Minella Times out to turn National dreams into reality again

Minella Times will bid to make Henry de Bromhead’s impossible dream come true a second time as he sets out this season to try to retain his Randox Grand National title.

De Bromhead was responsible for a remarkable one-two at Aintree in April, with 100-1 stablemate Balko Des Flos chasing home the Rachael Blackmore-ridden winner.

Blackmore’s success was a major sporting milestone, in the world-famous race no female jockey had ever won before – and, of course, it was an achievement which followed her and County Waterford trainer de Bromhead’s phenomenally successful Cheltenham Festival.

Minella Times will soon begin to tread a path back to Liverpool next spring, even as his jockey is still getting her head properly round this year’s victory.

“It’s something that everyone would dream about,” said Blackmore.

“It is THE race, I suppose, and it’s still hard to believe you’ve actually won it – it’s incredible.

“It’s definitely a replay I love watching! It’s still hard to comprehend it all.

“I know that might be silly to say … but it was such an incredible day.

“It hit me just when we crossed the line. It was an incredible feeling and one that I’ll never forget.”

Minella Times produced a flawless round of jumping to claim the famous marathon by six and a half lengths, and Blackmore realised from a very early stage he was adapting perfectly to the unique National fences.

“He was phenomenal,” she said.

“I knew after jumping two or three fences on him that he was really going to take to them.

“When we landed over the last I still felt like he was galloping for me – he was picking up for me.

“I suppose one side of my head was saying ‘you’re going to win the Grand National, we’re going to win’ and the other side was saying ‘nah, something’s going to pass you in a couple of seconds’ so the feeling when you cross the line and you know that you’re in front is unbelievable.”

Minella Times’ 2021-22 campaign will revolve around repeat bid for the race, and Blackmore believes he has the credentials to emulate all-time greats Red Rum and Tiger Roll by successfully defending his title.

“I can’t see why not!” she said.

“He loved it around there, which is a big help. I’m sure Henry and JP (McManus, owner) will discuss his plans for the season, but he’s a very special horse to me.

“He’s such a genuine horse. He’s fantastic to jump – he’s been trained to perfection.”

Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore celebrate Minella Times' Aintree victory
Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore celebrate Minella Times’ Aintree victory (David Davies/PA)

De Bromhead is less bullish at this early stage, and finds it hard to envision how last season’s superb campaign could ever be topped.

The Irishman, who also trained the first two home in last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, said: “You dream of winning it once – I wouldn’t dare to dream of winning it twice.

“I’m not sure (how we follow last year) – I suppose try not to change too much. Keep it the same as last year – and then expect the worst, and hope for the best!

“It was all pretty surreal. Still now when I see the photos I suddenly go ‘my God, we won the National and the Gold Cup!’.

“It was just incredible, the whole thing, and we’re probably still waiting to wake up.”

Minella Times had never previously run over the National course, and De Bromhead was unsure as to whether his jumping style would suit the track.

He said: “I suppose you never really know – some people would say he nearly jumps too well, in the sense that he makes such a shape over them.

“You don’t really know until you go and do it. We made some makeshift fences here, and the first day we schooled him he was having a right look at them.”

Any concerns were quickly dispelled, with Blackmore and her partner expertly navigating their way around.

“It was brilliant, and he was giving them so much height, nearly jumping them too well,” added De Bromhead, whose third National contender Chris’s Dream was still in contention too when he unseated four fences from home.

Reflecting again on Minella Times’ performance, he said: “It was an exhibition – he jumped brilliantly the whole way, (and) Rachael was brilliant on him.

“I suppose the first round is survival, and they’re all still standing. To have three in it and three going out on the second circuit was amazing.

“Then you jump the Canal Turn, and they’re all still there – it’s starting to go well and it’s unreal.  Then unfortunately we lost Chris’s Dream, and we see Balko tanking away, but Rachael is cantering and winging fences. It’s nearly disbelief to me.

“I’m looking at (eventual third) Any Second Now and thinking ‘I hope he’s not going to come back and beat both of mine’. You’ve watched it every year for so long, and you can see how races can be lost.

“Rachael had kept plenty. She was getting in the right place – they say you need a lot of luck in the National, and I think we got that. Also, just the way Rachael was manoeuvring around there was incredible.”

Rachael Blackmore on the crest of a wave after National heroics

Rachael Blackmore is still struggling to comprehend the magnitude of her achievement after claiming Randox Grand National glory at Aintree.

The 31-year-old is used to breaking boundaries, having risen from relative obscurity to becoming one of the leading National Hunt jockeys on either side of the Irish Sea in the space of six years as a professional.

Just last month Blackmore became the first woman to ride the winner of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, aboard the brilliant mare Honeysuckle, and her six winners at the Festival saw her crowned leading jockey.

While those significant triumphs transcended sport to a certain degree, Saturday’s historic victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase has seen reluctant superstar Blackmore receive global acclaim.

“It’s still hard to process it all, to be honest. It’s been unbelievable,” she said.

“I was meant to fly home on Saturday night, but I missed my flight so I came home on the boat on Sunday and got home on Sunday evening.

“I genuinely lay awake in bed all night on Saturday. I was completely exhausted and got into bed thinking I was going to have a great night’s sleep, but I just could not shut down. I’ve been catching up on sleep ever since!

“I just couldn’t believe what had happened, I suppose. Your adrenaline would still be up and you’d be thinking about what was one of the biggest days of my life, so sleep just wouldn’t allow!”

Blackmore is well used to big-race success, but admits the feeling of winning the National on the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Times was different to anything she has experienced before.

Rachael Blackmore receives the Randox Grand National trophy
Rachael Blackmore receives the Randox Grand National trophy (David Davies/PA)

“It’s a very exciting race to be part of,” she told the PA news agency.

