Jumping for joy: Rachael Blackmore is on a winning streak but she's not following a masterplan
Runner up in this year's jump jockeys' championship, Rachael Blackmore is on a winning streak - but she's not following a masterplan. Here, Katie Byrne meets the trailblazer who says her success stems from a mix of luck and living in the moment.
It's been a year of firsts for Rachael Blackmore. The trailblazing jockey celebrated her first win at Cheltenham in March, steered home her first Irish Grade 1 winner in April and was well in with a chance of becoming the first ever female Irish champion jump jockey.
It's a remarkable winning streak - by anyone's reckoning - but the 29-year-old won't be taking a victory lap any time soon. The rising star of Irish horse racing is modest to the core - and determined as ever to keep a low profile.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
It's no secret that Rachael shirks the limelight. Truth be told, it took a little bit of persuasion to get her to agree to this very interview. She's delighted to talk about the upcoming Microsoft Cup - more of which anon - but a story all about her? Couldn't we just do a "small Q&A" and focus on the race instead?
Rachael doesn't share the reasons for her reticence, so we can only speculate. Maybe she doesn't want to lose momentum by slowing down to reflect on her success. Maybe she's superstitious - it's not uncommon in horse racing. Or maybe she just doesn't want to come across as a braggart…
Rachael wasn't born into horse racing as many jockeys are. The middle child of Charles, a sheep farmer-turned-dairy farmer, and Eimir, a secondary school teacher, she was brought up on a farm in Killenaule, Co Tipperary, where she was surrounded by horses and ponies.
Rachael was the most outdoorsy of her siblings. Her brother Jonathan (33) was more interested in computers and now works as a graphic designer in London. Her sister Charlotte (27) "got all the brains in the family" and is about to do a legal internship after graduating from UCD with a degree in law.
Rachael's passion was horses and her early experiences of Pony Club soon led to eventing, hunting and pony-race riding - or anything that involved a saddle.
Those who watched the documentary Jump Girls will have seen the footage of a teenage Rachael winning her first ever pony race. What made it all the more interesting was the person she beat by a nose: champion jockey-elect Paul Townend. Who would have thought that the pair would be duking it out for that title 15 years later?
Rachael can't remember the first time she rode a horse. "I think it's because I sort of grew up with it," she explains. "We always had ponies and you just grow up embedded in it."
Ask her about the lambs that she grew up with, however, and her memories are crystal clear.
"We had 300 sheep and there would always be lambs left over," she explains. "We'd rear them and then my dad would tell us that he was taking them off to the mountains - it took me a while to realise that the mountains didn't put money in your bank account!"
There was one lamb in particular that she remembers fondly. His name was Joey and, after getting kicked by a horse in the yard, he became "the definition of a pet lamb".
"Joey came to my Communion," she laughs. "We had a BBQ in the back garden and Joey was there in a head collar and a harness. I think I also wrote a very articulate poem about him when I was in about third class," she adds. "I think the opening line was, 'Joey, my pet lamb'. It was pretty intense…"
It's no surprise that Rachael wanted to become a vet when she was older, but her Leaving Cert results quickly put paid to that ambition. Instead she opted for science in UCD, before switching to study equine science at the University of Limerick.
Meanwhile, she was riding out for local trainers and taking whatever work she could get as an amateur jockey. She spent her weekends slogging it out in point-to-points, but the win she wanted remained elusive until John 'Shark' Hanlon got in touch.
The Bagenalstown trainer needed a rider for a ladies' handicap hurdle in Thurles and fellow jockey Davy Russell had suggested that Rachael was the woman for the job.
He was spot on: Rachael steered Stowaway Pearl to victory and chalked up her first ever racecourse win.
Hanlon's new recruit went on to ride 11 point-to-point winners and seven winners as an amateur rider but by the time she turned 26, she began to feel like she wasn't getting anywhere fast. "There wasn't an upward curve in my amateur career," she says matter-of-factly. "I was stagnant - if not a bit downward sloping."
Rachael had followed up her degree in equine science with a diploma in business studies and now, four years into her amateur jockey career, the prospect of giving up on her passion and getting a "proper job" began to look less like a contingency plan and more like her only viable option.
"I was at a crossroads when I finished college," she says. "I was riding out and I wasn't really getting on great. And I was getting stressed out in myself because I thought, 'I need to do something with my life now'."
Her "lifeline", as she puts it, came when Shark suggested that she turn professional.
Turning professional in horse racing isn't like other sports. Professionals and amateurs compete together and while some amateurs achieve major success against professionals, their physiques can hamper them due to the lighter weights required for certain races.
Amateur jockeys tend to be taller and heavier than their professional counterparts, so it makes more sense for them to stay in a division where they are confined to amateur-only races and given an exemption to ride in 21 races a year against professionals.
Take retired jockeys Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry: they stayed amateur for the duration of their careers - and they both won Irish Grand Nationals.
It was the very same logic that encouraged Rachael to leave the amateur ranks. At 9st 3lbs, she's a natural lightweight and this can prove helpful - especially when coupled with the 7lb claim [a weight advantage to allow for lack of experience] that a conditional jockey has up until they have ridden 20 winners.
To Rachael and Shark, turning pro was a "nothing to lose situation". But to other people in horse racing, it didn't make any sense at all. "I could see where people were coming from," she concedes. "It didn't seem like a logical thing to be doing, but I had the support and I had to try something new."
If Rachael had a strategy when she turned professional, it was probably to get as much practice as possible while avoiding injury.
