Rachael Blackmore must have heard on the grapevine that the 2021 Cheltenham Festival was holding out for a heroine – and she answered the call to game-changing effect.
This year’s showpiece meeting got under way, undoubtedly, at a highly vulnerable tipping point of public perception for the sport of racing.
It was against a potentially bleak backdrop that Blackmore shone a light with historic triumph after historic triumph – surpassing the achievements of hundreds of jockeys of whichever gender by winning the Champion Hurdle, four more Grade Ones and consequently the leading rider award, the first female to come close to any of the above.
She finished a mere second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup as A Plus Tard could not quite manage to haul back his Henry de Bromhead stablemate Minella Indo, ridden by Jack Kennedy.
Her spectacularly successful meeting will, of course, be career-defining – although plenty more glories surely lie ahead – but it is more than a personal triumph, because it has upended the landscape of possibilities, for female jockeys especially, when it comes to habitually riding winners on National Hunt’s greatest stage.
More perhaps than any of that, or certainly at least as significant, is that Blackmore’s exemplary timing has been in evidence not just in the thick of the action but in the bigger picture, at a moment when racing needed her like never before.
Doubts are still cast by many over the probity of holding the Cheltenham Festival with a near quarter-of-a-million footfall 12 months ago when the consequences at the start of a developing pandemic were unknown.
Those rumblings may never be dispelled – and yet, potentially damaging as they have been for racing, a darker cloud hung over the sport in the weeks before this year’s meeting as the lovers and haters struggled equally to comprehend an image which first stretched universal credibility and then sensibilities.
After Gordon Elliott confirmed the authenticity of a photograph circulated on social media of him sat on a dead horse, racing was aghast and beset by headlines calling into question its very being.
As the County Meath trainer began a year-long ban, the second six months suspended, the sport therefore got under way with its reputation hanging in the balance and its future well-being perhaps dependent on a feelgood Festival.
In the ongoing absence of crowds and owners, because of coronavirus restrictions, that was going to be no easy task.
But step forward Blackmore.
Her utter domination arrived in partnership for the most part with De Bromhead, who eventually had to cede the meeting’s top trainer award to the record-breaking Willie Mullins, but shared the limelight throughout as he marginally outdid even Blackmore by becoming the first ever to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup at the same Festival.
Blackmore fired her first big opening salvo when Honeysuckle stormed to a near seven-length victory in Tuesday’s Unibet Champion Hurdle.
She was only just getting started, though.
Next came two Wednesday winners, De Bromhead’s Bob Olinger off the blocks in the opening Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and Sir Gerhard rounding out the card in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.
Blackmore’s three falls to earth in between merely reminded one and all of how remarkable her achievements were becoming, and how dangerous jump racing can be – whatever the talent of the participants.
Two more winners on Thursday included a breathtaking performance from horse and jockey as the front-running Allaho dismissed his Grade One rivals in the Ryanair Chase by 12 lengths and more.
By the time the Gold Cup came round in the middle of Friday afternoon, Blackmore already had the Festival’s top rider award surely in safe keeping – although Kennedy made her wait just a little longer by pegging back the score, thanks to Minella Indo.
Blackmore’s celebratory post-race interviews had begun to have a glorious groundhog feel to them, if such a thing is possible.
She spoke eloquently and modestly throughout, though, about how much she owed those who had put her in position to keep winning Cheltenham’s greatest races.
In truth, Blackmore was the gift that kept on giving – and in 2021, racing could never have more reason to be grateful.
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