Sunday 19 November 2017

'I never think about being a girl' - Breaking glass ceilings is no big deal for Rachael Blackmore

The prospect of breaking glass ceilings is no big deal for Rachael Blackmore

Rachel Blackmore: 'There would be something wrong if I wasn't excited about riding a horse like Abolitionist in a race like that' Photo: Damien Eagers
Rachel Blackmore: 'There would be something wrong if I wasn't excited about riding a horse like Abolitionist in a race like that' Photo: Damien Eagers

Aisling Crowe

Rachael Blackmore is on the cusp of a truly remarkable triumph as the jockey looks to smash through a glass ceiling. Bidding to become the first woman to win the Irish conditional jockeys' championship, she leads her closest pursuer, Donagh Meyler, by five winners with 13 days remaining in the National Hunt season.

But she doesn't want to talk about it. All queries about the emotions that winning the title might bring are politely but firmly rebuffed by the 27-year-old from Killenaule, Co Tipperary. "If I do win the title then I'll talk and I'll be happy to talk, but not before then," stresses Blackmore, 27, who is an eloquent and passionate speaker when she wants to be.

For Blackmore, who grew up on a dairy farm with her brother and younger sister, gender quite simply does not impinge on her career. It is not an issue uppermost in her mind; it is not even something she occasionally considers. Like most of us, she goes about her daily work without constantly thinking 'I am a woman'. It is others, outsiders, who make a drama of her womanhood.

"Some people said that turning professional wasn't the best idea," she says. "I hope I have shown they were not right but I don't think the girl factor has as much of an impact as most people think it does. Nina and Katie [Carberry and Walsh] have achieved way more than a lot of jockeys - they both have Cheltenham winners and have won the Irish National - so they made it easier for me. They proved that girls can be as good as, and better than, the boys."

Despite her belief that gender is irrelevant, it is clear that others' perceptions may differ, and she has no desire to appear anything less than the hard-working, dedicated and committed professional that she is.

Michelle Payne spoke about the sexism she faced in the racing industry even after she became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, in 2015. Lizzie Kelly, the first woman to win a Grade One over fences when Tea For Two won the Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton weeks after Payne's breakthrough 'down under', continues to have her achievements undermined by those who credit her successes to family connections, even after Tea for Two and Kelly added a second Grade One triumph in a thrilling tussle with Cue Card at Aintree last week.

Blackmore feels she has not suffered through sexism; she hasn't encountered the ugliness that infects much of society in Irish racing. "I don't think about being a girl ever, it doesn't have any impact on me or my career. I don't find sexism here," she insists.

Her statement is supported by the statistics. Blackmore has ridden for 80 different trainers over the course of this season, male and female, in 338 races before today.

It was her boss, Bagenalstown trainer Shark Hanlon, who suggested Blackmore should turn professional. After finishing a degree in Equine Science from UL, which she had combined with riding out for trainers and competing as an amateur jockey, the world of work beckoned and Blackmore was unsure of where her future lay. In early 2015 Hanlon told her to consider turning professional.

"He encouraged me to turn professional as he would have a lot more opportunities for me if I did," she recalls. "So far it has been great, a very positive experience, and I am definitely not regretting my decision."

Although Walsh and Carberry are well-known and held in the highest regard, there had only been one woman, Maria Cullen, who had ridden over jumps as a professional. When Hanlon planted the idea in Blackmore's head to follow a very lightly trodden path, what thoughts went through her mind?

She pauses before replying: "I suppose I didn't know what to think . . ." Her voice trails off. "It had never entered my mind until then. I think I hoped that if I did turn professional my situation would be a bit better. I was riding in point-to-points most weekends and stuff but it wasn't going that well for me, I wasn't getting as many rides as I wanted."

Two years later she found herself riding in a couple of Grade One races at Cheltenham, finishing a fine fourth on Ex Patriot in the Triumph Hurdle. A long way from struggling to eke out a living from riding out and unsatisfactory weekends on the point-to-point circuit.

Cheltenham week started with the biggest success of her career when she won the Leinster National at Naas on Abolitionist for newly established Kilkenny trainer Ellmarie Holden. Her Triumph Hurdle fourth place was for Holden too. Blackmore has struck up a good partnership with Holden, who trains mainly for her father from near the family home in Ballyhale. Blackmore is well acquainted with the Holden horses as Paul Holden previously had them in training with Hanlon, until his daughter took out her training licence.

"Cheltenham was a great experience," recalls Blackmore. "I was a bit annoyed before the Triumph as Ex Patriot unseated me on the way to the start but to get back into the winners' enclosure there was brilliant. I had a great day at Naas before going to Cheltenham too, which was fantastic. It was brilliant to win a big race."

Her honesty and perfectionism are obvious qualities, which have served her well. Blackmore is reunited with Abolitionist tomorrow at Fairyhouse as they attempt to add Irish Grand National glory to their Leinster success of last month. It is Blackmore's first time to compete in the Easter highlight and this is something she has no compunctions speaking about.

"The Irish National is a big handicap with 30 runners, so anything can happen in the race. I am excited about the race - there would be something wrong if I wasn't excited about riding a horse like Abolitionist in a race like that. He was very impressive at Naas and the ground [tomorrow] should be a bit nicer than it was that day, which will suit him. I worked him on the Old Vic [gallop on the Curragh] on Tuesday and rode him at home on Thursday and he is going well."

Blackmore and Holden were not the only people impressed by Abolitionist's Naas victory and he is third favourite to continue the upward trajectory of the trio and add another famous chapter to the legend of this storied race.

Before the tapes come up tomorrow Blackmore has a busy schedule of rides at Cork this afternoon, starting with Look Closer in the opening maiden hurdle at 2.0 for Holden. The pair finished second, beaten by a head, on their last start at Fairyhouse. Then she rides Goaheadmakemyday for Tom Foley, trainer of the beloved Danoli, in the mares' maiden hurdle.

After that Static Jack makes his chasing debut in the 3.35 Beginners' chase, while Lachares contests the day's feature, the Grade B Easter Handicap Hurdle. Blackmore still has two more races to contest, partnering Jump For Dough in the three-mile maiden hurdle at 4.45 before rounding off the day on Emma Beag for trainer Liz Doyle in the handicap hurdle over three miles.

"I think Lachares has a lively chance, he has won his last two races [both times ridden by Blackmore] and he gets into this race off a lovely weight. Hopefully he can reproduce the form of his latest win at Limerick," she adds.

Tomorrow is all about Abolitionist but Blackmore permits herself a glimpse at Tuesday's card and the inaugural running of the Ladies' National, in which she has a chance of success for the man who steered her on her current course.

"I ride Smadynium for Shark in the Ladies' National and I'm really looking forward to the race. It is great to be a part of it and I think we should go close."

As for tomorrow's race? On this subject she speaks, just a little: "I would love to be walking back into the winners' enclosure after winning the National."

Victory by victory, blow by blow, Rachael Blackmore has almost broken through that championship glass ceiling.

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