She's been lucky in that regard. Apart from a broken nose, wrist and collar bone and "a bit of concussion", she hasn't sustained any major, career-altering injuries. Still, her mother worries, as mothers do. "I don't think it gets any easier," she says, "even Ruby Walsh's mother would be the same."
As for getting practice, she worked with over 90 trainers, including Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, during the 2016/2017 season and, with 32 winners in total, she came out of nowhere to win the conditional jockeys' title. Even more impressively, she's the first ever woman to do so.
The success led to much talk about the industry's proverbial glass ceiling, but for Rachael, there was no ceiling to break. Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry had already proved that women riders were every bit as good as men, she explains, and horse racing is one of the few sports where men and women compete against each other.
"I'd be extremely proud to be involved in a sport that is the way it is," she adds. "There is no hullabaloo about it from anyone inside the industry. I think we're all the one - when you're up on top of a horse, everyone is the same."
By the same token, she thinks ladies' race opportunities are important. It was through these races that she gained valuable early experience and forged connections with trainers. That's why she got involved with promoting the upcoming Microsoft Cup. The most valuable ladies' race ever to be run in Europe will attract a highly competitive international field to Leopardstown Racecourse, and they couldn't have a better local ambassador on side.
People in horse racing circles often comment on Rachael's strong work ethic (at one point she was juggling her degree, her diploma and her work as an amateur jockey), just as they compliment her finesse over fences.
The self-effacing jockey winces a little when this is put to her. She doesn't think she's working as hard as she was when she was an amateur jockey. As for finesse, she insists that she has plenty more to hone.
She offers a rather more pragmatic take on it. "The more you ride, the better you're going to get. The more finishes you ride in, the better you're going to get.
"When I turned professional, I got more rides, which gave me the opportunity to get better by simply riding in more races. Looking back on the season, I just feel very lucky to have been on the right horses a lot of the time," she continues. "All those things have to click into place for you."
She also feels likes she owes a lot to the people who took a punt on her. "I suppose Shark was the massive stepping stone I needed to propel into this career," she says. "The hardest thing to do is to get going and he gave me that.
"Every jockey needs support," she adds. "Some people get it earlier in their careers and some people get it later. A lot of it is being in the right yard at the right time. A lot of the lads get a break when the main jockey in the yard gets injured and then they step up to the plate and they prove they can do it just as well. I think there's a lot of luck in it too… and I think a lot of the lads slip through the cracks as well."
These days Rachael gets plenty of support from Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud operation. She's also enjoying a successful partnership with Henry de Bromhead. The Waterford trainer has given her the opportunity to ride some of his best charges and the pair's seemingly unstoppable run continued in Punchestown last week when Minella Indo followed up his Cheltenham victory with a two-length victory in the 3 mile Grade 1 Novice Hurdle.
Her agent Garry Cribbin is another powerful ally. He has kept her "nice and busy", helping her establish relationships with trainers and secure a sponsorship with BHP Insurance.
Then there's her heroes: the jockeys - male and female - who inspire her. Rachael was as surprised as everyone else when Ruby Walsh announced his retirement at Punchestown. "Ruby had everything," she says. "He ticked every box and invented a few more. Trying to ride like him, both physically and mentally, is something I'll always strive to do."
Her housemates are also the type of people that anyone in horse racing would want in their corner. Rachael lives in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow with boyfriend Brian Hayes, Patrick Mullins and Richie Deegan - all of them fellow jockeys.
Rachael is lucky in that she doesn't have to worry about controlling her weight like the rest of her housemates. She starts every day with a bowl of porridge and a generous spoonful of Nutella and she's never had to fast or sauna ahead of a race.
Building strength is important, though. She went through a phase of doing Pilates and she also does one-on-one training with Wayne Middleton, a strength and conditioning coach who works specifically with jockeys.
It's important for Rachael to be around people who understand what it takes to be a winning jockey, but what about the friends that aren't involved in horse racing? What kind of misconceptions do they have about the sport?
"They think jockeys are really small people," she grins. "Flat jockeys are, obviously, but they don't get that National Hunt jockeys aren't. And they always think you know more than you do. People think the jockey has all the information but they don't."
What about the pre-Cheltenham tip-hunters? Does the festival bring old friends out of the woodwork?
"Cheltenham brings out yearly friends alright," she laughs, before reciting the type of text message that she receives in early March. "'Hi, how are you? Haven't seen you in ages. Hope you're getting on well. Any chance of tickets, or if you can't get tickets, do you have any tips?'"
For the record, Rachael describes herself as "the world's worst tipster". However, she knows when she has a "realistic chance of riding a winner" just as she knows how to seize the opportunity.
At Cheltenham this year, Rachael took a realistic chance of success on A Plus Tard and turned it into a sensational 16-length victory. A few days later she followed it up with her first Grade 1 win at the festival - on a 50/1 shot no less.
In this year's Irish jump jockey championships, she once again defied the odds when she came second to Paul Townend, with Davy Russell in third.
She's on a roll, but in a industry where you're only as good as your last ride, she's not taking anything for granted.
"I don't really set myself any goals," she says, "and that's probably not a common line from a sportsperson. Obviously everyone is a dreamer: I want to be a champion jockey and I want to win the Grand National and all those things. But they're not things I would ever really think about or set myself up for.
"I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't doing this. I don't know what I'll be doing after this. I'm just living in the moment."
The inaugural €50,000 Microsoft Cup, the most valuable ladies' race ever to be run in Europe, will form the centre piece of Leopardstown's Ladies' Evening on May 17, in aid of Breast Cancer Ireland. See leopardstown.com.
Photography by Kyle Tunney