Rachael Blackmore recalls a school trip to Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stable when a young girl’s imagination and interest in racing was fuelled by a close-up view of the great three-time Champion Hurdler Istabraq.
It is a memory sparked as she tells of the letters she has received from primary school children writing about her and Honeysuckle.
‘It must have been on the school curriculum at one stage to write to your sporting heroes because I was getting a few of them for a week or two,’ Blackmore says.
Rachael Blackmore, the most successful female jump jockey, is on the brink of history
Riding Honeysuckle, she can win the biggest prize ever for a female jockey at Cheltenham
BACK RACHAEL TO BE A WINNER
- Honeysuckle to land the Champion Hurdle – 9-4
- Rachael Blackmore to be top jockey – 12-1
- Rachael Blackmore to have two or more winners at the Festival – 6-4
(Prices supplied by BetVictor)
‘These were letters from seven and eight-year-olds. They were learning how to letter-write. Some of the handwriting is a lot nicer than mine!
‘It’s funny when I think back to when my interest in racing was sparked. It was all about Istabraq then. It’s hard for me to think now that Honeysuckle means the same to other people, but when you are in the moment, or in a bubble like I am, it is hard to reflect on it.’
It is a full-circle moment. On Tuesday afternoon, the most successful female jump jockey ever will attempt to write her name and that of unbeaten Honeysuckle into Champion Hurdle history.
If the pair can overcome last year’s winner, the Aidan Coleman-ridden Epatante — another mare — plus eight other opponents, the victory will carry just as much significance.
When Bryony Frost won the King George VI Chase with Frodon at Kempton on Boxing Day, she claimed the biggest prize ever by a female jump jockey.
Tuesday’s Unibet Champion Hurdle — the biggest prize in hurdling — would probably trump it, as well as being the biggest win for a female jockey at the Festival.
After Honeysuckle won the 2020 Irish Champion Hurdle, there was talk of a Champion Hurdle tilt, but trainer Henry de Bromhead and owner Kenny Alexander opted for another Grade One instead — the less prestigious Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. She won.
But when Honeysuckle followed up a narrow seasonal debut win in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in November by easing home 10 lengths clear of Abacadabras to land a second Irish Champion, the lure of the big prize proved irresistible. Blackmore says the performance felt as good as it looked — probably a career-best — and believes Honeysuckle will bounce on to the biggest stage in jump racing an even better horse.
Blackmore and Honeysuckle will be a contender in Tuesday afternoon’s Champion Hurdle
The 31-year-old adds: ‘She gave me an incredible feeling and felt a lot sharper than she’d ever felt before. Watching it back, I am sure there were plenty of people who thought I was making a move quite early, but it felt so right.
‘She was taking me a lot more than she has done before — she was better, sharper. It was a fantastic performance.’
Significantly, Honeysuckle’s jumping, considered a little slow and careful 12 months ago, looked up to the most rigorous examination.
Blackmore adds: ‘Her jumping was never bad, it just wasn’t two-mile Champion Hurdle style. There wasn’t too much attack at her hurdles but she was doing that at Leopardstown. There will be no let-up from the get-go in the Champion Hurdle. You don’t want to be missing or slow at the third or fourth hurdle — that can be race over. You need to be sharp and on the ball with everything. I have every confidence in her.’
Last season Honeysuckle delivered Blackmore’s only win of the Festival, a memorable ride as she grabbed a ground-saving move on the inside rail around the final bend which helped her edge out great rival Paul Townend on Benie De Dieux.
But she admits she left the Festival feeling frustrated. Captain Guinness, who she rides in Tuesday afternoon’s Arkle Novices’ Chase, was still in contention when brought down two out in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle; Minella Indo was mugged by Champ in the final strides when looking home and hosed in the RSA Chase; and Monalee, her Gold Cup mount, was a strong-finishing close fourth after being hampered.
Blackmore (pictured winning the National Hunt Award in 2019) is targeting more successes
‘I went home extremely grateful that Honeysuckle did what she does best because winners are extremely hard to get at the Festival,’ Blackmore says. ‘But when you have the calibre of opportunity that I did, there are some things I did not like looking back.’
Her chances are stacked high again. They include Bob Olinger, favourite for Wednesday’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, and Eklat De Rire on the same card in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.
Then there is Friday’s Gold Cup. No female jockey has won that race and Blackmore will ride 5-1 third favourite A Plus Tard. He leapt up the pecking order when winning the three-mile Grade One Savills Chase under Darragh O’Keeffe at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting. Blackmore could have ridden old ally Minella Indo but her and A Plus Tard have history.
It is a far cry from the days when ‘just getting a ride at Cheltenham was a massive deal’ for Blackmore, who is again pressing Townend in the Irish Jockeys’ Championship, trailing him by six (90-84).
Schoolchildren write regularly to Blackmore and her postman could be busy if she wins again
She says: ‘There was a time I didn’t think I would even ride at Cheltenham, let alone in a Gold Cup where I have the choice of two rides and both having great chances.
‘A Plus Tard has been a very good horse for me and gave me my first Cheltenham Festival winner. He is a Grade One winner over two miles and three miles and a very classy individual. The last time he was ridden to get the trip, because it was a bit of an unknown for him.
‘I thought it was a very good performance and he looks to have really enjoyed the step up in distance. He is stepping up in distance again but a horse like him is only improving.’
If Blackmore is right, her postman is going to be very busy!