Ffirst, she won races that no female jockey had won before. Next, she crossed off career-defining achievements for any rider, in any generation. And on Saturday, when she rides Minella Times in the Grand National at Aintree, Rachael Blackmore could move on to the eleven-a-century stuff.
Tony McCoy, in 1997, was the last jockey before Blackmore to win the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup at the same Cheltenham Festival, so it is 25 years since there has been any need to delve through National Hunt’s history books, to confirm whether a jockey has ever won the Grand National too in the same season.
Go right back to the sport’s earliest days, when the Champion Hurdle itself was in its infancy, and you will find that the answer is one: Tommy Cullinan, in 1930, who completed the set of jumping’s crown jewels at Aintree on Shaun Goilin, a chance ride after his original mount, the great Easter Hero, picked up an injury.
Ninety-two years later, and in a far more competitive era, Blackmore is nine-and-a-half minutes away from completing a quickfire treble that has eluded National Hunt’s greatest riders ever since. And if Minella Times can reprise his winning performance 12 months ago – becoming only the fourth dual winner since 1899 in the process – a full house of 70,000 spectators will be at Aintree to give horse and rider the reception they deserve.
It was an eerie and, in all honesty, a somewhat deflating experience to witness Blackmore’s historic success in front of empty grandstands 12 months ago. More than any other race, the Grand National is about the shared experience, for those at the course and the hundreds of millions watching around the world. Without the noise and delirious excitement that takes over as the 40 runners line up for the most intense 10 minutes of action in any sport, it could only be a pale imitation of an event that has captured the public’s imagination for the best part of 200 years .
Blackmore, of course, was too caught up in the moment, the one that every jump jockey has dreamed about since childhood, to allow the near-silence to rub the polish from her day. But it left a faint sense of unfinished business that would be consigned to history with a victory on Saturday.
“It’s hard to imagine what winning it again would feel like until it actually happens, to be honest,” Blackmore said this week. “My mum and sister are coming over on Saturday morning and they’re really looking forward to it, so it will be great to have them here and there are plenty of friends as well that are coming too.
“You just can’t compare that feeling of crossing the line, it was just a phenomenal feeling and it’s a race that every kid wants to ride in. When you’re growing up, this is the race that captures your imagination and it’s just very special to be able to say that you’ve won it. I’ve definitely seen the replay of last year’s race more times than I can count.
“There’s definitely a massive global reach and I really felt that after last year. The media attention after Cheltenham last year [where Blackmore was the first female rider to finish as the meeting’s top jockey] was massive, but after the Grand National it just seemed to explode again. It seems to reach parts of the world that no other races do.”
Last month’s success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup meant that Blackmore is now the only current jockey in the weighing room to have won the Big Three races, and she completed the set in little more than a year. That tells the story of her career as a whole, the years spent struggling for a breakthrough before multiple Grade One winners arrived one after another at a dizzying pace. Blackmore could be unseated at the first on Saturday and remain a global sporting phenomenon.
“When you go into a random clothes shop in Dublin and you’re dressed in normal clothes and someone comes up to you, that’s mad,” she said. “It’s one thing people coming up to you at the races because you’re dressed like a jockey and people can place you, but the odd time you’re in a situation like that is something that didn’t happen 12 months ago.
“I’ve got loads of fanmail since last year, from both girls and boys. A lot of times I know the teacher in school is setting out an assignment of writing to someone you admire as I get a bundle of letters, so it’s obviously on the school curriculum somewhere. It’s brilliant and it’s great that it’s sparking an interest in kids, and hopefully that helps them.”
This being the National, of course, there are other storylines to fire the punters’ imagination, not least the possibility that Snow Leopardess, a magnificent front-running grey, will become the first mare to win the race after becoming a mother.
Marietta Fox-Pitt, her 80-year-old owner and breeder, would be a captivating post-race interviewee, retelling the story of the injury that threatened to end her horse’s career, the decision to send her to be covered by a Derby winner while recovering, and the lifelong horsewoman’s insistence that having children had made no difference to her and so should make no difference to Snow Leopardess either.
Snow Leopardess should be impossible to miss at the head of the field. Picking out Blackmore’s green-and-yellow cap, distinguishing her among JP McManus’s five runners, will be more of a challenge, but millions will be following her every step of the way as she attempts to carve out another piece of history. For Blackmore, the mission in this year’s Grand National is simple. Once more, with people.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism