CARLOW resident Rachael Blackmore has revealed that she is “very excited” to get back on to Aintree’s iconic Grand National course with Minella Times, who is bidding to become only the second horse after Tiger Roll (2018, 2019) to win back-to-back renewals of the Randox-sponsored showpiece this century.
The 32 year old created history when becoming the first female jockey to win the world’s most famous steeplechase 12 months ago and while the nine year old will be tasked with carrying 21lbs more this time around, his jockey is confident he will be arriving on Merseyside in the best possible shape.
Blackmore said: “I’m very excited and it’s great to be here. The track looks great and I’m just really looking forward to the whole meeting kicking off.
“Having top-weight is not ideal but that’s the situation we’re in. He’s in great form at home and Laura (Hoey) who rides him out is very happy with him. His runs this year have been disappointing, but he really does seem in great form now and Henry (de Bromhead, trainer) is extremely happy with him so we’re really looking forward to it.
“Henry found a few niggly problems with him and he’s sorted them out and he’s in top form at home now and schooling well and seems in great nick. We couldn’t be happier with him in that sense coming into the race. I worked him probably two weeks ago now and he felt super.
“To me he’s one of those horses who just likes Aintree, he really enjoyed it last year and jumped from fence to fence and that has to be a big plus. The weight is the weight and there’s no point me getting too cut up about that, because that’s the situation and we’ll be going out giving it our best shot.
“It’s a race that as everyone knows you need a lot of luck in, and we got plenty of that last year so hopefully we get some more this year.
“It’s a big help knowing he enjoys it here. Last year after I jumped the first two fences I knew he was going to take to them. He was always an exceptional jumper at home and I’d got some great spins off him before we came over last year, so I was always hoping he’d take to it but I suppose you don’t know until you try it because these fences are a unique challenge. He really enjoyed it last year so hopefully we get a similar spin around and who knows what will happen?
“It’s hard to imagine what winning it again would feel like until it actually happens to be honest. It would be a phenomenal performance with the weight he has, but we’ll just see what happens. He was fantastic last year and he is a very enjoyable horse to ride, so I’m very much looking forward to getting back on board.
“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. It’s a great three days of racing and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Run over a distance of four miles and two and a half furlongs and requiring the 40 runners to jump 30 fences, the Randox Grand National is a test like no other and Blackmore explained that it is difficult to have too much of a game plan in a race of this nature.
She said: “The start is a bit chaotic, obviously, with 40 horses down there. Usually there’s a couple of rules that jockeys try and abide by but they all seem to go out the window at the start of the National. There’s just so many of us and everyone’s just trying to keep things calm so we don’t have a false start and you’re just trying to get a position so you can see what happens.
“The Grand National does have a different feel to it – there’s so many variables and so many different things that can happen. So I don’t think owners or trainers can really tie jockeys down to major plans – you just have to ride as it comes. There’s plenty of unlucky stories in the Grand National because there are so many runners, with people getting in each other’s way and that kind of things, but it’s great to be coming to Aintree on the back of a good Cheltenham.”
When asked to reflect on last year’s victory, she added: “It’s very cool walking in and seeing some of the pictures up from last year and that kind of thing, it brings back good memories. There were not too many people walking about when I came in as it was lashing with rain!
“You just can’t compare that feeling of crossing the line (in the Grand National) – 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 that the Randox Grand National has and I really felt that after last year. The media attention after Cheltenham last year 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.
“That’s the kind of reach that the Grand National has – it reaches different parts of the globe and I suppose it was tricky last year as the whole country was in lockdown, so we weren’t doing the same kind of things that we would ordinarily be doing coming back after a Grand National win.
“When you go into a random clothes shop in Dublin and you’re dressed in normal clothes and someone comes up to you – that is mad. 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.”
Blackmore also revealed that she has received fan mail from all over since her history-making success.
She said: “I’ve got loads of fan mail 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.
“I don’t think I ever picked up a pen and wrote a letter to anyone or anything like that – my primary school has a lot to answer for! – but when I was younger it was probably Istabraq and Charlie Swan who were the first that I remember looking up to. He was a local horse and I remember going to see him with my school, so that was probably the first spark for me in to having an interest in racing.
“Sonia O’Sullivan (who won Gold for Ireland at the 1995 Athletics Word Championships) was someone else I looked up to, I remember watching her as a kid and kids just look up to anyone who’s doing well, I suppose.”
After last year’s victory, it was revealed that Blackmore had struck a pact with her Carlow housemates and fellow jockeys Patrick Mullins and Brian Hayes, who is also her partner, the night before the National that if one of them won the race they would pay for their flights to Las Vegas.
While Mullins and Hayes are yet to take her up on the offer, Blackmore admitted that they had not forgotten about it.
She explained: “They haven’t let me forget, don’t worry! We haven’t had a conversation about this year, but double or quits is a good idea! They haven’t forgotten and they will probably end up booking the flights at the most expensive time to go there!”
By Nick Seddon
**You can check our horse-by-horse guide to the big race here