IIn a crucial week for show jumping, with this tough old sport looking battered at the start of a haunting Cheltenham Festival, a glorious mix of joy and history came to the rescue. There was also a dizzying sense of Irish magic in the English countryside, as Rachael Blackmore and Henry from Bromhead dominated the Festival and lifted the spirits with their understated brilliance.
De Bromhead became the first coach to win all three major races – Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup – in the same week. But Blackmore, the 31-year-old from County Tipperary, has been the history of the Festival, putting together six winners in magnificent style.
She was also close to claiming the Gold Cup, but Minella Indo, the winner, was ridden by Jack Kennedy, a 21-year-old rider who has overcome a series of serious injuries. Her poignant tears after the race were a reminder that Blackmore had chosen to ride A Plus Tard over Minella Indo, a horse she knows so well.
Her disappointment should be alleviated by all her previous success, as she also made history by becoming the first woman to finish as Cheltenham’s top jockey. Blackmore has changed the racing narrative so profoundly this week that he has breathed new life into a sport that was on its knees.
Racing has been reeling from the impact of the pandemic and its mistaken decision to allow the Festival to take place in front of packed crowds last year, just as Covid-19 took over the world in an agonizing way. But even that mistake couldn’t match the horrendous publicity last month when a photograph appeared of renowned Irish trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on top of a dead horse. It was then followed by a video of Rob James, the Irish amateur jockey, jumping on the back of another dead horse. The consequences have been catastrophic.
Those of us who love show jumping know that it’s a gritty and exciting show like no other at best. The characters and the crowds, the stories and the drama, make it fascinating. But for most of the year he operates on the sidelines, working hard in dangerous but dark terrain and only really breaking into the wider public consciousness at Cheltenham and the Grand National.
However, racing has the ability to look terrible. When there are fatalities on the track and horses have to be euthanized, understandable complaints are always directed at the sport, which is why Elliot’s photography was so disastrous.
So much, as a consequence, I was depending on Cheltenham this week. Racing was lucky, despite the lockdown, and the Festival went as well as anyone could have hoped for. The sun has shone and Blackmore has brought euphoria and history. She, more than anyone, has helped the races emerge from the dark shadows to find new hope and light.
Her mother, Eimir Blackmore, a school teacher, was interviewed before the Gold Cup and, seeing her daughter on television at her home in Ireland, said: “It was a real fairy tale. It’s amazing … my phone has literally melted. “
Blackmore enlightened Cheltenham on the first day when she and Honeysuckle won the Champion Hurdle in a commanding display. It was the first time a woman had won a historic Festival race. She won a Grade One race every day of the Festival and started Friday afternoon riding Quilixios to a flawless victory in the Triumph Hurdle. But, as if to underscore the dangers of the jump, Blackmore also suffered four falls over the course of the week.
Of course, there was a residue of sadness for the significant moments that unfolded in front of the deserted stands. Cheltenham’s usual roar was replaced by a silence broken only by isolated shouts of joy from the small Irish contingent. They are rightly in love with Blackmore’s composite brilliance.
On Friday afternoon, Eimir Blackmore spoke of his pride that his daughter, who has become the new face of racing, “has given people a little boost at this terrible time.”
Blackmore herself reacted wryly after the Gold Cup. “I went into the weigh-in room and the ITV was on, and I saw my mother. I don’t know how that happened. Look, they’re having a lot of fun at home. It is brilliant.”
She seemed genuinely moved as she reflected on her week. “It is phenomenal. I can’t even fathom being the lead rider at Cheltenham. That’s crazy “.
His fierce drive, however, was obvious when asked if it had been difficult to choose the right horse to ride in the Gold Cup. Blackmore groaned and said, “I just did the wrong one, that’s all I know.” He also admitted, in his typically dry way: “I can’t complain too much.”
When asked how her life might change now, Blackmore, who hates publicity, briefly seemed insecure. “I am still in the bubble now. I do not know what is going to happen “.
But she has so much stamina and resolve that Blackmore will almost certainly not collapse in her new role as the seeming savior of show jumping. She will return to her normal pace on Saturday afternoon and will travel in Thurles. Racing, especially after this miserable last year, is lucky to have her.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism