Reluctant trailblazer - Rachael Blackmore eyes Cheltenham Festival success to cap stellar season
HAVING continuously swatted aside the question and deemed it idle talk in the early stages of the season, the likelihood of Rachael Blackmore becoming the first female champion jockey gathers momentum with each passing day.
Her pursuit of the Irish jump jockey championship has been much like the unseasonably dry winter - everyone expects it to pass in time but she's still duking it out with Paul Townend in a battle which will go down to the wire.
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Townend is a familiar foe as they met on the pony racing circuit many moons ago and she has fond memories of her first racing experience.
"I actually beat Paul, which was a big highlight for me as you can imagine," Blackmore recently recalled.
"It's quite funny watching the video back because he's so polished already - he's 12 or 13, and looks like he's going to be a champion jockey of the future - and I just look horrendous beside him. It's a good rivalry and good fun."
Much has changed with the Tipperary native - who is now as accomplished as any other rider, male or female, on the professional scene -but the visits to the winner's enclosure have remained frequent for the 29-year-old.
People often ask her what it's like to have her dreams come true, but record-breaking feats in the saddle weren't at the forefront of her mind.
"I could never even have dreamt of being a professional jockey," Blackmore said.
"It was so far from what I thought I could have ever achieved. Being a vet was what I wanted to be, but I was poor enough in academics - I kept failing maths - so that didn't happen, but I'm happy enough now."
The middle of three children from Killenaule, it's fair to say her successful foray into racing wasn't flagged, with her father a dairy farmer and her mother a teacher. The bloodlines don't fit the usual equine bill.
With an older brother working as a graphic designer and a younger sister who is a law graduate, Rachael is bucking a trend, but she also tried life as a student, sampling courses in UCD (science), UL (equine science) and Griffith College (business).
All the while she was riding as an amateur, with a far-fetched goal of making that pay its way. Her career was stuttering until she gave it her undivided attention aged 26.
John 'Shark' Hanlon had provided her with her first racecourse winner - Stowaway Pearl in Thurles on February 10, 2011 - on the recommendation of Davy Russell - and it was 'Shark' that encouraged her to become a fully fledged professional.
Having watched her take some crushing falls on "awful" horses as a point-to-pointer, Shark felt it was an easy decision to make and provided her with plenty of opportunities.
For Blackmore, there was "nothing to lose".
Success wasn't far away as she became the first female to land the champion conditional crown in 2016/17, but many expected a glass ceiling to be hit when she lost her claim and started riding at level weights.
The opposite happened, with Blackmore a reluctant trailblazer as she goes from strength to strength this season with over 80 winners already on the board - a total which would have sufficed to be crowned champion in both 2011 and 2015.
Amazingly, she is still without a Grade One victory, but she looks destined to be the first female to notch 100 winners in a season, with champion trainer Willie Mullins quick to point out that gender doesn't come into the equation.
"Rachael is a good jockey, she's not a lady jockey, she's a good jockey," Mullins remarked last year about a rider who is easily the busiest of her profession with over 500 rides already so far this season.
Blackmore - who shares a house with Mullins' son Patrick, as well as her jockey boyfriend Brian Hayes and amateur rider Richie Deegan - has an uncanny knack of getting a jumping tune out of her mounts and is rarely beaten in a driving finish.
In plain English, she is damn good at what she does and her partnership with Waterford trainer Henry de Bromhead has allowed the pair to flourish this season, most recently with a recent Gowran Park treble spearheaded by Cheltenham hopeful Monalee.
Her association with Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud has also been a fruitful one with plenty of weight put behind her in her title bid and she is likely to don the famous maroon and white silks at the Cheltenham Festival.
Given its standing as the Olympics of racing, attention will naturally turn to whether Blackmore can join the 16 female riders to have notched Festival success at the Cotswolds and she should have plenty of artillery to do so.
Lizzie Kelly, the now-retired Katie Walsh, Bridget Andrews and Harriet Tucker all struck a blow 12 months ago and as was evidenced in the outstanding TG4 two-part series 'Jump Girls', Blackmore will go above and beyond the call of duty to make her mark.
Recently described as "the Neil Armstrong of our racing generation" by Irish Independent columnist Patrick Mullins, Blackmore has a nice book of Festival rides, with De Bromhead providing the bulk of them.
Among De Bromhead's powerful team are the exciting mare Sinoria, Chris's Dream, Monalee and last year's Ryanair Chase hero Balko Des Flos, while her talent is likely to be rewarded with a host of other good mounts on the game's greatest stage.
Much like the jockeys' championship, it's all to play for heading to Cheltenham, as Blackmore's rise to the top looks set to grip racing followers in the most glittering week of the season, and for many years to come.