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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Rachael Blackmore reaps Gold Cup reward for sticking with old friend | Cheltenham Gold Cup

They say it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind but such is Rachael Blackmore’s quiet determination to be known first and foremost as just a jockey, rather than a female one, that it ought to have come as no surprise that she stuck to her guns and elected to ride A Plus Tard in this year’s Gold Cup despite being beaten into second place on him 12 months ago.

While the novelty value of Blackmore’s gender in a massively male dominated, often brutal profession has gradually dissipated to the point where it barely merits a mention, it is worth noting for the record that she has achieved yet another historic milestone in becoming the first woman in the 98-year history of the race to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. She did so in fine style, pulling 15 lengths clear of Minella Indo, the reigning champion and one of two Henry de Bromhead-trained runners in the 11-strong field that Blackmore could have requested the leg-up on.

Decisions, decisions. On the eve of the race, Blackmore had said she was “really looking forward” to renewing her Gold Cup acquaintance with A Plus Tard, but we can only imagine the internal anguish that came with being so spoiled for what amounted to a coin-toss choice. Had she decided to swap, ride Minella Indo and lose to A Plus Tard, her judgment would almost certainly have been called into question by an army of armchair jockeys who have never ridden anything more temperamental or subject to the vagaries of form as a bicycle. Had Minella Indo prevailed again without her on board, her decision to stick with A Plus Tard would have looked similarly foolish, bordering on stubborn.

To the untrained eye, it looked as if Blackmore might have blown it as she watched her mount’s stable companion begin to pull away at the third last. Stuck behind a wall of four horses, she and A Plus Tard looked to have no visible way through. Unperturbed, horse and rider bided their time and in her post-race debrief, Blackmore said the galloping equine roadblock lined across her strip of track had actually worked to her advantage by preventing her from jumping the gun and going too soon.

Push came to predictably vigorous shove at the business end of the race, when she squeezed through a narrow gap that opened between Protektorat and Al Boum Photo before flicking the switch and sending A Plus Tard to hunt Minella Indo down. “I knew I had more horse under me approaching the last than last year,” said Blackmore, who was modest enough not to mention that A Plus Tard also had a lot more jockey than 12 months ago on his back. Since finishing second last year, Blackmore has added the Grand National and a second Champion Hurdle – among other notable pots – to an increasingly stellar CV.

Having had her fairytale breakthrough at Cheltenham 12 months ago somewhat spoiled by Covid and her incorrect choice of Gold Cup mount, for the second time this week Blackmore was once again allowed to enjoy the warm and raucous welcome back to the winner’s enclosure which was denied to her last year.

Rachael Blackmore is congratulated by fellow jockey Paul Townend after her victory on A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup
Rachael Blackmore is congratulated by fellow jockey Paul Townend after her victory on A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The most popular Festival-winning jockey since her retired colleague Ruby Walsh, it is a measure of the high regard in which she is held that despite saddling three winners earlier in the afternoon, a beaming Willie Mullins made his way to the chute through which she was parading towards the winner’s enclosure to give her a big thumbs-up. Also in attendance in his role as co-owner of third-placed Protektorat: serial winner Sir Alex Ferguson, who looked similarly pleased as he gave her what looked suspiciously like a wave.

Of course Blackmore and A Plus Tard’s success meant that there could be no win for the well-fancied Galvin, which was ridden by Davy Russell and trained by Gordon Elliott.

Having served his ban for an almost unfathomable act of stupidity which led to millions around the world seeing him photographed sitting astride a dead horse 13 months ago, Elliott may well have earned his shot at redemption but the sight of him grinning on board the most prestigious podium in racing at the first time of asking since the renewal of his licence would almost certainly have come too soon for a general public who might in time be willing to forgive but will almost certainly never forget.

“You can’t do this without the horses and being attached to Henry’s yard is just absolutely phenomenal,” said Blackmore in her post race interview with ITV. “To give me this horse is unbelievable. I don’t know what to say. I’ve had so many special days. I wouldn’t swap the Grand National for anything, but this is the Gold Cup. I wish I had something better to say right now. I just can’t.”

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This is a constant, almost apologetic post-race refrain of Blackmore’s: one in which she repeatedly feels the need to explain how bad she feels at not having the requisite vocabulary to put her increasingly regular post-race feelings of euphoria into words.

It really matters not one whit – as long as she continues to let her riding do the talking, it’s difficult to imagine that too many punters will care.

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