Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Dan Sheridan/INPHO
# Gold cup
Rachael Blackmore continues to take racing and the sporting world by storm
Willie Mullins had five of the seven winners on the final day of the Cheltenham Festival, and he is not the headline act.

SHE’S SOMETHING ELSE, that Rachael Blackmore. Not content with adding chapter after chapter to racing’s history books last year, she went and added a whole new appendix today, on Gold Cup day at Cheltenham.

It is 12 months since the rider took the racing and sporting world by storm. Six winners at the Cheltenham Festival in 2021, leading rider at the meeting, the first female rider to achieve that, and no longer was she Irish racing’s best-kept secret. Then she won the Grand National on Minella Times, and she went stratospheric.

rachael-blackmore-onboard-a-plus-card-celebrates-winning Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Grand National is obviously monstrous, universally recognised, the most famous horse race in the world. But the Gold Cup is the pinnacle of National Hunt racing, the purists’ race, the class test.

And if there was one tiny pebble in Rachael Blackmore’s shoe last year as she walked out of Cheltenham, walking on air, it was that she finished second in the Gold Cup on A Plus Tard, not first, beaten by Jack Kennedy on A Plus Tard’s stable companion Minella Indo, whom she could have ridden.

That’s racing. Supremely talented rider though she is, she could only ride one of them. 

Gold Cup morning 2022, and it’s as you were. Rachael Blackmore on A Plus Tard again, Robbie Power on Minella Indo this time and, again, the race develops into a Henry de Bromhead duel.

A Plus Tard was well back in the field early on. Third last as they raced away from the stands with a circuit to run, his rider charted her path slowly and deliberately. Still only fourth last as they jumped the open ditch at the top of the hill, she started to make her way through horses as they raced down the hill. Sixth jumping the third last fence, she was caught in traffic when Minella Indo jumped on and went over two lengths clear on the run to the home turn, but she didn’t panic.

She didn’t use up energy or concede ground by wheeling to the outside in order to try to ensure clear passage. She allowed her horse make his ground among horses, content on the gap would appear, confident that her horse was travelling well enough to move into it when it did.

The gap appeared all right – it usually does when your horse is travelling well – a half-gap at first between Al Boum Photo and Protektorat, which became a full horse-width gap when A Plus Tard nosed his way into it and his rider gave him a squeeze.

Still two lengths behind Minella Indo as they landed over the second last fence, it was down to whether or not A Plus Tard had the reserves of energy required to reel in his stable companion this time. Remember, last year he came up short.

This year, he was strong. His rider had saved every ounce of energy that she could on the way around and, when she asked, when she needed him, A Plus Tard responded. The Cheveley Park Stud’s horse had drawn level with Minella Indo by the time they reached the final fence, and he had momentum. He popped the fence and stretched away so that, by the time he got to the winning line, he was 15 lengths clear.

It was an incredible surge of pace and strength at the end of an energy-sapping race. The last horse to win a Gold Cup by 15 lengths was Master Oats, who did so in 1995, when the ground was soft and the winning margins were accentuated.

The crowd surged with well-wish. Some rooted in the stands, to cheer as horse and rider wended their way back towards the winner’s enclosure; some at that winner’s enclosure, packed deep, and all noise.

We missed this last year. We didn’t really realise how much until this year. Great that the doors have been opened again.

“I can’t believe it,” said Rachael.

“How lucky I am.  Last year I had a choice of the horses who finished first and second in the Gold Cup. Who is that person?!  This year I was lucky to be on the right one. It’s overwhelming. Henry is fantastic. He had him spot on.”

What she didn’t say, what she wouldn’t say, is that she gave the horse a fantastic ride, a ride that maximised his chance of winning, on the biggest stage, in the whitest of white-hot heat of competition, when the world is watching and the pressure is on.

Henry de Bromhead’s role is massive too. It was Eddie O’Leary of Gigginstown House who first suggested to Henry that he should give Rachael Blackmore an opportunity and, when he did, he immediately saw her quality. Horses run for her, he said.

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But there is no point in having the rider if you don’t have the horses for them to ride, and what Henry de Bromhead has achieved with his horses of late is quite startling. He had six winners at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, including the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup. No other person had ever, in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, trained the winners of the three jewels in Cheltenham’s crown in the same week. The 1-2 in the Gold Cup, the 1-2 in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. And a couple of weeks later, the 1-2 in the Grand National as well.

And this isn’t just all of a sudden. He has been building towards this level for years. The roots are deep, and now the sky is high.

This year’s Cheltenham Festival couldn’t have got to that level again for the trainer, but even so, he has won the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup again this year, that’s two years in a row that he has won both the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle. And the 1-2 in the Gold Cup again. It has been another incredible week for the trainer.

maureen-mullins-and-willie-mullins Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

On any ordinary day, the headlines would be all about Willie Mullins. Just shows you how extraordinary a day it was: 

Vauban and State Man and The Nice Guy and Billaway and Elimay made up the Willie Mullins five-timer. Two for Paul Townend and one each for Patrick Mullins and Mark Walsh and Sean O’Keeffe. That took Mullins’ score for the 2022 Cheltenham Festival to 10, and that tally had never before been reached by any other trainer at any other Cheltenham Festival.

Willie Mullins had as many winners this week as all British trainers combined. And, with the Joseph O’Brien-trained Banbridge landing the concluding Martin Pipe Hurdle under Mark McDonagh, it was seven out of seven for Irish trainers on the day.

Extraordinary day, the culmination of an extraordinary week.

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