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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.”

McCoy and Walsh lead tributes to Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson’s fellow great jockeys Sir Anthony McCoy and Ruby Walsh led the tributes to the four-time champion following his retirement.

McCoy has repeatedly insisted he would never have set the records he managed in his career without Johnson pushing him all the way.

When McCoy retired after his 20 jockeys’ titles, it left the way clear for perennial runner-up Johnson to finally win the crown, and he managed another three before injury and the pandemic halted him in his tracks last season.

McCoy told Great British Racing: “On a professional level I probably got to know him better than anyone – and he’s a brilliant man to be around, a fantastic jockey and unbelievably competitive.

“He also has a great work ethic and is the fairest jockey you could ever ride against, so he has deserved all of his success.

“As I’ve said many times, having Richard to compete against for all of those years definitely made me a better jockey. But however good a jockey you think he is, he’s an even better person.”

McCoy also earlier tweeted: “Sometimes those who challenge us the most teach us the best.

“You did both to me for over 20 years – I will be forever grateful to you, thanks buddy. When you go home tonight, look in the mirror you’ll see what a champion looks like. Enjoy your retirement.”

Walsh made his admiration clear too.

He said: “What everyone knows about Richard Johnson is what an excellent jockey he is and what a great asset he is to racing.

“But what they might not know so much is that he is also a hard man, who has toughness and determination and an incredible pain threshold, as well as being a thoroughly decent human being.”

Johnson enjoyed many great days alongside trainer Henry Daly and still rode out for him on a weekly basis.

Daly believes it will be “impossible” to replace Johnson, who rode big winners for him on the likes of Mighty Man, Behrajan, Hand Inn Hand and Young Spartacus.

“It’s impossible to give a ‘quick tribute’ about Richard, I could go on forever,” said Daly.

“He’s been part of the fixtures and fittings here for 23 years. Every Tuesday morning he turns up – even when I don’t ask him to!

“His work ethic was unbelievable, and his attitude to the job was just incredible. It’s so hard to think of the right words that sum up a man like this.

“You will read endless quotes about what a nice guy he is, but that is because he is. I can honestly say in 23 years we never had a crossed word – which is astonishing because I’m a grumpy git!

“He never says no to anybody. It really is the mark of the man.

“I have a picture on my wall of when Mighty Man won as a novice at Aintree – where he was very good – and Dicky is up between his ears, that just sums them both up. They were a match made in heaven.

“People will say he leaves a void, but for Philip Hobbs and myself we won’t fill it – we will change what we do because of him. It’s impossible to replace him.”

Four-time champion trainer Nicky Henderson is another who is grateful to have seen Johnson’s dedication at first hand.

“He spent all those years in AP’s shadow, but if anything he has developed further as a jockey since AP’s retirement,” said Henderson.

“The input that he gives you is enormous, and his work ethic is unbelievable – he’ll go to Timbuktu for a ride. He’s tireless and a true asset to racing.”

Johnson’s weighing-room colleagues were also generous in their praise.

Tom Scudamore tweeted: “Simply the finest bloke and friend you could wish to have. When I grow up, I want to be like Richard Johnson.”

Aidan Coleman said: “Richard Johnson has been my hero from when he spoke to me on my first ever ride, can’t find the words to describe what he means to me from both a personal and professional point of view.”

Sam Twiston-Davies said: “Can’t believe the news, @dickyjohnson77 not just a legend but a hero to so many. Not just one of the best in the world, but also one of the nicest. Happy retirement #hero.”

Harry Skelton, who is battling to be champion jockey this year, added: “Words wouldn’t be able to describe how good a person Richard Johnson is. He is the ultimate role model to any human in general life, not just a jockey. Happy retirement @dickyjohnson77 #champion.”

Daryl Jacob said: “It’s been an absolute privilege to ride against ⁦@dickyjohnson77 throughout my career. A wonderful jockey and a real gentleman. Wishing him all the very best in the future.”

Jonjo O’Neill jnr, last year’s champion conditional, said: “The ultimate role model to anyone growing up. So determined, yet so humble and gracious.

“People like him just aren’t made every day. Strong as an ox, the ultimate champion. Just an unbelievable man.”

Professional Jockeys Association chief executive Paul Struthers added in a statement: “Dickie took over as Jumps President following AP McCoy’s retirement and has been actively involved in the PJA ever since.

“He is the nicest, kindest, most professional jockey I have ever had the pleasure of dealing with – and on both a personal and professional level, I am delighted he is retiring  from the saddle on his own terms.

“I cannot think of a single person who would have a bad word to say about him.

“Yet while there’s  a common saying that nice guys don’t win, Dickie has been at the top of his profession for close to  30 years – and only someone as remarkable as AP McCoy prevented him from being champion jump jockey more than the four times he was.