“I’d ridden Minella Times before, and he’s a beautiful horse to ride who jumps really well, so I was looking forward to going over the National fences with him.

“There’s a lot of anticipation in the build-up to the National. It’s so unique – 40 horses and 30 jumps. I suppose excitement was the overriding emotion on Saturday morning.

“You know very quickly if a horse is taking to the fences or not, and Minella Times absolutely took to them. After we jumped two or three fences, I knew he was really enjoying himself, and we got a fantastic passage around.

“Once you’ve got over The Chair and the water jump, you can kind of take a breath then as you’ve got over everything and you just have to go and do it once more!”

While Minella Times appeared to have victory in safe-keeping up the run-in, it was not until he passed the post that Blackmore let herself believe she had secured the most momentous of wins.

She added: “I could hear the commentator saying we were four lengths ahead, and I knew my horse wasn’t fading under me – he was going to stay galloping to the line. That is when I had the realisation that it might happen – and a few strides later it did happen.

“The feeling was just complete elation. It’s slightly different to Cheltenham – where you’re riding Honeysuckle in a Champion Hurdle, she’s favourite, and there’s a good bit of pressure attached to it.

“Going out in the Grand National, I didn’t feel any pressure. There’s not the same expectation, because everyone involved knows the amount of luck that’s involved.

“After Honeysuckle, my initial feeling was more relief, and then joy, whereas after the National it was complete joy straightaway.”

Rachael Blackmore could not believe she had claimed National glory
Rachael Blackmore could not believe she had claimed National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Usually so composed in a race and afterwards, Blackmore did not find it so easy to keep her emotions in check on Merseyside.

“I probably was (emotional) afterwards, but it’s the Aintree Grand National – it’s such a big race,” she said.

“That’s not to say they’re not big races at Cheltenham. But Cheltenham is four days, with extremely important horses running every day – you can’t really allow yourself to kick back on Tuesday evening and enjoy the day, because you’ve a very important day the next day.

“After the National, Aintree was done. I had a ride in the bumper, but it’s just different.”

Among those who have congratulated Blackmore on her National triumph are tennis great Billie Jean King and Ringo Starr, drummer with The Beatles.

“It’s phenomenal,” she said.

“We used to go on camping holidays to France when we were younger, and The Beatles would be on the CD player in the car.

“I grew up listening to them, so it’s hard to believe when you’ve got people like that sending you well wishes.

“I’ve received well-wishes from everywhere, and people are just so kind. I feel extremely lucky to be in the position I’m in.”

Unlike many of her weighing-room colleagues, Blackmore was not bred to be a jockey.

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham
Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

However, from an early age, the daughter of a dairy farmer and a secondary schoolteacher loved horses –  and the Grand National in particular.

She added: “I remember when the sileage was cut trying to get my pony to jump the channels of grass in the field – and imagined I was jumping fences at Aintree.

“The Grand National was the first thing that captured my imagination in the world of racing. It’s that kind of special race that captures a global audience – I never thought that I’d be winning it some day.

“I know I keep saying it, but it is genuinely hard to comprehend.”

Blackmore has certainly not had it easy, kicking off her riding career as an amateur struggling for winners on the point-to-point circuit before making the bold decision to turn professional at the age of 25.

Her career in the paid ranks got off to a steady rather than spectacular start, but she insists she never doubted she had made the right decision.

She said: “It took me a while to get that first winner as a professional, but I was no stranger to waiting a long time for a winner – they didn’t exactly come thick and fast as an amateur.

“There was never a moment where I thought ‘have I done the right thing?’, and that was mainly because I was riding a lot more.

“I was going racing nearly every day. It might have only been for one or two rides, but I was racing a lot more than before – which meant I was getting more practice and getting better at what I was doing.

“I received a lot of support. Shark Hanlon was my main backer then, and I wasn’t getting anxious because the winner wasn’t coming because that is racing, unfortunately.”

Not one to seek the limelight, Blackmore is nevertheless aware of her current position as a role model to potential jockeys of the future – whether that be male or female.

She said: “When I was starting off, I was seeing Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh achieving massive things. Seeing what they were achieving encouraged me and never made me think about gender – I never entered the weighing room thinking about gender.

“Hopefully that will just carry on now, and the same encouragement will be there for other people.

“We’re very lucky in our sport that it (gender) isn’t an issue. It’s the same with the likes of Hollie Doyle on the Flat – you’d be hoping that those things will all help.”

Blackmore is keen to pay tribute to De Bromhead, who himself has enjoyed remarkable success at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Henry de Bromhead and Blackmore at Aintree
Henry de Bromhead and Blackmore at Aintree (David Davies/PA)

As if becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same week were not enough, he also saddled the second in the Gold Cup and the first two in the Grand National, with Minella Times followed home by stablemate Balko Des Flos.

“Henry’s achievements are nothing short of phenomenal,” she said.

“It’s incredible what he’s done – it has never happened before. I really hope that angle of it is not forgotten.

“To train those winners in Cheltenham, and have a one-two in the Gold Cup, was incredible – and then to come out and have a one-two in the Grand National, it really is a phenomenal story.

“He’s an exceptional trainer, and I feel very lucky to be part of his team. He’s got a very good team of staff that work for him, and it’s a privilege to be part of the whole thing.”

Blackmore and Townend (left) are battling out for the jockeys' championship in Ireland
Blackmore and Townend (left) are battling out for the jockeys’ championship in Ireland (PA)

With Cheltenham and Aintree in the rear-view mirror for this season, Blackmore is relishing the challenges ahead – with the Punchestown Festival next on the big-race calendar.

She can look forward to plenty of high-profile mounts and potentially making more history, as a thrilling race with Paul Townend to be crowned Ireland’s champion jockey comes to its climax.

