In a week where one member of royalty departed this earth, a queen from the tiny town of Killenaule made history – leaving behind a legacy of her own unlikely to ever be eclipsed.
I feel like a broken record when it comes to Rachael Blackmore, but every time she does something otherworldly, she seems to follow it up with something even more scarcely believable within a matter of weeks.
182 years after the first running of the famed Aintree Grand National, leading home the heroes of the Waterford 1-2 was the Killenaule jockey, the first woman ever to come up trumps in the Merseyside spring sun. I didn’t think they could do it again after Cheltenham, but if you back against Rachael Blackmore and Henry De Bromhead, the dish served is normally humble pie.
A sensational jockey, but not an overnight sensation, Rachael Blackmore’s relentless pursuit of her own progress has helped to carry the sport of horse racing forward and back into the hearts of everyday people. As was wonderfully put by Catherine Power this week, Cheltenham is more for the ‘purists’, but almost everyone in the world lays a bet at Aintree.
Tony Mullins put it brilliantly when he said that to refer to Rachael Blackmore purely upon the basis of her gender is an insult to her ability as a jockey. I’ve been saying it a long time – she’s not the best ‘female jockey’ at present, she’s the best jockey in general. In the big races at Cheltenham, she took Paul Townend to school on occasion, she’s done everything the hard way with not a racing connection in sight. From riding ponies around her hometown to taking the leap under the tutelage of Shark Hanlon, nothing was ever handed to Rachael Blackmore. Never was there a silver spoon in sight, but never was there a complaint uttered. You reap what you sow in the racing game, and Rachael has sewn pure gold.
There’s a perception out there among people that any fool can get up on a horse and win. That’s not the case. It takes practice. It takes courage. It takes ups and downs, learning curves. There’s injuries and bad falls, there’s a glass ceiling there that must be shattered. The purest part of the Rachael Blackmore story is the purity of the jockey herself. When she speaks in interviews, you can still see that young girl with a dream – there’s a sincerity that shines through. In times where women’s sport is in truth underfunded, underestimated and under appreciated, it’s great to see a woman not just mixing it with the big boys, but walloping them with grace.
She can win running from the front, she can win sitting handy, or she can scythe through the field with a ruthlessness that the Grim Reaper himself would fear. There’s never any mad theatrics with the victories of Blackmore – she’s always cool, calm and composed. Definitive confidence in her own ability and the ability of the horse she boards is there for all to see – and there’s no talk with the walk. There’s no arrogance, no dismissing of anything, there’s simply a focus upon the task in hand.
The world watched with awe when Blackmore and Honeysuckle became unbeatable. There was a shock factor when now Gold Cup champion Minella Indo struck oil at 50/1 in the Albert Bartlett. If Rachael Blackmore turned up in a blindfold now and won by ten lengths, I don’t think anyone would bat an eye.
A word must go to the trainer. To win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup Holy Trinity at Cheltenham was unparalleled. To build on it with a 1-2 in the world’s biggest race just weeks later defies description. Henry De Bromhead must now go down as one of Waterford’s greatest ever sportspeople, and the past few weeks propel him into the stratospheres of Mullins, Elliott and beyond – it’s an argument that I would have until the owls go back to bed. How far Henry De Bromhead has come from his very first Cheltenham winner with Sizing Europe in 2010 to now is just unbelievable. With Blackmore in his corner, there is simply nothing they cannot achieve.
Here in Waterford, we are blessed with some unbelievable people in the sport of horse racing – be it owners, trainers, jockeys or breeders. These are truly golden days. The last few weeks have been like a freak dream that has never seemed to end. Cheltenham was like winning the national lottery, but then at Aintree some weeks later, the EuroMillions numbers followed suit.
From Henry De Bromhead to John Kiely, Paddy Corkery, and Declan Queally to Tom Queally, Sean Houlihan and Ian Power. From the corners of Youghal to the border at Wexford, we don’t know how lucky we truly are.
The past week has been almost impossible to comprehend. On Monday, I watched a horse bred by my uncle Liam Norris, at Woodfield Farm Stud go on to win the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse at odds of 150/1. Freewheelin Dylan had me cartwheeling around my sitting room with palpitations in tandem.
Fast forward to Saturday and Henry De Bromhead trains a 1-2 in the Aintree equivalent, with Rachael Blackmore leading home Minella Times to glory. This came four hours after another Woodfield horse, Hometown Boy, kept on to win the Grade 3 EFT Systems Handicap Hurdle. The dam of Minella Times, Triptoshan, was also bred there.
Sometimes in life, you just have to pinch yourself. For all the bad that’s out there at the minute, there’s little glimmers of sunlight creeping through that serve as reminders of better days to come.
Traditionalists will kill me for saying it – but if you offered me the rollercoaster of the past few weeks of racing again in 2022 or an All-Ireland Senior Hurling Title, I wouldn’t even have to think twice about which I’d like to unfold. That said, if both were on the table – I’d happily chance asking for the duo. But what has happened since the first flag was raised at Cheltenham on March 16th right up to 5.30pm on Saturday evening will probably never again be paralleled.
What I hope comes most from the glory of Cheltenham and Aintree is that someone is inspired to chase a dream, to shatter the glass ceiling, to defy the odds and to alter the norms. A racehorse is the only animal that can take millions of people on a ride at the same time. Right now, I think we’re certainly enjoying the journey.
I’ve always been proud to say I’m from Waterford, but this is all the more reason. Days like these don’t come around too often, but every now and again, lighting does strike twice.
In these most difficult of times, De Bromhead and Blackmore have shone a light of promise through the catacombs of misery, a light we can all follow – with pride, and with hope.