followed him last July and Davy Russell announced last month that he had insufficient time to recover from injury before Cheltenham commenced.

Three long-standing pillars of the weighing room absent while a Covid-enforced rule scrubbed the leading amateur jockeys from this year’s equation.

Blackmore has had to contend with rivals like Paul Townend, the star of the show last year and Gold Cup king for the previous two instalments, and Jack Kennedy, the Dingle native who has overcome a luckless run of harsh injury setbacks to enjoy a terrific week that generated four winners.

And she came out on top, winning in a mixture of ways like the eye-catching storming run of Allaho in the Ryanair Chase or how Telmesomethinggirl picked her way through the field.

“She’s got a fantastic tactical brain,” states Molony.

“Like she showed last year in the Mares Hurdle on Honeysuckle and on Wednesday on Sir Gerhard in the bumper.

“That was a ride that Frankie Dettori would be proud of from the front. Just a fabulous ride, knowing when to slow things up and take a breather and when to kick. She just did it beautifully.

“She won in Limerick on the flat in a race named after my father, the Martin Molony Stakes, she won that last year (on Oriental Eagle) which was a nice touch. So she’s got a good tactical brain for the flat as well.”

The repeated demonstrations of brilliance did not surprise Molony as Blackmore rounded off the week with a remarkable 6-5 victory over the entire British challenge.

It’s just over a decade since she landed her first winner as an amateur and six years since a similar breakthrough at professional level after trainer John ‘Shark’ O’Hanlon had helped nudge her in the direction of making the switch to those ranks.

If the amateur career was not show-stopping, the progress ever since has eye-catching and this was the week when her profile exploded further.

“Look it doesn’t matter what you are. We’re jockeys, we’re winning races and it’s just a privilege to be here.”

Those were the immediate post-race remarks after the Champion Hurdle and spoke to her humility, work ethic, sharp focus and preference not to dwell on the topic of gender when it comes to analysis of her races.

There is an astuteness as well, constantly keen to give owners a shoutout or point to the fortune at having forged a successful combination with a trainer like de Bromhead.

After a turbulent and damaging time for racing, Blackmore’s feats and her emergence to a wider sporting audience is the type of story that proves compelling.

cheltenham-festival-2021-day-four-cheltenham-racecourse Rachael Blackmore celebrates aboard Quilixios. Source: PA

On Thursday after her fifth win of the week, ITV presenter Ed Chamberlin hit his pundits AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh in turn with the question of whether she is the greatest jumps jockey currently in action?

‘Without a doubt’, was the reply from both without a trace of hesitation before they proceeded to illustrate in glowing terms why that was the case.

After a sparkling Festival, they were clear where Rachael Blackmore should rank.

With the Cheltenham acclaim ringing in her ears, she returns to familiar, local soil today in Thurles, booked for four rides at the meeting on a course where she landed her first winner as an amateur a decade ago last month.

And the spotlight is likely to shine that bit brighter after the week she has put down.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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