Theirs is a friendship and rivalry which dates back to Blackmore claiming a very first victory on the pony racing circuit when she was just 15.

“I’d say I rode in five or six pony races in total, and Paul would have been very accomplished at the time and the champion pony race rider,” said Blackmore.

“For me, it took a lot longer for the penny to drop. He was extremely good back then, and I was definitely not in the same league.

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore during the Grand National
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore during the Grand National (Tim Goode/PA)

“You wouldn’t think we’d be in the situation we are now if you look back at the video. If you had to pick someone to ride a Grand National winner of the future from that video, I’d say I’d have been about 500-1!”

She added: “The last four weeks have been brilliant, but you can never accomplish everything you want to accomplish in racing.

“Racing is constantly turning. We came back from Cheltenham, and that was brilliant, but a few days later we were in Fairyhouse for the Irish Grand National – then we were in Aintree and now we’re gearing up for Punchestown.

“It’s a constant, evolving wheel where you’re definitely enjoying what’s happening, but you’re also getting focused on what’s coming up.

“I suppose there’s pressure there to prove you are what people say you are. But at the same time, if pressure got to me I’d probably be in the wrong job.

“It isn’t really a job to me. You’re a very privileged person when you can do something you love and get paid for it.”

Although Blackmore’s focus is very much ending a remarkable campaign on a high at present, she hopes there will be time to celebrate this summer – once coronavirus restrictions allow.

She said: “The minute Covid has decided to cease and resist, there will be a party!

“We have a break at the end of June, so it would be nice to get away if we can, but I don’t think you can do too much planning in the current circumstances.”

De Bromhead reflects on ‘crazy few weeks’ following run of big-race victories

Henry de Bromhead is struggling to take in quite what he has achieved this season.

The Waterford-based handler dominated the Cheltenham Festival in winning the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase as well as saddling the first two home in the Gold Cup, before repeating that feat with a one-two in Saturday’s Grand National.

No trainer has matched De Bromhead’s achievement in claiming those three Cheltenham features and the National in the same season – not even the handler’s childhood hero.

“Vincent O’Brien was my idol growing up, so to be mentioned in the same breath as him is pretty incredible to be honest,” he said.

Henry de Bromhead with Rachael Blackmore and the Grand National trophy
Henry de Bromhead with Rachael Blackmore and the Grand National trophy (David Davies/PA)

History will remember Minella Times as being the mount of the first female jockey to win the National in Rachael Blackmore, but De Bromhead was keen to credit several others, too.

“A lot of the credit for him even being there has to go to Frank Berry (racing manager) and the McManus (family),” he told talkSPORT2.

“Frank first suggested it at Christmas after the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown. I’d rung to say we’d entered for the Thyestes, but Frank said we should look at the National, so he deserves a lot of credit.

“We decided then that some of the staying chases could be slogs in the winter, so we dropped back to two-five at Leopardstown in February and again he ran a cracker, but it was frustrating to get beaten.

“The two questions marks with the National if you haven’t done it before are the trip and how they take to the fences, but Rachael knew after the second he took to it like a duck to water.”

Minella Times and Balko Des Flos (orange) fight it out after the last
Minella Times and Balko Des Flos (orange) fight it out after the last (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

While the formbook suggested Minella Times had leading claims, Balko Des Flos’ best days were seemingly behind him, but De Bromhead was not surprised to see the 100-1 shot run an excellent race to chase home his stablemate.

“When Balko came upsides with Aidan (Coleman) – he was a class horse who had lost his way, but had been showing up well at home. We’d done a few cross country things with him at home and he was loving that. Rachael thought he was going great at Cheltenham until he unseated her. Aidan was brilliant on him as well,” he said.

“We took Balko to the local cross country course in Ballinamona, which is a brilliant set up, and he just came alive. I wasn’t planning on going that route with him.”

With the Punchestown Festival now on the horizon, De Bromhead and Blackmore will barely get time to take in what they have achieved, but the two have emerged as major forces this season.

“It’s crazy, the last few weeks. If I’d just won the Champion Hurdle, I’d be using the same words (as winning the Gold Cup, Champion and National). I was pretty emotional on Saturday,” said De Bromhead.

“Rachael does the analysis of the races, that’s her thing. I just try to have the horses as right as I can. Obviously I ask her what she thinks before a race and I genuinely go with it, unless I have a strong view on something.

“It’s not just us, the team that works with us at home are brilliant as well – there are so many parts to it all. And we have brilliant clients as well, buying all these good horses. There’s a lot to it.

“Day-to-day Rachael does the analysis, though. It’s taken me a while to let go and before I’d have been more forthright in my views, but as you get more and more confidence in each other, she tells me how she thinks it will work out. Like all top jockeys, they seem to know what the others will be doing.

“She’s breaking all the records, no one deserves it more. She plays down the male-female thing as she’s just a high-class jockey, but she’s the one who is doing it. She’s bringing new people into the sport every day. She deserves it and we’re delighted to be along for the ride.”

ITV records peak of 8.8 million viewers for historic Grand National

An audience of 8.8 million tuned in to watch Rachael Blackmore make history when she became the first woman to win the Grand National on Saturday, the second-highest for ITV since it took over coverage of the world’s greatest steeplechase.

Although higher than in 2017 and 2018, the figure – which saw an audience share of 31.8 per cent – is down on the last running in 2019, when a peak of 9.6m (with a 39 per cent share) was reached for the big race.

The showpiece Aintree meeting began on Thursday, with an average viewing figure of over a million witnessing Clan Des Obeaux take the Betway Bowl and Abacadabras win the Betway Aintree Hurdle.

That figure is a record high for the opening day of the fixture since records began, with the coverage then moving across from ITV to ITV4 following the announcement of the Prince Philip’s death on Friday morning.

