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Champion Hurdle glory on Honeysuckle helped confirm Rachael Blackmore as the ‘Queen of Cheltenham’ on day one of The Festival 2021 and she’ll be hoping there’s plenty more success to come with a major chance in the Gold Cup itself on Friday.
Honeysuckle justified a tidal-wave of market support for the Tuesday feature contest and duly dished out a healthy beating to her two-mile Championship rivals in the Champion Hurdle.
Blackmore on top of the world
Victory for the Henry De Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle was hugely deserved after Blackmore sent the mare for home on the final bend. She jumped the last with a commanding lead and had more than six lengths in hand on the Willie Mullins-trained Sharjah at the winning post.
Last year’s winner Epatante could only bag third spot for trainer Nicky Henderson. After waiting 32 years from Dawn Run in 1984 to Annie Power in 2016, the Champion Hurdle has now been won three times in six years by mares.
Honeysuckle’s victory meant Blackmore became the first female rider to win a Championship race at the Cheltenham Festival. The likes of Lizzie Kelly and Bryony Frost have set the ball rolling in recent seasons but the Irish pilot admits she never could have dreamed of this sort of glory.
“For me, this was never even a dream – it is so far from what I ever thought could happen in my life,” said an emotional Blackmore post-race.
“Being in Cheltenham and riding a winner of a Champion Hurdle is so far removed from what I dreamt could be possible. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for everyone out there.”
Blackmore’s unlikely rise to fame
The daughter of a dairy farmer and a secondary school teacher, Rachael Blackmore certainly was not born into horse racing. Having developed her love of the horse in her teens, her rise to the top of the National Hunt game has taken time, allied to sheer hard work and perseverance.
Eyebrows were raised when Blackmore elected to take out a professional license, something top Irish amateurs Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry – both from racing dynasties – never considered as their pathways.
However, the 31-year-old is now at the peak of her sport, thanks in no small part to a strong alliance with De Bromhead. This is her third straight year riding a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, with A Plus Tard and Minella Indo in 2019 followed up by Honeysuckle’s gritty Mares’ Hurdle win last March.
She’s a contender to topple Paul Townend as champion jockey in Ireland – a feat she will surely achieve in the future – but the modest Blackmore remains indebted to those that assist her.
“You can’t do it without getting on the right horses, and I’ve been extremely lucky in that sense, getting a link-up with a yard like Henry’s,” she adds.
“That is a massive part of every jockey’s career – being in the right place at the right time and getting linked up with the right yard.”
Living the dream
Her initial interest in racehorses was piqued when the young Blackmore ‘went to see Istabraq on a school tour’ from her home in Co Tipperary. Now she has emulated the great former Champion Hurdler with a display many well-placed pundits are ranking as being up there amongst the best the race has ever witnessed.
Blackmore’s first Cheltenham Festival win came on De Bromhead’s A Plus Tard in a novice handicap in 2019 when they blitzed the field. On Friday afternoon, that same partnership goes for Gold Cup glory, with the Cheveley Park Stud-owned A Plus Tard rated a 5/1 chance to dethrone Townend and Al Boum Photo in their hat-trick bid.
As she continually shows week in, week out in Ireland, Blackmore is a match for the champion rider and, in her eyes, they are just jockeys – with gender not part of the equation.
She said: “There’s no deal about it anymore, I don’t think. It’s not that I don’t talk about it, I just think if you want to be a jockey you can be a jockey – drive on.”
Having won the Grade 1 Savills Chase at Leopardstown on his last start, Blackmore will be hoping A Plus Tard can ‘drive on’ up the Cheltenham hill to help her win the sport’s most prestigious prize come Friday afternoon.