“He was the most amazing role model to other jockeys – incredibly professional in every aspect and a great communicator.

“Like so many senior jockeys before him, Dickie didn’t look out for just himself. He was passionate about the plight of all jockeys and was an excellent and active president of the PJA.

“He’s devoted himself to the racing industry and thoroughly deserves to enjoy a happy  retirement from the saddle with his family. We and his colleagues will miss him terribly.”

Old rival McCoy leads tributes to retiring Johnson

Sir Anthony McCoy expressed his gratitude to his old friend and rival Richard Johnson following the retirement of the four-times champion jockey.

McCoy has repeatedly insisted he would never have set the records he managed in his career without Johnson pushing him all the way.

When McCoy retired, it left the way clear for perennial runner-up Johnson to finally win the crown, and he managed another three before injury and the pandemic halted him in his tracks last season.

McCoy tweeted: “Sometimes those who challenge us the most teach us the best.

“You did both to me for over 20 years – I will be forever grateful to you, thanks buddy. When you go home tonight, look in the mirror you’ll see what a champion looks like. Enjoy your retirement.”

Johnson enjoyed many great days alongside trainer Henry Daly and still rode out for him on a weekly basis.

Daly believes it will be “impossible” to replace Johnson, who rode big winners for him on the likes of Mighty Man, Behrajan, Hand Inn Hand and Young Spartacus.

“It’s impossible to give a ‘quick tribute’ about Richard, I could go on forever,” said Daly.

“He’s been part of the fixtures and fittings here for 23 years. Every Tuesday morning he turns up – even when I don’t ask him to!

“His work ethic was unbelievable, and his attitude to the job was just incredible. It’s so hard to think of the right words that sum up a man like this.

“You will read endless quotes about what a nice guy he is, but that is because he is. I can honestly say in 23 years we never had a crossed word – which is astonishing because I’m a grumpy git!

“He never says no to anybody. It really is the mark of the man.

“I have a picture on my wall of when Mighty Man won as a novice at Aintree – where he was very good – and Dicky is up between his ears, that just sums them both up. They were a match made in heaven.

“People will say he leaves a void, but for Philip Hobbs and myself we won’t fill it – we will change what we do because of him. It’s impossible to replace him.”

Johnson’s weighing room colleagues were also generous in their praise.

Tom Scudamore tweeted: “Simply the finest bloke and friend you could wish to have. When I grow up, I want to be like Richard Johnson.”

Fellow jockey Aidan Coleman said: “Richard Johnson has been my hero from when he spoke to me on my first ever ride, can’t find the words to describe what he means to me from both a personal and professional point of view.”

Sam Twiston-Davies said: “Can’t believe the news, @dickyjohnson77 not just a legend but a hero to so many. Not just one of the best in the world, but also one of the nicest. Happy retirement #hero.”

Harry Skelton, who is battling to be champion jockey this year, added: “Words wouldn’t be able to describe how good a person Richard Johnson is. He is the ultimate role model to any human in general life, not just a jockey. Happy retirement @dickyjohnson77 #champion.”

Daryl Jacob said: “It’s been an absolute privilege to ride against ⁦@dickyjohnson77 throughout my career. A wonderful jockey and a real gentleman. Wishing him all the very best in the future.”

Jonjo O’Neill jnr, last year’s champion conditional, said: “The ultimate role model to anyone growing up. So determined, yet so humble and gracious. People like him just aren’t made every day. Strong as an ox, the ultimate champion. Just an unbelievable man.”

McCoy and Walsh heap praise on Rachael Blackmore

Sir Anthony McCoy believes Rachael Blackmore could “very easily” be a future champion jockey after she made history with victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

Blackmore became the first woman to partner the winner in the feature event on day one of the Cheltenham Festival, notching the 13th Grade One victory of her career aboard Henry de Bromhead’s exceptional mare.

She has finished in the top three in the Irish jockeys’ championship for the last two seasons and is currently in second this term, just six winners behind Paul Townend.

Blackmore’s efforts put her within striking distance of a riders’ title, in McCoy’s view.

Rachael Blackmore returns in victory
Rachael Blackmore returns in victory (David Davies/PA)

He told ITV Racing: “She walks the walk more than she talks the talk. I’ve often said I thought it’d be really hard for a girl to be champion jockey, but she could very easily be – she’s as good as any girl I’ve seen on a horse.

“She gave herself all the options there. She knew she was riding a mare that stayed well -she kept her out of trouble, she kept it pretty simple on her as a whole. She’s delivered on the biggest stage.

“She’s class. Obviously Honeysuckle’s a class mare, but we keep heaping praise on her – and rightly so. She’s bombproof, she keeps everything simple. She makes very few mistakes, she’s got it all.

“I really do think that if there was ever going to be a woman champion jockey, it’ll be Rachael Blackmore.”