The ITV racing outdoor studio
The ITV racing outdoor studio (David Davies/PA)

Friday’s audience reached 900,000 as Livelovelaugh took the Randox Topham Chase over the National fences, before the following day’s Opening Show drew in more viewers than ever as 400,000 watched the programme – an increase of 100,000 on 2019.

Over on social media, the hashtag #ITVRacing reached over 122 million users, with videos from the meeting viewed over two million times.

Some 500,000 minutes of ITV social content were consumed during the fixture, with the most-watched moment inevitably Blackmore’s groundbreaking triumph.

Minella Times, ridden by Rachael Blackmore, wins the Randox Grand National
Minella Times, ridden by Rachael Blackmore, wins the Randox Grand National (Tim Goode/PA)

Dickon White, who runs Aintree as regional director for Jockey Club Racecourses in the north west, said: “The ITV team has done a superb job over the three days of the Randox Grand National Festival once again.

“We all needed to adapt following the sad news of the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and they did so while ensuring our sport received the best showcase possible thanks to their quality production and presentation.

“Minella Times, Rachael Blackmore and Henry de Bromhead have given us a story for the ages and I’m grateful that ITV have helped to ensure it inspires people across our society that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, if you have a dream you should go for it.”

The aftermath among bookmakers includes Blackmore’s winning mount, Minella Times, being priced up as 20-1 joint-favourite with Coral for a repeat victory in 2022.

Any Second Now, third this year, is the other 20-1 market leader, with dual winner, Tiger Roll, 33-1 to join Red Rum as a three time National winner after connections chose not to run their charge in the latest renewal.

“Tiger Roll’s best chance of becoming only the second horse to win three Grand Nationals may well have passed, but as it turned out, his absence from Saturday’s race was barely noticed, as Rachael Blackmore and Minella Times delivered one of the greatest results in sporting history, never mind just in horseracing,” said Coral’s David Stevens.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates with the trophy
Rachael Blackmore celebrates with the trophy (Tim Goode/PA)

“The pair were an extremely popular choice with punters on what is always a unique day for the betting industry – as we expected them to be – but nationwide gambles on the likes of Takingrisks, Mister Malarky and Definitly Red went astray, which softened the blow of the payout on the winner,” added Stevens.

“Favourite Cloth Cap was another well-backed runner, but as we saw with Tiger Roll two years ago, despite taking a huge volume of bets on the horse, at the relatively short odds he was, and with the spread of money across the board that we see on this day, Tom Scudamore’s mount was never a bad result in the book,” said Stevens.

Betting shops were closed for the National, but are set to reopen on Monday in line with the latest easing of lockdown restrictions.

Stevens added: “With activity restricted to online, turnover was well in line with our expectations, and should have topped £100m across the industry, but we’ll be pleased to see betting shops open again for the 2022 National.

“As for the payout on Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore, yes it was significant, but worth every penny in terms of the positive publicity the victory has garnered for the sport.”

Enormity of historic National triumph still sinking in for De Bromhead

Henry de Bromhead was still on cloud nine on Sunday morning after saddling the one-two in Saturday’s Randox Grand National at Aintree.

Fresh from becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same week at the Cheltenham Festival, Minella Times provided the Knockeen handler with National glory, while stablemate Balko Des Flos filled the runner-up spot.

Just as he did after arriving home from Cheltenham, De Bromhead is required to quarantine for five days under Covid-19 protocols – giving him plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of his achievements – and those of Rachael Blackmore.

He said: “We got home safe ad sound last night and I’ve got a big smile on my face this morning, that’s for sure.

“It’s incredible – unreal. It’s hard to take it all in, to be honest. Hopefully it will sink in eventually.

“It’s a shame we can’t celebrate it properly, but isn’t it great it was all able to go ahead?”

De Bromhead’s remarkable success has been somewhat overshadowed by Blackmore, who became the first woman in history to ride the winner of the National – just as she was in the Champion Hurdle with the brilliant mare Honeysuckle.

The trainer has nothing but praise for his stable jockey, adding: “I’m absolutely delighted for Rachael. It’s brilliant for her and no one deserves it more.”

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore on their way to National glory
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore on their way to National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Minella Times, Balko Des Flos and Chris’s Dream – who unseated his rider four from home in the Grand National – were all reported to have returned to Ireland in good shape.

The winner appears unlikely to run again this season.

De Bromhead said: “They’re all home and the three of them seem great.

“I haven’t spoken to anyone yet regarding plans, but I’d be surprised (if he runs again this season).”

Owner JP McManus was winning the Grand National for a second time following the 2010 success of Don’t Push It, who famously provided 20-times champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy with his first and only victory in the race.

McManus’ racing manager, Frank Berry said: “It was a fantastic day and a great performance by Rachael and Minella Times. All credit to Henry and his team for producing the horse fit and well.

“I’m thrilled for JP and the whole family. It was a special occasion, with Rachael riding the winner – it’s a bit of history.

“Rachael has done it the hard way. She came from the bottom up and has worked really hard. It’s great to see her getting on good horses now and she’s delivering the goods.”

On future plans for Minella Times, Berry added: “You won’t see him again this year. He’ll have a good summer in Martinstown and we’ll plan next year’s campaign for him after that.

“It (next year’s Grand National) is a long time away, but you’d love to think he’ll be back there again.”

The best-fancied of seven McManus-owned runners in the 40-strong field was the Ted Walsh-trained Any Second Now, who ran a fine race to finish third after being badly hampered by the fall of Double Shuffle at the 12th fence.

Berry said: “He ran an absolute blinder. He got caught up with a faller and Mark (Walsh) gave him a wonderful ride to nurse him back into the race.

“That’s the joys of the National. You need a bit of luck on the day.”

Aintree in pictures

Rachael Blackmore made history at Aintree when becoming the first ever female jockey to win the Grand National.

