Rachael Blackmore is on the crest of a wave amid racing’s professional ranks
It's a man's world, but that doesn't bother Rachael Blackmore. In fact, she thrives on the competition - so much so, she will soon be credited as being one of the fastest jockeys to ride out their claim as a Conditional when her tally of wins approaches 60 in the coming weeks.
With only a handful of wins remaining before she turns fully professional, the 27-year-old is truly on the crest of a wave.
"And I just won my first race on the Flat. That's number 52," she exclaimed on the final evening of the Killarney May Festival last week.
Steering home the 14/1 shot Supreme Vinnie in the two-mile contest, it was another major milestone for the Co Tipperary native who last month was honoured as the first ever female to lift the Conditional Riders title with a tally of 32 wins amassed during the 2016/2017 Irish National Hunt season.
It is a title previously won by the likes of Jack Kennedy, Bryan Cooper and Robbie Power.
Rarely has a jockey turned from Conditional, apprentice professional jockey where they can claim weights, to fully professional in two years, but Blackmore has galloped through, despite suffering a setback that saw her out of the saddle for over five weeks last summer with a broken wrist.
It came on the final day of the Galway Festival, but, true to form, Blackmore had continued to ride for two more races after the fall before the injury was actually diagnosed.
There's no doubt Blackmore has nerves of steel, and little or nothing is going to get in the way of her carving out a successful career in the saddle.
"Some people said I should have stayed as an amateur but to me I wasn't getting to the level I wanted, so now I am glad I made the switch," she said of her reasoning to turn professional in 2015.
It was not so much by choice but by circumstance. Starting out as an amateur in her early 20s, it took her an agonising two years to finally register a winner on the track.
That win came at Thurles in 2011 on a horse called Stowaway Pearl, trained by John 'Shark' Hanlon.
This first encounter with the trainer ignited what would be a hugely successful business partnership between trainer and jockey that remains solid to this day.
Growing up on a farm in rich horse country in Killenaule - not far from Coolmore Stud - Blackmore was surrounded by equines from a young age and dabbled in such activities as Pony Club before finally making her way into racing circles.
"In the early days we always had horses at home on the family farm, as well as sheep, so I spent my spare time either looking after pet lambs or riding. The sheep are now gone and we have all dairy, but we still have some horses."
Not surprisingly Blackmore's bravery for jumping was cemented on the hunting field with the Tipperary Foxhounds, although her interests also extended to eventing and she competed at junior level with such horses as Fraser Duffy's former international partner Oakengrove Rainbow.
"I got a great buzz out of eventing and my father, Charles, still competes on one of Rainbow's progeny, Mortlestown Castle Master."
At school, neighbouring point-to-point trainer Aidan Kennedy gave Blackmore some of her early starts, and during the transition to college she often rode out for Arthur Moore, and later Sam Curling.
"I was struggling with maths while studying science at UCD so I switched and did equine science at UL, which I found a bit easier."
It was during her term at Limerick that she secured her first ride - in a ladies' hurdle -for 'Shark' Hanlon at Thurles.
"I had never met him before that day but it was great to finally get a win on the books," she said, adding that she then picked up her first point-to-point winner for the same trainer at nearby Horse and Jockey just four weeks later.
Hanlon was clearly impressed with this bright spark and encouraged Blackmore to spend her free mornings riding out from his base near Bagenalstown.
Juggling both her studies in Limerick and a night course in Dublin along with her racing interests was far from ideal. The hours were long, but Blackmore graduated with flying colours, and so was then able to fully concentrate on her racing career with much enthusiasm.
It wasn't all plain sailing, though, and wins were hard to come by. By late 2014 she had amassed 11 wins on the point-to-point track and seven under National Hunt rules.
It wasn't a disaster but, to an impatient Blackmore, it still wasn't good enough.
"'John Hanlon had been very good to me and had given me plenty of rides, but one day he told me he'd have more opportunities if I turned professional and was able to do lower weights."
Turning professional wasn't really on the cards, but if it meant more rides on better horses, she had nothing to lose. That transition began in March 2015.
Ever competitive, for Blackmore winning against the bigger boys took longer than she had anticipated, but within six months she had clocked up her first on board the aptly named Most Honourable.
As a Conditional jockey, Blackmore would have the advantage of being able to claim weights, which initially started out at 7lb. Within a year, that had been reduced to 5lb with an impressive 20 wins on the track.
Those who doubted her decision to turn professional had now been silenced, and Blackmore was clearly on a roll.
By mid-February of this year she had that claim reduced once again to 3lb when she secured her 40th winner at Leopardstown on board the Liam Cusack-trained Who's That.
Even more importantly, her dominance in the 2016/ 2017 Conditional Riders title was clear to see, and her lead was ever strengthening against her male rivals.
One of the biggest wins of her career had come at Naas when she landed the Ladbrokes Leinster National Handicap Chase on the Ellmarie Holden-trained Abolitionist, while Hanlon's Smadynium had provided her with the win in the Ladies' National in November.
Although unqualified to ride in the 2017 Grand National at Aintree, weeks earlier Blackmore had made a decent debut at Cheltenham when she came fourth in the Triumph Hurdle on board Ex Patriot.
Last month's Punchestown Festival proved fruitless, but it did mark the end of the NH season and her definitive win of the title, having picked up a whopping 32 wins during the 2016/2017 season.
"I know I've been very lucky this past season with some great rides," she said of her association now with over 90 trainers in the country, thanks in part to the hard work behind the scenes by her agent Garry Cribbin.
She is now on just over 50 winners and will lose her 3lb claim when she hits the 60 mark.
Given her late start in the professional game, one would expect that her job is about to get a lot tougher.
For Blackmore, though, it seems the fun is just getting started.
Late April signifies the start of the new showing season and last weekend exhibitors from around the country travelled to Thomastown in Co Kilkenny, a popular county show which traditionally serves as a wonderful venue ahead of the annual Balmoral Show which kicks off next Wednesday.