When I first came here I sneaked in posing as a jockey! How Rachael Blackmore fell for the Festival

Rachael Blackmore is reflecting on Cheltenham firsts — of which there have been many — but one in particular has her laughing.

It involves a little subterfuge, a flummoxed car park attendant and memories of a riotous night but, through it all, the essence of what makes this a sporting occasion like no other shines through. This, after all, is the racecourse where ambition takes flight and dreams can soar.

‘I was 20 and went over with three of my girlfriends,’ Blackmore, now 34, recalls. ‘I was very much on the other side of the parade ring. We’d have gone out that night to Club 21 and let’s just say it was a very different experience to how Cheltenham is now for me!

‘You feel it when you walk around: the atmosphere, the buzz. Oh, it’s just class! I knew all about Cheltenham growing up and my first real memory was of War Of Attrition winning the Gold Cup for Mouse Morris in 2006. But being there for the first time, you’re just amazed by it all.

‘I remember we drove in, one of the girls had a helmet in the back of her car. She held it out the window and said to the guy on the gates: “Oh, we’re jockeys!” so we got to park in the jockey’s car park! She had a pink hat cover over the helmet, whatever she did it worked.

Rachael Blackmore celebrtates on horse 'A Plus Tard' after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup

Rachael Blackmore celebrtates on horse ‘A Plus Tard’ after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup

‘She saved us a two-mile walk to get in, anyway! I remember, when we got there, looking at the parade ring and thinking “God it’d be so cool to ride here”… I was dreaming about riding a winner it but never expecting it.’

How things change. Here she is, sitting in Betfair’s plush offices on the outskirts of Dublin as arguably the most famous jump jockey in the business; the buzz of going to Cheltenham might be the same as it was 14 years ago but her journey has been such that she now arrives on course as a serial winner. Blackmore would find that description uncomfortable but the numbers bear it out.

Since her first Festival ride, when she guided 200/1 shot Magna Cartor to finish 11th of 14 for Shark Hanlon in the 2017 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Blackmore has galloped relentlessly through the record books.

First woman to be leading rider at the meeting; first woman to ride the winner of the Gold Cup.

An association with Honeysuckle — the wonderful mare who commanded celebrity status — that will stand the test of time. This, undeniably, is a career that glitters like a starburst. Her total for Cheltenham wins stands at 14 and with a book of excellent rides to come, that figure will almost certainly be added to before the close of play on Friday. Every journey starts somewhere and tomorrow, neatly, will be the fifth anniversary of her first success.

‘Look at him!’ says Blackmore, smiling, as we watch her bounding up the hill on A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices Handicap. The partnership would win the biggest race of them all three years later but this success is no less special.

‘The way that he was accelerating after the last was incredible. Look, watch it! It was an unbelievable feeling but you never take it for granted. How often have you seen the dynamic of a race change up the hill? Yes, he was much the best horse but it meant a lot because Henry (De Bromhead, the trainer) was putting a lot of faith in me. So to ride a winner for him was just incredible. In that moment, to be a Cheltenham Festival winning jockey…’

Blackmore has galloped relentlessly through the record books at the Cheltenham Festival

Blackmore has galloped relentlessly through the record books at the Cheltenham Festival

She pauses momentarily but what follows leads to an even more pronounced silence. If you only have a passing interest in racing, 14 Cheltenham successes might not seem a lot but this should give context to what Blackmore has achieved.

Charlie Swan, partner of Istabraq and a nine-time Irish champion, retired with 17 Festival wins; Richard Dunwoody, one of the all-time greats, drew stumps on 18 wins.

‘That’s mental,’ she says. ‘Honeysuckle has been a massive part of that and I just seem to have had a lot of luck.I just hope it continues. There will be a time to reflect on it when I’m finished but I’m still on that wheel.’

And that wheel will be turning from 1.30pm tomorrow, when she rides Slade Steel in the Supreme.

‘It’s cool to be a part of it all but then the competitor in you takes over,’ she says. You want to be involved in the big races, you want to ride winners.

‘Everyone talks about it all year. If you say to a jockey: “You will only ride one winner this season” — every single one of them will reply: “Let it be at Cheltenham”. That’s how important it is.’

l BETFAIR have challenged Rachael Blackmore to raise up to £250,000 by April 13 for the Irish and British Injured Jockeys Fund. She’s earnt £185,000 so far, with each winner worth £5k. During Cheltenham, they will pay £10k for every success she enjoys.

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