Riding the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Times, Blackmore’s triumph topped a stellar day’s racing as the famous meeting culminated memorably.

Here, the PA news agency tells the story of 2021 Grand National day in pictures:

Hometown Boy survives an error at the last to take the EFT Systems Handicap Hurdle for Ciaran Gethings and Stuart Edmunds
Hometown Boy survives an error at the last to take the opening EFT Systems Handicap Hurdle for Ciaran Gethings and Stuart Edmunds (Tim Goode/PA)

My Drogo looks a hugely exciting prospect as he wins the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle for Harry and Dan Skelton
My Drogo looks a hugely exciting prospect as he wins the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle for Harry and Dan Skelton (Tim Goode/PA)

Shishkin clearing a fence on the way to victory in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase
Shishkin clearing a fence on the way to victory in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase (Tim Goode/PA)

Thyme Hill surging towards the line to win the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle for Tom O'Brien and Philip Hobbs
Thyme Hill surges towards the line to win the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle for Tom O’Brien and Philip Hobbs (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The 2021 Grand National field shortly after the start
The 2021 Grand National field shortly after the start (Tim Goode/PA)

Minella Times, ridden by Rachael Blackmore, clears the last before winning the Randox Grand National
Minella Times (right), ridden by Rachael Blackmore, clears the last before winning the Randox Grand National (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore cross the line to win the 2021 Grand National
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore cross the line to win the 2021 Grand National (Tim Goode/PA)

The first ever female winner of the Grand National - Rachael Blackmore
The first ever female jockey to win the Grand National – Rachael Blackmore (Tim Goode/PA)

Unstoppable Blackmore raises bar again at Aintree

For those who decided to look beyond Rachael Blackmore in the Randox Grand National, thinking she surely could not top what she achieved at Cheltenham – it was time to rip up their tickets.

As much as Blackmore does not like talking about the barriers she is currently smashing down in National Hunt racing, they simply cannot be ignored.

Many thought that being crowned leading jockey at the pre-eminent Festival in the Cotswolds had to be the ceiling of an incredible season, but at Aintree there was even more to come.

As soon as it became apparent a few weeks ago that Minella Times – trained by her close ally Henry de Bromhead – was going to be her National mount, his price began to collapse.

Sent off a well-fancied 11-1 chance, there was no doubt who carried the ‘housewives’ favourite’ tag into the race this year.

Just about the only thing Blackmore got wrong at Cheltenham, though, was her choice of what to ride in the Gold Cup when she plumped for A Plus Tard over another Minella, Minella Indo.

Just as happened last month, De Bromhead runners finished first and second in the big race – but there was surely a penny or two for Blackmore’s thoughts at the second-last when she looked across and saw Aidan Coleman travelling ominously well on Balko Des Flos.

Blackmore had been unseated from the 2018 Ryanair winner in the cross-country chase at Cheltenham – and despite his 100-1 odds, she told everyone who would listen that he would outrun those.

She even got that right.

Thankfully for her, and no doubt the organisers, she was nonetheless on the right one this time as Minella Times stayed on powerfully to win by six and a half lengths.

History in the making as Rachael Blackmore crosses the line
History in the making as Rachael Blackmore crosses the line (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“I am so lucky to be riding these horses for Henry. This is so massive. I had such a beautiful passage around,” said Blackmore.

“Minella Times jumped fantastically and didn’t miss a beat anywhere. I couldn’t believe it, jumping the second-last – I don’t know, it’s just incredible.

“When I hit the rail and I heard I was four lengths in front, I knew he was going to gallop to the line, but we all know what can happen on the run-in here. When I crossed the line, I don’t know how I felt – it’s incredible.”

She added: “This is the Aintree Grand National. I’m completely blown away.

“I’m so lucky to be riding these horses for Henry de Bromhead. He trained a one-two there, which is incredible. That can’t be forgotten in the whole scheme of things.

“It’s great to win it in these colours, too. It’s always a privilege to ride for JP McManus, and to win it for him is unbelievable. They’ve had a tough year, so hopefully this can make things a little easier.

“This is a massive deal for me personally, not the fact I’m a female. The thing that hit me when I crossed the line was that I’d won the National, not that I’m the first female to win the National. I’m just delighted.”

While Blackmore will quite rightly take the plaudits for creating more history, a word or few are due for De Bromhead’s achievements this season as well.

He has saddled the first two home in the Grand National and Gold Cup, as well as winning the Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle and the Champion Chase with Put The Kettle On.

There is just one more frontier for Blackmore to cross. She is currently 10 winners behind Paul Townend in the race to be Ireland’s champion jockey – with her rival and current title-holder on the sidelines for an indefinite period following a foot injury.

Should she reel him in and become champion, surely any talk of her gender will be set aside for good.

Sir Anthony McCoy certainly knows a thing or two about being champion – and winning the National, partnering Don’t Push It in the same colours in 2010.

McCoy is still closely attached to McManus and he heaped praise on Blackmore and her achievements, saying: “Look it’s a brilliant thing for horse racing that she’s won. She’s an amazing rider and she proved that at Cheltenham, but to win the biggest horse race in the world is great for the sport.

“It’s great for her, but it’s brilliant for the sport as well. It gives every young girl hope of winning the biggest race in the world and winning any race for that matter – she can do it all.

“It’s a brilliant achievement and JP will be delighted. To win this race is very special and for her to do it on one of his horses is great.”

Rachael Blackmore – the undisputed queen of racing

Rachael Blackmore penned another remarkable piece of racing history as her Grand National triumph on Minella Times outshone even her Cheltenham Festival heroics.

In the space of less than a month, Blackmore has ridden a wave – and a succession of brilliant horses too, of course – which will ensure her household-name status for generations to come.

