Rachael Blackmore has dared to imagine herself winning the Randox Grand National but admits: “I try not to think about it too much.”
Watching the race on TV is the 31-year-old’s earliest memory of the sport and on Saturday she will bid to rewrite the history books by becoming the first female jockey to win the world’s greatest steeplechase in its 182-year history.
It would cap a remarkable three weeks for Blackmore, who was leading jockey at The Festival™ supporting WellChild at Cheltenham last month. However, she does admit finishing second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup left her with “a horrible feeling in my stomach”.
In the second part of a fascinating interview with former jockey Katie Walsh for thejockeyclub.co.uk, Blackmore says her first experience of the iconic Aintree race, when riding Alpha Des Obeaux in 2018, left her awestruck.
She explains: “The Grand National is definitely my first memory of racing. I remember being very young and everyone having their sweepstakes, and the Aintree Grand National is my first memory of racing. I couldn’t tell you much about the race or who won it, but I remember the buzz - the race has got a worldwide buzz.
“Getting my first ride in the National was amazing. I remember when Mouse (Morris) told me he was going to put me up, it was incredible. I couldn’t wait to walk the track as I’d never been there before and I remember thinking ‘these fences are absolutely massive!’
“I was just excited, there was such a buzz about it all and it was so cool to just be a part of it. Even beforehand, everyone’s wishing each other good luck in the weighing room and it’s just different.
“That year the horse fell, but I finished on Valseur Lido the next year. I think he finished 10th, but he was so good and I didn’t think I’d get a buzz from that. He jumped unbelievably and it was just so cool.
“There is always a chance in the National, because there’s so many variables that can go wrong for people and no matter where you go, trouble will find you. You’ve just got to take your chances and the only time you’ve got no chance is when you’re not on something’s back heading to the start.”
While Blackmore is not one to set targets, she does admit she has allowed herself to dream of Grand National glory.
Discussing riding at Aintree this week, she explains: “I just try not to get too wrapped up in it all. You’re just looking forward to it, it’s a great three days and I’m really looking forward to going over there. Things are different this year, but Cheltenham was a success for the Irish so hopefully we can do the same in Aintree.
“I think when you’re riding in the National, I think you allow yourself to picture yourself winning it and I think everyone has. I feel like the feeling of it actually happening is completely different to what you can imagine in your brain, so I try not to think about it too much.”
Despite Blackmore’s historic six victories at the Cheltenham Festival last month, defeat in the Gold Cup to a horse she had the opportunity to ride herself still irks her. Blackmore had partnered the winner, Minella Indo, on numerous occasions before but opted for the shorter priced A Plus Tard, also from boss Henry de Bromhead’s stable, instead.
And she says: “Minella Indo let me down a little bit at Leopardstown the time before, but it wasn’t an easy decision. The vibe I was getting from the yard was one of extreme confidence in both horses, but I’d made my decision and as horrible as that feeling in my stomach was when I crossed the line, you’re delighted for Henry.
“He’s trained a one-two in the Gold Cup, but on a personal level it was just horrendous. You never get that close to a Gold Cup and he was mine to ride.
“It was my decision and I chose the wrong one and it happens. But I’m not going to take anything away from Minella Indo, who was the best horse on the day.
“Gold Cups don’t go away. The replays will be on at award shows and at next year’s meetings and it’ll always be when the ball didn’t bounce right - but I had an incredible week.”
Perhaps it is a mark of Blackmore’s determination and drive that she remains frustrated about that Gold Cup defeat. However, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful, starting with her Unibet Champion Hurdle victory on Honeysuckle.
She recalls: “I jumped the last and went four or five strides away and I remember looking at the big screen and thinking ‘we’re going to win the Champion Hurdle!’ In your own brain you’re then just trying to get to the line, but I was so delighted and massively relieved.
“I was just so happy for everyone, I’m the one who gets the glory up the hill, but the team behind her are amazing. There are so many people involved and it brought so much joy to so many people, so it was just such a happy time. I didn’t feel any history in it at all. I just delighted.
“The history thing in that sense doesn’t hit you. It was the Champion Hurdle and she was favourite, and she’s a massive part of my life and my career as a jockey, so it was a massive relief and it made Wednesday a whole lot easier!”
Blackmore went on to win five more races at The Festival and after reflecting, names Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Allaho as one of her favourite moments of the week.
She adds: “Allaho was a great thrill. They were great instructions – to just let him jump off and gallop – and Ruby (Walsh) said beforehand that if you’re pulling out of him you’re going too slow, so I just let the horse tip on and see what happens.
“He was class and gave me some feeling, he’s a gorgeous horse and got into a lovely rhythm. I didn’t feel as though I was going as fast as I was on him and it was nice to win for Willie Mullins.”
While she enjoyed riding winners for Mullins at Cheltenham there is no doubt who she credits with her year-on-year improvement – Henry de Bromhead.
Her partnership with the trainer has blossomed into one of the most successful in Jump Racing and Blackmore is in no doubt that the quality of horses she is now riding is the crucial factor behind her form this season.
She explains: “I think it’s the horses I’m getting on. Getting into Henry’s yard brought me to a whole new level. To get on the horses he has just improves you as a rider.
“Eddie O’Leary got me into the door there. He said to Henry ‘would you give Rachael a chance to come in and ride some of our horses?’, so Henry said yeah and I started riding for him one summer. He went on to have an unbelievable summer and a load of the horses won and I was just in there and a part of it.
“It was a case of being at the right yard at the right time, and a lot of it is about timing. His horses were just fit and healthy that summer. He said himself, there was never a discussion of a job or anything - that was never talked about - which I actually liked because it was never a thing then.
“It was a natural progression, I was riding winners for him and the owners were happy then for me to ride, so there was never anything set in stone and there still isn’t!
“Henry has got good owners who are putting a lot of good money into the game and he’s got a good team of people around him getting horses. He’s just established a very strong team of horses since then and I’m a part of it, which is an unbelievable position to be in and a position that every jockey would love to be in.”
Ominously for her rivals, Blackmore believes she is still improving and concludes: “I definitely feel that I was riding Cheltenham better this year than I was last year, but I think you’re always getting better.
“That’s a cliché thing to say, but every race you ride in you’ll pick up something. You might learn something about another jockey or a horse and you’ll be able to remember that for next time, so you are getting better because you’re getting more tuned in. I was a bit late to the party so I’ve got some more tuning to do yet!”