Rachael rides into the history books
Only one place to start this week: we need to talk about Rachael Blackmore. Her achievements during the last month have been immense and all the more notable as she was a relative late starter in the professional ranks and from a family hardly steeped in racing.
Cheltenham showed off her ruthless streak to race-riding as there seemed not to be a pocket she didn’t want to put a rival jockey into, but also a reservoir of resilience as she overcame four falls/unseats to be top rider at the four-day meeting.
That bouncebackability was again needed at Liverpool as she came off Jason The Militant halfway through the Aintree Hurdle, an unseat she probably should have avoided, but was soon back on track to win the bumper on board Me Too Please ahead of her Grand National success last Saturday.
Simon Rowlands has covered the efficiency of the ride from a sectional timing point of view elsewhere on the site, while it also dispelled any notion that Blackmore might not be a handicap jockey - her last big handicap win on Poker Party in the 2019 Kerry National - allowing that she is aligned with a yard that doesn’t really target such races.
The rider herself seems to have no appetite for talking about gender, but the rest of us certainly can and perhaps should. Cheltenham was big for Blackmore but that meeting is more within the racing bubble, held midweek and for the purists.
Jockeys may prefer to win the Gold Cup more than the Grand National – Blackmore has said so herself – but no horse race has the broad societal cachet than the National, held at teatime and a must-see event for so many, regardless of their interest in the sport. It is hard to underplay the significance of what felt like a major cultural moment.
This win puts her into the rarefied position of female sporting superstar, a status held by only a few in Ireland and the UK - the likes of Katie Taylor and Jessica Ennis springing to mind. And while there are many who deserve such standing, the reality is that the average person does not have much sense of who the best sportswomen are.
The significance of Blackmore becoming the first women to ride a Grand National winner is perhaps not to be found in racing or even sport more generally. It shows racing in a somewhat positive light, a place where both women and men compete on a level footing, be it as jockeys or trainers, though there are other ways in which it is unequal and never going to be a mass participation sport. That last point has hardly inhibited the standing of Katie Taylor in the Irish sporting sphere, however.
It would be wonderful to think that it might encourage more girls and young women to keep up their participation in organised sport, the typical drop-off in the early teenage years well-documented, though in any case expecting a single sporting event to overcome all sorts of other social factors might be a bit much to hope for.
Even so, this has huge symbolic importance, in sport and beyond. It shows that gender need not be a limiting force and the traits that serve Blackmore well in sport can also be applied to wider life.
There are many more people that now know who Rachael Blackmore is, among them teenage girls for whom influences come from all angles, and while the position of role model is not an easy one to hold, by all accounts the now Grand National-winning jockey is well up to the job, simply by being herself.
Away wins at Cheltenham and Aintree sets up Punchestown's home leg perfectly
I have to admit some surprise at there being six Irish-trained winners along with Minella Times at last week’s Aintree meeting, as even in light of the Irish domination at Cheltenham, the panel of horses that travelled looked B- or even C-team standard.
Numerically, the Irish challenge was as weak as it had been at any point in the past decade - leaving aside the National itself, there were 28 Irish runners at the meeting, with 2017 (no winners from 28 runners) and 2002 (one winner from 26 runners) the only comparable years since 2010.
The issues caused by the pandemic and Brexit likely played their parts, and the quality wasn’t really there either; the best Irish chasers to run at the meeting were Fakir D’Oudairies and Chris’s Dream, the thirteenth and twentieth best in their sphere per official ratings, while Jason The Militant and Abacadabras were the best hurdlers, rated joint-tenth best over sticks. Certainly, this was no 2016 when the Irish winners includes Apple’s Jade, Annie Power and Douvan.
One of those Irish-trained winners was Belfast Banter who had previously won the County Hurdle, becoming one of a number of Irish-trained handicaps winners at the Cheltenham Festival to win at the top level subsequently, and The Shunter may well have joined him but for jumping poorly in the Manifesto.
Looking at the years between 2015 and 2020, nine of the 29 Irish-trained Festival handicap winners won Grade 1s afterwards, among them Supasundae, Presenting Percy, Delta Work and A Plus Tard - perhaps the Martin Pipe winner Galopin Des Champs can be the next.
He could run at Punchestown in a fortnight’s time, all of which sets that meeting up for clashes between some of those highly-rated ones in what should be an excellent five days of racing.