As the first female jockey to win the Grand National – and the Champion Hurdle, and to be top rider at the Cheltenham Festival – she will be the default, and almost certainly correct, answer to a raft of racing trivia questions stretching long into the future.

Blackmore had long ago proved her capabilities in the saddle. But first her four glorious days in the Cotswolds and then her exemplary voyage down the inner-most tract of Aintree, and perfectly-timed challenge, on Minella Times have demonstrated her full repertoire.

Tactically astute and as strong as any in the finish, she is the complete package who has smashed the boundaries for women in racing with her virtuoso performances in Gloucestershire, on Merseyside and pretty much every racecourse she has ever visited.

Daughter of a dairy farmer and a school teacher, Blackmore could appear to some as an accidental trailblazer.

Just the second woman to hold a professional licence in Irish National Hunt racing, her star has been firmly in the ascendant since she took the plunge and made the switch from the amateur ranks in March 2015.

She had ponies as a child in County Tipperary, but did not hail from a racing family – and after harbouring early hopes of being a vet, she eventually gained a degree in equine science, combining her studies with riding out and competing as an amateur.

Blackmore rode her first winner for John ‘Shark’ Hanlon at Thurles in February 2011, and it was he who encouraged her to make the leap – providing her with a first professional victory too at Clonmel on September 3, 2015.

That short-head triumph for Most Honourable in the lowly Woodrooff Handicap Hurdle was to prove the springboard for what has become an exceptional career.

A first major success came aboard Abolitionist in the 2017 Leinster National Handicap Chase – a season which also saw Blackmore become the first female champion conditional rider in Ireland, with 32 winners to her credit.

Lucy Alexander had completed the feat in Britain a couple of years earlier – but with less racing in Ireland and a system which allows only amateurs to compete on the lucrative bumper circuit, Blackmore’s decision could easily have backfired.

However, it has been one-way traffic since that landmark title – with some of the best trainers in Ireland queueing up to make use of Blackmore’s services, resulting in the 31-year-old finishing in the top three in the Irish championship for the last two seasons.

A link-up with Henry de Bromhead – trainer of Minella Times and her Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle, among many more – has undoubtedly been her most valuable association to date, and the top trainer has had no hesitation in  giving her the leg-up on his stable stars.

With a handful of Grade Three and Two victories already under her belt, Blackmore first struck Grade One gold aboard Minella Indo in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham two years ago, giving her a second Festival win after her subsequent Gold Cup runner-up A Plus Tard had triumphed earlier in that week.

She had 12 top-level victories on her CV at the start of this year’s Cheltenham Festival – the bulk provided by supermare Honeysuckle – and duly added another five in the next four days.

Her three falls in intervening races demonstrated to anyone still in any doubt that her chosen profession is among the most dangerous any sport has to offer.

There was disappointment too at Cheltenham when A Plus Tard could finish only second to De Bromhead stablemate Minella Indo in the Gold Cup.

But Blackmore is as adept at picking herself off the ground, and setting aside the setbacks, as she is at going for the right gaps and judging the right pace.

Countless times this momentous spring, she has been required to reflect on the “surreal” or “incredible” sequence of events – and has done so with charm and patience.

The truth, though, is that her achievements are believable – the culmination of years of graft and masses of talent, as this quiet pioneer continues to dismantle one supposed glass ceiling after another.

Rachael Blackmore makes National history with Minella Times

Rachael Blackmore became the first woman to ride the winner of the Randox Grand National when steering Minella Times to glory at Aintree.

The Irish rider, 31, was top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival – where she won the Champion Hurdle – and crowned a fabulous season with an historic triumph in the world’s greatest steeplechase.

The writing was on the wall when she took Minella Times into the lead before the final fence, although she had to keep the Henry de Bromhead-trained eight-year-old up to his work as the famous Elbow approached.

Blackmore and Minella Times (11-1) were not for stopping, though, and galloped into racing folklore to win in the colours of JP McManus.

Balko Des Flos (100-1), ridden by Aidan Coleman, was second to give De Bromhead an incredible one-two.

Any Second Now (15-2) was third, with Burrows Saint (9-1) fourth and Farclas (16-1) fifth, as Irish-trained horses filled all those places.

An emotional Blackmore said: “This is the Aintree Grand National. I’m completely blown away.

“I got a fantastic passage the whole way. Minella Times was unbelievable, he jumped fantastic, I don’t think he missed a beat anywhere.

Celebration time for Rachael Blackmore
Celebration time for Rachael Blackmore (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He was able to travel into a gap, I seemed to have loads of space everywhere and you couldn’t have wished for a better passage. He was just unbelievable, he really was, his jumping was second to none.

“I’m so lucky to be riding these horses for Henry de Bromhead. He trained a one-two there which is incredible. That can’t be forgotten in the whole scheme of things.

“It’s great to win it in these colours, too. It’s always a privilege to ride for JP McManus and to win it for him is unbelievable. They’ve had a tough year so hopefully this can make things a little easier.

“This is a massive deal for me personally, not the fact I’m a female. The thing that hit me when I crossed the line was that I’d won the National, not that I’m the first female to win the National. I’m just delighted.”

De Bromhead said: “It’s fantastic. Rachael is breaking all records. We’re just delighted.

“Balko Des Flos ran a cracker and Chris’s Dream was going very well, but unfortunately he unshipped Darragh O’Keeffe four out. They all ran really well.

“It looked like Rachael had the race won at the last, but we all know how that can change. Any Second Now looked a bit unlucky with his passage and he started to come back at us and obviously Balko was staying on as well.

“Rachael got a great passage all the way round, a lot of luck on her side and he winged fences for her. It was brilliant.

“She knows the horse very well. We were unfortunate during the winter when having a couple of great runs and just getting beaten, but this made up for it.

