Rachael Blackmore’s Grand National win underlines Ireland’s dominance | Greg Wood
For the outside world looking in, to follow their once-a-year flutter on the horses, there was only one aspect of Rachael Blackmore’s historic success on Minella Times in Saturday’s Grand National which really mattered: two X chromosomes, rather than the one which tends to be the norm for a jump jockey. And a first victory for a female rider, in the 173rd running of the National and 44 years after Charlotte Brew was the first woman to take part, was certainly a landmark for the sport, and its many female participants in particular.
From the inside looking out, however, it could be argued Blackmore’s gender was not the most remarkable aspect of her win, nor the best measure of the scale of her personal achievement. She has always insisted she is a jockey, not a female jockey, and her performance on Minella Times was simply the latest in a long line of flawless rides that would have been the sure mark of an exceptional talent, regardless of whether it was a man or a woman holding the reins.
All jockeys, even the very best, ride a lot more losers than winners, while no jockey will ever be able to make a horse any faster, stronger or more stamina-laden than its genes decree. The horse, after all, is the main athlete in a race. The rider’s job is to maximise a horse’s chance of winning, whether it is an odds-on favourite or a 50-1 shot, and that is what Blackmore can do as reliably as any rider in the weighing room, if not more so, whether it is in a novice hurdle at a country track or a Grade One at Cheltenham.
Time and again, as they run towards the second-last, Blackmore is precisely where she wants and needs to be. It might sound like the kind of thing that any half-decent jockey should be able to do but it takes immense natural skill, intuition and split-second judgment to do it so reliably, while also negotiating a series of hurdles or fences along the way.
Blackmore’s ride on Minella Times was a perfect example, but only one among hundreds. In a race where luck in running will always play a big part in the outcome, and in which a majority of the 40 riders are looking for an early pitch near the pace and towards the inside rail, Blackmore was the one who emerged in Position A after jumping the first three fences.
From there it was a case of keeping Minella Times in a rhythm and patiently waiting for the right moment to strike for home while those in behind suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Mark Walsh had a torrid time towards the end of the first circuit aboard Any Second Now, when a faller in front of him at the 12th brought horse and rider almost to a standstill. In some respects, eventually getting his horse to within nine lengths of the winner, have probably lost at least that and more, was the best ride in the race.
But there was never any real danger that Minella Times would suffer a similar misfortune, because Blackmore had secured what she described afterwards as a “semi-circle” in front of her, to keep bad luck at bay as much as possible. It meant she picked her moment as the runaway leader Jett came back to the field two out, and once Minella Times was in front, there was little doubt he was going to stay there.
The late Ginger McCain, Red Rum’s trainer, suggested in 2005 that a female jockey would “never be able to win the National”, while Shark Hanlon, the trainer who supplied the runners to get Blackmore’s career going around a decade ago, said last month that some of his owners “mightn’t have been very happy” when he told them he wanted a female jockey for their horses. But they were happy enough when the horses started winning, and 17 Grade One victories in just over two years, thanks mainly to her partnership with Henry de Bromhead’s equally aspirational stable, had long since put the chauvinists back in their box even before her win at Aintree on Saturday.
Irish racing as a whole can also feel very proud after Saturday’s race, in which 10 of the first 11 horses across the line were from Irish stables. That follows on from a Cheltenham Festival where the massed ranks of British-trained horses – 60% of all runners – were trounced 23-5 by the visitors.
Whatever the reasons for Ireland’s dominance of National Hunt racing at present, and there are probably quite a few, it seems inescapable that while Britain has more many more jumping horses and races most of the very best of them are over the sea. Most are also bred in Ireland and the incentives that keep them at home include higher prize money per race, thanks to a funding system that sees the government take a direct interest in ensuring racing has the money it needs to prosper.
That, in turn, means more revenue from taxes on betting turnover, and the profits of businesses and individuals working in the sport. It also makes for an intensely competitive environment in which a rider’s gender, race or religion are unimportant if they keep delivering winners.
Blackmore was born with a rare talent for riding racehorses, and she has worked tirelessly for a decade to climb to the top of jumps racing. But thanks to Ireland’s approach in seeing racing as an essential part of the rural economy and investing accordingly, she has also been riding in an era, and in a country, when prejudice against female riders is not simply out-of-date. It can also be bad for business.