Rachael Blackmore never dreamed she would win the Grand National

The dairy farmer’s daughter who is the REAL ‘National Velvet’: As a little girl on her rocking horse, Rachael Blackmore never dreamed she would one day be the first ever woman to win the Grand National

  • Rachael Blackmore made sporting history when she became the first woman to win the Grand National
  • Her first pony was a humble rocking horse, which was never going to win races 
  • Rachael admits she dreamed of becoming a vet, and only became a professional jokey in 2015 after what she described as an ‘average’ amateur career 

Her first pony was a humble wooden rocking horse, which was never going to win any races or propel her into the record books. Her second was rather more promising, a cute steed called Bubbles, upon which a smiling seven-year-old Rachael Blackmore proudly sat in her baby pink quilted riding jacket.

Photographs like these can be found in the albums of countless parents of horse-mad youngsters across the UK. But few will be able to complete the collection with the sort of photograph Rachael posed for this weekend.

The 31-year-old dairy farmer’s daughter from Tipperary made sporting history on Saturday when she became the first woman to win the Grand National.

Wearing green and gold jockey’s silks, she smashed racing’s glass ceiling by riding the 11-1, eight-year-old bay gelding Minella Times to a stunning victory.

Rachael Blackmore made sporting history on Saturday when she became the first woman to win the Grand National

In scenes reminiscent of the 1944 film National Velvet, starring Elizabeth Taylor as the young girl who wins the Grand National against all odds, Rachael Blackmore (pictured) turned fiction into reality with a masterclass of grit and determination

Her first pony was a humble wooden rocking horse, which was never going to win any races or propel her into the record books

Growing up, Rachael admits she dreamed of becoming a vet, and remarkably only became a professional jockey in 2015 after what she described as an ‘average’ amateur career.

But in scenes reminiscent of the 1944 film National Velvet, starring Elizabeth Taylor as the young girl who wins the Grand National against all odds, Rachael Blackmore turned fiction into reality with a masterclass of grit and determination.

Punching the air in triumph after crossing the line, the modest and ‘reluctant star’ admitted in post-race interviews that winning the world’s most famous steeplechase was ‘beyond belief’ and hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

‘This is massive,’ said racing’s new superstar. ‘You need some luck to get around with no one else interfering … you need so much to go right and things went right today.’

As for being the first female jockey to win in the race’s 182-year history — 44 years after Charlotte Brew became the first woman to ride in the Grand National — well, Rachael seemed to be one person not making a big deal out of it.

‘I don’t feel male or female right now. I don’t even feel human,’ the euphoric jockey told ITV of her win on the horse owned by J.P. McManus and trained by Henry De Bromhead. ‘This is just unbelievable.’

Her second pony was rather more promising, a cute steed called Bubbles, upon which a smiling seven-year-old Rachael Blackmore proudly sat in her baby pink quilted riding jacket

Nor was she keen to be drawn into the inevitable comparisons with Velvet Brown (the Hollywood film was based on the 1935 novel by Enid Bagnold), who also grew up on a dairy farm.

‘National Velvet was definitely something that would have been on the television when we were growing up. I’ve got no punchy line to go with it,’ said Rachael, insisting that she was inspired by watching the Grand National on TV when she was eight, rather than the film.

Others, however, couldn’t resist celebrating the parallels, including Enid Bagnold’s great granddaughter Emily Sheffield, who tweeted: ‘Today Rachael Blackmore finally made that fiction become reality.’

Certainly, Rachael’s own story would provide an equally inspiring template for any young girl who dreams of racing horses — with the added benefit of being rooted in reality.

Punching the air in triumph after crossing the line, the modest and ‘reluctant star’ admitted in post-race interviews that winning the world’s most famous steeplechase was ‘beyond belief’ and hadn’t quite sunk in yet

One of three children, she did not grow up in a racing family, like many other jockeys, but on her father Charles’s dairy farm in Killenaule in County Tipperary.

Her mother Eimir is a teacher; her younger sister would grow up to become a lawyer and her older brother a graphic designer. Rachael, however, always seemed destined to push boundaries.

‘She continuously climbed out of her cot even well before her first birthday. We knew she was going to have an adventurous disposition, to say the least,’ her mother once recalled. ‘And we knew she was competitive — Charles taught her how to ride and negotiate obstacles, and at a very young age she wanted to jump everything Jonathan [her brother] jumped.’

With her first pony, Bubbles, igniting a passion for racing and speed, it wasn’t long before Rachael was making a name for herself at Tipperary Pony Club.

Competitive, fearless and talented, she was described as ‘the best boy on the team’, her mother Eimir remembers.

Though horse-mad, Rachael actually wanted to be a vet when she was growing up: ‘I wanted to ride horses but I didn’t see being a jockey as a career, I always wanted to ride in races and compete but it was always as an amateur.’

Aged 13, she was thrilled to win a Cork pony race in 2004, beating a young rider called Paul Townend, who six years later would win the title of Ireland’s champion jump jockey while she continued riding in the amateur ranks.

She never dreamed that, 17 years later, in March this year, she’d beat her old adversary again, by pipping him to be named top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival with six winners, again making history as the first female rider to do so.

When Rachael first went to Cheltenham, aged 16, it was not to race, but for a chance to wear ‘nice clothes’ and enjoy the festival as a racing fan.

‘I definitely wouldn’t have been there longing to ride in Cheltenham at that stage,’ she has said. ‘I didn’t think at that point I could be dreaming of riding winners there, so things have gone beyond what I was able to dream about.’

As for being the first female jockey to win in the race’s 182-year history — 44 years after Charlotte Brew became the first woman to ride in the Grand National — well, Rachael seemed to be one person not making a big deal out of it

Her parents felt the same. ‘I encouraged her to go to college because I didn’t think for a minute she’d be able to make it her full-time career,’ said her mother. ‘Shows what I know.’

Whilst studying equine science at Limerick University, Rachael continued competing as an amateur and remained so passionate about racing she missed her graduation ceremony, leaving her parents’ mantelpiece ‘bereft’ of photographs.

But they’ve had lots to celebrate since then; photographs and trophies aplenty since Rachael won her first track winner on Stowaway Pearl in February 2011. She only decided to turn professional in 2015 in the hope of securing better rides.

‘The best horses win the race. If you are fortunate enough as a jockey to get on these horses, that is half the battle,’ she told the Irish Times.

‘A couple of people were saying: “I don’t know if you’re doing the right thing” because it is strange for someone who was extremely average as an amateur to turn professional. It’s not the usual course to take. I suppose when a couple of people were negative it did make me want to prove them wrong.

Rachael Blackmore made history after becoming the first female jockey to win the Grand National

‘It wasn’t a woman thing. I just needed the practice. That’s just what I got when I turned professional. Straight away I got more rides. That allowed me to improve.

‘When I turned professional I was not full of confidence. I had nothing to lose but I was tip-toeing in.’

Weighing just nine stone, Rachael has never had to worry about her weight, unlike some male jockeys, including her boyfriend Brian Hayes and their housemate, fellow jockey Patrick Mullins.

But she works hard building up her physical strength and on a typical day rides out in the morning, races in the afternoon and also goes to the gym for conditioning and strength.

Nor does she fear falling, shrugging off the injuries she has sustained during her career as ‘just a broken nose, collarbone and wrist — not much’.

‘I don’t think about injury. If you start thinking about what could go wrong, it is not the job for you,’ she said.

Modest, tough, steely, hard-working and popular with her fellow jockeys, Rachael resists the idea that she is in any way a ‘star’. ‘What is a star?’ she asked on the first day of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. ‘To me, Beyoncé is a star.’

Despite her historic achievement on Saturday, Rachael doesn’t like to think of herself as a pioneer, and would rather just be seen as a jockey, regardless of gender.

‘I probably find it a little tiresome within the small racing bubble because I don’t think it should be a thing any more,’ she has said.

‘I fully get why it’s a thing outside the bubble because it is a male-dominated sport. But at the end of the day it’s the horses doing the running — we are just on their backs doing the steering. It would be a lot different if some female sprinter was beating Usain Bolt.’

Her mother Eimir agrees, recently saying: ‘She’s just a jockey. It’s just her job.’ However, she added: ‘We’ve had some gorgeous letters from little girls saying, “I want to be just like you”, and this kind of thing. And it’s wonderful.’

After Saturday’s Grand National, Rachael Blackmore may prove to be more of an inspiration to those young girls than the fictional Velvet Brown will ever be.

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