“We put National-type fences together last week and it seems to have helped, but he’s such a brilliant jumper anyway. He was so good all the way.”

He added: “I thought I was dreaming after Cheltenham so this is amazing, it’s incredible and Rachael was unbelievable. It’s incredible to do it for the McManus’ family and we got a clear run the whole way.

“Of course you dream of winning this, but it was a distant dream. Anyone in the jumping game wants to win it, so I’m just so fortunate.

“Rachael is brilliant and we’re so lucky to have her, I think they broke the mould with her, what can you say?

“It’s a good partnership, you can see from when she joined us how we’ve gone from strength to strength. She’s just a fantastic rider and a lovely person to work with.

“I’m back on the ferry tonight so that’s something to look forward to!”

There was a sad postcript to the race, with news that the McManus-owned The Long Mile, who was pulled up, had suffered a fatal injury.

Bryony Frost, who was unseated from Yala Enki, was taken to hospital for assessment.

History beckons again for Rachael Blackmore

A first female Grand National-winning jockey looks more likely than ever this year, as three women are set to take their chance at making history.

Leading the charge is Cheltenham Festival heroine Rachael Blackmore, who was top rider at the season’s pinnacle meeting when winning six races – including the Champion Hurdle.

Blackmore now turns her attention to Aintree and will partner Minella Times in the big race, with the eight-year-old trained by her most loyal supporter and the man behind many of her Festival wins, Henry de Bromhead.

Minella Times has been ridden by Blackmore on his last three starts, with a win in a Listowel handicap chase followed by two runner-up spots in competitive large-field contests at Leopardstown.

Rachael Blackmore at the 2019 Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree
Rachael Blackmore at the 2019 Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree (Paul Harding/PA)

Having inevitably attracted plenty of market support, the JP McManus-owned gelding will provide Blackmore with her third ride in the world’s greatest steeplechase after two previous efforts in 2018 and 2019.

“I’m really looking forward to riding him – he’s had two very nice runs in handicaps at home,” she said.

“He seems very well, (and) his jumping technique is good.

“It’s a Grand National, and anything can happen, but I wouldn’t swap him anyway.”

Honeysuckle was a famous winner for Rachael Blackmore at Cheltenham
Honeysuckle was a famous winner for Rachael Blackmore at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Minella Times has never run at Aintree and will be tackling the unique course for the first time on Saturday. But De Bromhead has created some National-style fences and home, and Blackmore reports the horse fared well when introduced to them.

“Henry put up some Aintree-looking fences, a bit of spruce – he seemed to take to them well,” she said.

“His jumping technique has been good, so I’m really looking forward to riding something like him.

“He jumps and he travels. There’s plenty of unknowns over this distance, but we couldn’t be happier with him.

“We’re just hoping for a nice run round.”

Blackmore’s first National ride ended in a fall when she parted ways with Alpha Des Obeaux, but her 2019 tilt was more successful – steering Valseur Lido home in 10th place.

“I got around last time on Valseur Lido – I got a kick out of that,” she said.

“He was a fantastic ride. It would be great now if we could get a bit closer this year.

“I hope if people are backing me I can make sure they don’t go broke!”

Blackmore collecting the Cheltenham Festival leading jockey trophy
Blackmore collecting the Cheltenham Festival leading jockey trophy (David Davies/PA)

Blackmore’s earliest memories of racing involve watching the race as a child, and the 31-year-old has dreamed of success since then.

“I think every kid on a pony does (dream of winning),” she said.

“The Grand National captures everybody’s imagination.

“Any kid on a pony, out jumping anything that resembles a hedge, you’re thinking about the Grand National.”

Bryony Frost also rode in the National for the first time in 2018, finishing fifth on Milansbar for trainer Neil King in the same race that saw Tiger Roll claim the first of his two successive victories.

Yala Enki (right) and Bryony Frost in action together
Yala Enki (right) and Bryony Frost in action together (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

An injury ruled her out of participating in 2019, but Frost will be in action this time as she takes the ride on the Paul Nicholls-trained Yala Enki.

The duo have become well acquainted since the gelding left the yard of Venetia Williams before the start of the 2019 season, winning two renewals of the Portman Cup at Taunton and coming third in the Welsh Grand National twice.

A tilt at the Becher Chase in December did not go as planned, with the 11-year-old falling at the first fence over the condensed National course.

The jockey has schooled her mount over similar obstacles since that spill, however, and remains open-minded as to which ground conditions would be most suitable.

“It was not ideal falling at the first in the Becher, but we have done a lot of practice at home and we’ve let him see replica Grand National fences since that day,” she said.

“His form has come on soft, because he stays very well, but I actually think he jumps better off the better ground.

“There are two negatives and two positives to take from both sides of better and softer ground.

Tabitha Worsley
Tabitha Worsley (Mike Egerton/PA)

“I’ve just got to get him out there galloping, and at the end of the day a race like that is all about luck.”

Representing a stable a fraction of the size of Nicholls’ will be Tabitha Worsley, who takes the ride on the veteran Sub Lieutenant.

Owned and trained by her mother, Georgie Howell, Worsley’s mount was purchased for her to ride and is rated nearly 50lb higher than any of the five other horses in the yard.

“It’s a real family affair – my brother and sister-in-law will be leading him up together, and I ride him most days,” Worsley said of the set-up.

“We are a proper little family team, and just to have that support – all of us going there together – it’s amazing.

“I generally stay quite relaxed. It’ll be more excitement than anything else, but my mum on the other hand…

“She’s terrified but very excited as well. I don’t think we’ll fully believe it until we get there.”

Worsley triumphed in the 2019 Foxhunters’ Chase aboard Top Wood, an amateurs’ race run over a lap of the same course as the National, and is hopeful that Sub Lieutenant can recreate that winning ride.

