“Different league, different league,” Henry de Bromhead said after saddling a 1-2 in the Gold Cup for the second year running here on Friday, and while he was talking about the atmosphere with 70,000 fans back at Cheltenham, it worked just as well for his stable jockey too. Rachael Blackmore was flawless as she delivered A Plus Tard with an irresistible challenge at the final fence before powering up the hill to win by 15 lengths, in the process completing the full set of jumping’s three biggest races, in little more than a year.
Twelve months ago, Blackmore’s decision to ride A Plus Tard rather than his stable companion, Minella Indo, in the Festival’s showpiece event was the only wrong move she made all week. Minella Indo, the horse that supplied her with the first Grade One win of her career here in 2019, beat off Blackmore’s challenge by just over a length.
She ended the 2021 Festival, which played out behind closed doors, as the first woman to win the prize for the meeting’s leading rider, but not the first to win its biggest race. Blackmore, though, remained convinced that A Plus Tard was the better prospect for this year, and committed to ride him again several months ago. She backed herself, in other words, and the punters took the hint, supporting A Plus Tard down to 3-1 favourite at the off.
The only real moment for Blackmore’s supporters came as Minella Indo moved powerfully down the hill on the final circuit, just as he had 12 months ago. He is the definition of a “spring” horse, who comes alive as the daffodils bloom and reaches his peak at the Festival, so as Robbie Power turned for home with a useful lead and apparently still going well, a repeat win for the defending champion seemed a distinct possibility.
Blackmore, though, had no time – or any need – for doubts. Having settled A Plus Tard in midfield through the first two and a half miles, jumping well and saving ground where she could, she was well within striking distance if A Plus Tard was as good as she believed he was.
As Minella Indo rounded the home turn and headed towards the second-last fence, A Plus Tard was briefly behind a wall of four horses, including Al Boum Photo, the Gold Cup winner in 2019 and 2020.
Blackmore, as ever, refused to panic and a few strides later, her uncanny knack of finding a gap when she needs one had come good once again. A glimmer of daylight appeared between Al Boum Photo and Protektorat, and when Blackmore pointed A Plus Tard towards it, her partner needed no second invitation. A burst of speed carried him to within two lengths of the leader.
By the last, A Plus Tard was a split-second in front of Minella Indo and an excellent jump there carried him into an ever-widening lead. It was all over and everyone knew it, and the grandstand seemed to shake amid the bedlam as Blackmore and A Plus Tard galloped up the hill and into the history books.
“I was never worried about A Plus Tard’s stamina and him not staying,” Blackmore said. “I was just conscious not to use up his speed like I did last year. His stamina wasn’t the worry, the ride I was going to give him was the worry.
“Thankfully he was just as good over the last two and picked up incredibly over the last. It is an incredible feeling when you do that over the back of the last at Cheltenham. I was happy if I was going to get beaten for doing something different, as opposed to being in the position I was in last year as that definitely didn’t work. I was taking my luck and we got the split. The wall of horses in front of made sure I didn’t get there too soon.”
Blackmore’s ascent to the top of her profession since her first Grade One win three years ago has been astonishing and exhilarating, and her latest achievement means that she is the only current jockey in the weighing room to have won the Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and Grand National.
She is also the undisputed inheritor of Ruby Walsh’s mantle as the crowd favourite, for all that she lost her status as leading rider at this year’s Festival in the face of two more winners for Paul Townend, Willie Mullins’s stable jockey.
“Cheltenham is such a special place, but it is so special because of the atmosphere and the people,” she said. “To have that roar back, and to get to walk back in when you can’t see space and you can just see bodies is just incredible. It is the closest thing to feeling like a rock star you will ever feel without being able to sing.”
Blackmore is also the first rider since Tony McCoy in 1997 to win the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup at the same meeting.
“I’m delighted for her,” De Bromhead, who trained both horses, said. “She’s just a savage rider and we’re so lucky to have her. I said to her to do whatever she wanted, and she started banging on about what she was going to do as we were about to leg her up. I just said: ‘You’re the boss.’”