It may have been the Chinese year of the ox, but there’s absolutely no doubt that in reality, it was actually the year of Rachael Blackmore.
eil Armstrong went where no man had gone before when landing on the moon in 1969 but Blackmore took several giant leaps for man and womankind throughout a never-to-be-forgotten 12 months when she was rarely out of the headlines for all the right reasons.
Blackmore would prefer to shun the spotlight where possible, given her shy demeanour, but her exploits in the saddle rendered that an impossibility as she shattered every glass ceiling that had existed in the equine world in rapid succession.
In a year when so many Irish athletes soared on a variety of fronts, the Tipperary jockey moved into a different stratosphere with her record-breaking achievements deservedly seeing her crowned Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year in association with The Croke Park Hotel, as voted by the readers of the Irish Independent and independent.ie.
Let’s start with a whirlwind four days at the Cheltenham Festival last March, where Blackmore arrived for the first day at the Cotswolds with the weight of the world on her shoulders as history beckoned.
No woman had ridden the winner of a Champion Hurdle in racing’s rich history and here she was aboard the red-hot favourite, Honeysuckle, with expectations sky-high that Henry de Bromhead’s brilliant mare would maintain her unbeaten streak.
Expectations crank up the pressure, but she showed that her veins are ice cool once again as she rode her way into the record books in stunning fashion. The dream team had prevailed again on the game’s grandest stage, but surely things couldn’t get much better than that?
Her extraordinary feats had only just begun, however, as another five winners flowed over the course of an unforgettable four days, with her name on everyone’s lips at the conclusion of an incredible week.
She was crowned leading rider at the festival – the first female rider to do so – and racing’s hottest property after the Olympics of jumps racing with the excitement only starting to die down when she made the hop across the Irish Sea three weeks later.
Even to those with only a cursory interest in racing, the Aintree Grand National stands out in terms of its importance with the world’s most famous steeplechase one of the most sought after equine prizes.
Surely Blackmore had scaled her highest peak of 2021 already? Surely she couldn’t negotiate 39 other horses and 30 fences to come home in front once again while 500-600 million people watched in over 140 countries worldwide?
That daunting prospect would spook most mere mortals, but Blackmore was coolness personified once again aboard the De Bromhead-trained Minella Times, as she carried JP McManus’ famous green and gold silks to a thrilling victory.
“The most incredible three seconds of a feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Blackmore said of passing the finishing post in frontm, as she became the first female pilot to land the Liverpool showpiece.
Blackmore was box-office across the world, with congratulatory messages flowing from global icons like Beatles legend Ringo Starr and tennis superstar Billie Jean King. She rode the crest of a wave, with her achievements inspiring many a nation.
The jumps season concluded with 92 Irish winners as she just came up short in her pursuit of Paul Townend for the Irish jump jockeys’ championship, but she is edging closer to another famous milestone with every passing season.
An invite to the Royal box at Wimbledon – unfortunately Covid denied her the opportunity to attend but she awaits her 2022 invite – was among a host of scarcely believable spin-offs from her ground-breaking success but her bubble would burst in excruciating fashion in mid-July.
With two ambulances always following the action, the dangers of jump racing are never far from the surface and a crushing fall at Killarney just days after celebrating her 32nd birthday brought her hurtling back down to earth, as she was ferried away nursing the effects of a fractured hip and a broken ankle.
A lot is learned about someone when they are faced with adversity and while Blackmore was confined to a wheelchair in the early stages of her recovery, she was back in the saddle doing what she does best once again less than three months later.
Further headlines were garnered at Cheltenham in November, when she somehow stayed aboard Gin On Lime to prevail, despite De Bromhead’s charge going down on all fours having made a horrible blunder at the second last fence in a two-horse race.
Grade One triumphs on A Plus Tard and Honeysuckle also followed upon her triumphant return before a plethora of end-of-year awards left her breaking new ground once again.
Racing’s most prized possession collected the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year, before fending off global stars like Tom Brady, Novak Djokovic and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez to land the BBC SPOTY World Sport Star award.
That shortlist features all-time sporting greats like Muhammad Ali, Pelé, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Usain Bolt, but Blackmore’s 2021 matches up to any of their greatest years as she obliterated all before her in a remarkable tour de force.
The frightening thing is that the best may be yet to come from this once-in-a-lifetime talent.
For now, all hail Rachael Blackmore, the 2021 Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year.
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