Top Wood and Tabitha Worsley on the way to winning the Randox Health Foxhunters’ Open Hunters’ Chase
Top Wood and Tabitha Worsley on the way to winning the Randox Health Foxhunters’ Open Hunters’ Chase (Nigel French/PA)

“Anyone would dream of winning the National,” she said.

“It’s an amazing race, and I daren’t even think about winning it.

“Just to be there in the 40 horses, with the real top guns and the best of the best, it’s amazing – it’s what we’ve dreamed of.”

Sub Lieutenant was previously trained by De Bromhead and has form over the Aintree fences, having finished second in the Topham Chase at the 2019 meeting.

Blackmore was in the saddle that day, and both she and De Bromhead provided Worsley with some words of encouragement when they crossed paths at Cheltenham.

“I was riding out for Henry all of Cheltenham week this year, so I found out a bit more about him,” she said.

“He said he is such a fun horse to have about and he is a lovely horse.

“He said he can see him running a really nice race – so let’s hope he isn’t wrong.

Sub Lieutenant winning at Galway
Sub Lieutenant winning at Galway (PA)

“I asked Rachael about him when I was riding out for Henry, and she said if you think he jumps a normal fence well, then wait until you get him over one of those Aintree fences.

“She said he won’t travel between the fences, but as soon as he is in those wings he just lights up, so that filled me with a lot of excitement as well.”

All three women riding this year will be aiming to better the 2012 performance of Katie Walsh, who partnered Seabass to the highest-ever placing achieved by a female jockey when finishing third.

Walsh was thrilled to see Blackmore thrive at this year’s Festival, and would happily surrender her position as the race’s most successful female jockey.

“That wouldn’t even cross my mind to be honest with you,” she said, at the suggestion she might want to retain her record.

“I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’s finished the best place in the National – and personally I’d love to see Rachael win it.

“Rachael was phenomenal at Cheltenham, and it was great TV.

Seabass and jockey Katie Walsh (left) during the 2012 Grand National
Seabass and jockey Katie Walsh (left) during the 2012 Grand National (David Davies/PA)

“She was brilliant – take male or female out of it – she was absolutely super, and I suppose the picture has changed really quickly.”

There was widespread resistance when Charlotte Brew became the first woman to ride in the National in 1977, but the consistent presence of Walsh and Nina Carberry has made female jockeys a celebrated part of the race in recent years.

Now Walsh believes there is no doubt that a woman will lift the National trophy, with the only question being when.

“I was on Seabass in 2012, and people didn’t really believe it could happen, but now it feels as though it’s a matter of when (a female jockey will ride the Grand National winner),” she said.

“It’s a great day for whoever wins it, and it’s a great race to be involved in, so may the best man win – male or female.”

National destination to be decided for Minella Times

A decision may be imminent on Minella Times’ big-race target this spring – with a choice of Grand Nationals still to be made.

Henry de Bromhead’s improving chaser has attracted market support into 16-1 with Coral for next month’s Randox Grand National, after punters discerned that he is Rachael Blackmore’s most likely ride at Aintree.

Blackmore’s brilliant Cheltenham Festival performance – as top rider at last week’s meeting with six victories, including the Champion Hurdle – has inevitably increased interest in her plans for the Aintree showpiece, which has never yet been won by a female jockey.

Minella Times retains an alternative entry in the Boylesports Irish Grand National, which will be run on Easter Monday – just five days before the equivalent at Liverpool.

The eight-year-old’s target could become clearer on Wednesday – when there is another forfeit stage for the Fairyhouse race – but Frank Berry, racing manager for owner JP McManus, has stressed discussions are ongoing.

“He’s in the Irish National as well – we’ll make a decision on that in the morning,” he said.

“It’ll be whether he stays in the Irish National, or comes out tomorrow.

“It’s very much up in the air at the minute. Today, it’s 50-50 – we’ll decide in the morning whether he stays in or comes out.”

Minella Times is one of 17 possible Irish Grand National contenders for McManus – among whom however Time To Get Up, a decisive winner of the Midlands version at Uttoxeter on Saturday, is rated “unlikely” to take part.

Rachael Blackmore is Minella Times' regular jockey
Rachael Blackmore is Minella Times’ regular jockey (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Minella Times has yet to race beyond three miles. But in just three starts this season, ridden each time by Blackmore, he followed a Listowel victory by twice staying on well to be runner-up in valuable handicaps at Leopardstown.

“He’s run two good races in two very competitive handicaps,” added Berry.

“I don’t know about the (extra) trip bringing out much improvement – but he ran well in both of them.”

Time To Get Up proved stamina was his forte when he moved up to a marathon distance for the first time at the weekend, and has since been installed as market leader for Fairyhouse.

But Berry said: “It’s unlikely he’ll run (in the Irish National).”

Patience may be required too before the much-anticipated rules debut of another potential McManus star, Jonbon.

Midlands Grand National winner Time To Get Up is rated
Midlands Grand National winner Time To Get Up is rated “unlikely” to run at Fairyhouse (Mike Egerton/PA)

The powerhouse owner bought the five-year-old, full-brother to brilliant dual Cheltenham Festival winner Douvan, for £570,000 shortly after his wide-margin success in his only point-to-point at Dromahane last November.

Jonbon has subsequently gone into training with Nicky Henderson, and is entered in a bumper at Newbury on Saturday.

But the going is forecast to be good, with watering planned during the current dry spell – and Berry said: “He’ll be ground dependent.

“If it gets much drier I’d say you won’t see him there.”

The intention remains to run Jonbon this spring, however, when conditions allow.

“I’m sure it (the rain) will come back again,” added Berry.

“Nicky’s happy with him, (but) it will be ground dependent for Newbury anyway.

“He seems to have settled into Nicky’s nicely, and we’ll see how he gets on when he runs.”