The 20-time British champion also hailed Honeysuckle, who was making it 11 starts unbeaten under rules.

McCoy added: “That was great to watch. She’s a brilliant mare, brilliantly ridden. All those ones beside her name – she’s a proper champion. You can’t take anything away from her.”

Ruby Walsh, another great of the weighing room and a 12-time Irish champion, was similarly impressed with Blackmore’s ride – praising her tactical awareness.

He said: “It was magical to watch. Rachael was brilliant on her as well – tactically she did all the right things. It was the simplicity of it – she rode her wide, as she always does, and got a really good look at the first hurdle.

“It was simple to watch, but it was brilliant to watch. Race-riding is about tactics – it’s about doing the right things and making the right decisions. That’s what she does as well, if not better, than anyone else.”

Racing luminaries pay tribute to Frankie Dettori on 50th birthday

As Frankie Dettori celebrates his 50th birthday, leading figures from the world of racing have saluted his enduring talent:

Sir Anthony McCoy, 20-times champion National Hunt jockey

Tony McCoy (left) and Frankie Dettori at Sandown
Tony McCoy (left) and Frankie Dettori at Sandown (Tony Harris/PA)

“Frankie is like Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Mike Tyson and Tiger Woods – there’s just something different about him.

“I read a quote from a great philosopher, who said ‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see’. That is what Frankie is like – obviously there’s a lot of talent there, but there’s also that little bit of genius in him that means he can see things faster and better than other people can.

“With the exception of Lester Piggott, he’s the best-known person in racing. A lot of people can talk the talk, but not many can walk the walk, but he has – all around the world.

“Frankie doesn’t need anyone to say how great he is. He’s a brilliant person as well as a brilliant jockey – he’s got it all.”

Aidan O’Brien, record-breaking trainer:

Frankie Dettori winning the St Leger for Aidan O'Brien aboard Scorpion in 2005
Frankie Dettori winning the St Leger for Aidan O’Brien aboard Scorpion in 2005 (PA)

“Frankie is a wonderful jockey, he always has been. He’s a fabulous rider and a great fellow.”

Ed Dunlop, who teamed up with Dettori for big-race wins with the mares Snow Fairy, Ouija Board and Lailani:

All smiles for the Snow Fairy team following the 2012 Irish Champion Stakes
All smiles for the Snow Fairy team following the 2012 Irish Champion Stakes (PA)

“He’s been a wonderful ambassador, he’s a wonderful jockey and is a great person, There’s no-one quite like Frankie!

“He’s ridden Group One winners for us and for many other other people. And we all wish him a very happy birthday.

“He’s ridden Lailani, Ouija Board, Snow Fairy – who were all great horses for me. He’s hard to get hold of now, but we’ve loved having him riding our horses.”

American trainer Wesley Ward, who uses Dettori whenever he can, particularly at Royal Ascot, with horses like Lady Aurelia and Campanelle:

Frankie Dettori celebrates victory in Queen Mary Stakes with Lady Aurelia in 2016
Frankie Dettori celebrates victory in Queen Mary Stakes with Lady Aurelia in 2016 (David Davies/PA)

“I’m 52 and Frankie is 50 – he sure does look a lot younger than me!

“I hope he keeps going. He’s the greatest jockey in the world, that’s for sure, and has accomplished more than anyone.

“Long live the King!”

Peter Chapple-Hyam, trainer of Dettori’s first Derby winner Authorized:

He had to wait until his 15th attempt, but Authorized gave Frankie Dettori a Derby at last in 2007
He had to wait until his 15th attempt, but Authorized gave Frankie Dettori a Derby at last in 2007 (Rebecca Naden/PA)

“He’s a fantastic jockey who has stood the test of time.

“I think I used him as a 7lb claimer and I remember him winning a maiden on Dr Devious (in 1991).

“I was very confident Authorized was in good form going into the Derby. I suffer with panic attacks and anxiety, but the good thing going to Epsom was nobody wanted to speak to me as everyone wanted to speak to Frankie, so me and the horse could go there nice and easy.

“He’s been superb and age has certainly not stopped his ability – he’s riding better than ever.”

Ray Cochrane, Dettori’s long-time friend and former agent:

Ray Cochrane received a bravery award for saving Frankie Dettori's life in a plane crash
Ray Cochrane received a bravery award for saving Frankie Dettori’s life in a plane crash (John Stillwell/PA)

“It’s hard to believe he’s 50, although it does seem a lifetime ago when we first introduced to each other at Luca’s.

“He’s still doing well for an old boy! He’s a brilliant jockey and has been a great ambassador for the sport – he’s the best.”

Sir Michael Stoute, who has combined with Dettori to win big races all over the world:

Sir Michael Stoute hugs Frankie Dettori after Conduit won the St Leger
Sir Michael Stoute hugs Frankie Dettori after Conduit won the St Leger (John Giles/PA)

“Frankie has a perfect physique in addition to which he is a gifted horseman with a very competitive nature. It is a good mix!”

McCoy full of emotion following death of Pat Smullen

Sir Anthony McCoy struggled to overcome his emotions when paying tribute to Pat Smullen, who died at the age of 43 on Tuesday.

Smullen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2018, with his death coming exactly a year after the nine-times champion Irish Flat jockey persuaded McCoy to come out of retirement to ride in a charity race at the Curragh.

“He was a wonderful man. It’s very hard, it’s very hard on the family. It’s just a tragic time, it’s heartbreaking,” McCoy told Sky Sports Racing.

“We served our apprenticeships around a similar time. His was a lot more successful than mine was, so I’d known him a long time.

“Paying a compliment to him as a rider, he took over from as good a rider as I have ever seen in Mick Kinane (at Dermot Weld’s) and you wouldn’t have known. That is how good Pat Smullen was. You can try to think about races he maybe should have won – there aren’t any.

“It’s just horrifically sad. I spent a long time crying last night.”

Sir Anthony McCoy rolled back the years to ride in Pat Smullen's charity race last year
Sir Anthony McCoy rolled back the years to ride in Pat Smullen’s charity race last year (Niall Carson/PA)

Smullen convinced McCoy to take part in the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials in Ireland last September, and he rose to the task when making all the running on Quizical at the Curragh.

The 20-times champion jumps jockey beat other legends of the turf such as Ruby Walsh and Johnny Murtagh, on a day that helped Smullen raise over €2.5million for charity.

“It was very special,” said McCoy.

“I know he said that some of us were harder to persuade to ride than others, and it did take me a bit of time to think about it because I was a bit unfit at the time and worried about making a show of myself.

“But because it was for Pat Smullen and for such a special cause – there is no doubt it is one of the memories that will last forever in my mind. The Curragh was very special because of how the day went, the success and what he made of it. He raised the best part of three million in a very short space of time.

“It was a very memorable day and I know that he, having organised that, will have made a difference to people. It was a very special day.

Sir Anthony McCoy celebrates victory with Quizical
Sir Anthony McCoy celebrates victory with Quizical (Niall Carson/PA)

“He served his apprenticeship riding against Mick Kinane and Christy Roche. He rode with the best of them and learnt from the best. It showed what a world-class jockey he became.

“I looked at a picture this morning of a lunch in Leopardstown in February 2018. It was not long after that he was diagnosed with cancer.”

Quizical’s trainer Sheila Lavery is also finding it hard to come with the news of Smullen’s death.

“It’s just so sad and is too hard to put into words really,” she said.

“That was an amazing day at the Curragh and we all said at the time it was pure testament to Pat.

“It’s just devastating. We are all heartbroken. It’s pure despair that he was taken so young. I just can’t just begin to imagine what his family are feeling. It’s so heartbreaking.

“I think there were very few people Pat didn’t touch in some way.

“He was just one of those who treated everyone exactly the same way – the stable hands, or the owner, the trainer, everyone. He was just a really decent person.”

Pat Smullen with Sir Anthony McCoy and trainer Sheila Lavery
Pat Smullen with Sir Anthony McCoy and trainer Sheila Lavery (Niall Carson/PA)

Cancer Trials Ireland paid its own tribute the rider, hailing him “as a friend like no other” and underlining his “dramatic and unusual” degree of his fundraising efforts.

The charity detailed how Smullen’s work had resulted in nine research proposals this year that will be advanced or explored, that he had also helped raise €120,000 for ovarian and prostate cancer trials last November and earlier this year gave the go-ahead to fund a Next Generation Sequencing machine for St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin – equipment that could potentially open up treatment options for patients with all types of cancer.

CEO Eibhlín Mulroe and Professor Ray McDermott, who is Cancer Trials Ireland’s clinical lead, also pointed out Smullen’s contributions on a more personal level, making himself available for “interviews, photo calls, and phone calls – anything that might help people in a situation similar to his own”.

Pat Smullen raised millions of euros for charity
Pat Smullen raised millions of euros for charity (PA)

An open letter to the Smullen family concluded: “It is a mark of the man that he had such a wide-ranging generosity. Pat’s popularity – and humility – was and is legendary.

“It was truly remarkable, and inspiring, to see that these qualities can coexist with the drive and determination it takes to reach the very top of his demanding sport.

“Our thoughts, today and always, are with Pat’s wife Frances, his children Hannah, Paddy and Sarah, and his wider family.

“Clinical trials offer patients very real, tangible, important benefits – but they can also provide something as vital as it is intangible: Hope. That is Pat’s real gift to the people who come after him, who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“The outpouring of love and support his efforts have generated give hope to us all.”