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Cheltenham Festival: Rachael Blackmore raises the bar for female jockeys

Rachael Blackmore's recent haul of Cheltenham Festival successes have brought female riders firmly into the spotlight, but the 'Queen of Cheltenham' is far from a lone rider in that regard.

The first female winning rider was Caroline Beasley, riding as an amateur when she won the 1983 Foxhunters Chase on Eliogarty.

Lizzie Kelly broke new ground as recently as 2018, steering Coo Star Sivola home in the Ultima Handicap Chase to become the first professional winning female rider. Blackmore and Bryony Frost have upped the ante still further since that, landing Grade 1 wins.

We look at the outstanding efforts of Blackmore, alongside some of those that blazed the trail before her.

Ladies make their mark on 2018 Festival

The 2018 Cheltenham Festival was something of a watershed moment for female riders as they landed four wins, each by a different jockey.

Lizzie Kelly became the first professional jockey to triumph at the meeting when she partnered Coo Star Sivola for a famous win in the Ultima. 

Just 12 months before, Kelly had been the first female jockey to ride in the Gold Cup for 33 years but the dream turned into a nightmare and her desolation after falling from Tea For Two just two fences in was one of the abiding images of the meeting.

Though she suggested she'd 'made peace' with never winning a race at the meeting following that setback, she did just that a year later, powering up the hill and fending off Shantou Flyer by a head at the line to win the Ultima, one of the toughest handicaps over fences at the festival. 

Katie Walsh would win the Champion Bumper a day later, her third and final win at the showpiece meeting, while Bridget Andrews made it two for the pro-ranks steering Mohaayed home in the County Hurdle and Harriet Tucker added the Foxhunters on Pacha Du Polder in a memorable Gold Cup Day for the girl in 2018.

Nina the punters pal for many a year

Before that breakout year, it was Nina Carberry that carried the outstanding claims for female riders at Cheltenham Festivals.

The phrase 'Nina's in the bumper' was oft-heard on Irish racecourses throughout the career of the rider steeped in racing tradition - her father Tommy was a top-class pilot and brother Paul the same, while she married Ted Walsh Jr, brother of Ruby and Katie. 

The phrase 'Nina's in the bumper' was oft-heard on Irish racecourses throughout the career of the rider steeped in racing tradition – her father Tommy was a top-class pilot and brother Paul the same, while she married Ted Walsh Jr, brother of Ruby and Katie. 

At Cheltenham, Nina Carberry enjoyed seven wins – on punters favourites like Heads Onthe Ground (2007) and Garde Champetre (2008 & 2009) in the Cross Country Chase and On The Fringe (2015 & 2016) in the St James's Place Foxhunter Chase. 

Together, Carberry and Katie Walsh were credited for leading the charge for female riders in the 2000s, their successes widely regarded as having inspired the generation coming up after them.

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Grade 1 breakout for Bryony

Just a year after the 2018 tally of four, another quartet followed . This time they all came from professional lady riders and they included the first Grade 1 win at the Festival.

That came when the inspirational Bryony Frost and Frodon partnership enjoyed one of many massive days they enjoyed together by winning the Ryanair Chase under a terrific pace-setting ride as the likes of Un De Sceaux and Footpad were vanquished.

Kelly added the Festival Plate on Siruh Du Lac and, in 2019, a certain Rachael Blackmore got her first taste of Cheltenham Festival glory when A Plus Tard torched his rivals en route to winning the Close Brothers Nov Handicap Chase – more about that partnership below! 

Blackmore also grabbed her maiden Grade 1 success that year, steering Minella Indo to what was a shock 50/1 success in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.

Rachael re-writes the history books

It was in 2021 that Blackmore would take the Cheltenham Festival history books and completely re-write them.
It began when Honeysuckle justified the hype and won the Champion Hurdle on the Tuesday.

The Ballymore Novices' Hurdle followed on Wednesday with Bob Olinger and Blackmore then showed her talent in picking up a double on 'spares' for Willie Mullins via Sir Gerhard in the Bumper and Allaho in the Ryanair Chase.

The aptly-named Telmesomethinggirl won the Mares' Novices Hurdle for her boss Henry De Bromhead and it was 'six of the best' when Quilixios came home in front in the Triumph Hurdle on the Friday.

Remarkably, Blackmore was an agonising second in the Gold Cup that year as A Plus Tard was denied by Minella Indo – both trained by De Bromhead and a duo she'd had to choose between! 

Still, even that couldn't taint her history-making effort as she became the first female to be crowned leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival.

A-Plus performance lands coveted Gold Cup

Blackmore is the outstanding female talent of not just her generation, but any generation. She has raised the bar to unprecedented levels in her career.

Her efforts have helped to ensure that she's no longer considered a 'female jockey' – it's just jockey now and top-class one at that.

After her record-breaking Cheltenham in 2021, she went on the next month to become the first female ever to ride the winner of the Grand National when Minella Times landed the Aintree showpiece. 

Accolades such as BBC's Sports Personality World Sport Star of the Year and RTE's Sports Person of the Year in her home nation duly followed. 

In 2022, she retained the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle, won the Turners Novices' Chase on Bob Olinger and then took out the big one – the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

A year earlier, Minella Indo had denied A Plus Tard but, this time, Blackmore delivered the perfect stalking ride, biding her time until they approached the final fence and then driving A Plus Tard clear to a superb 15-length win in the Blue Riband, the Cheltenham Festival showpiece and, indeed, the most coveted prize in racing. 

Honeysuckle's farewell a moment for the ages

At the 2023 Festival, Blackmore and her long-time ally Honeysuckle combined to produce a moment that will be enshrined in Cotswolds folklore forever more.

Honeysuckle was bringing down the curtain on her career in the race she had won previously in 2020 and was the well-backed favourite on the day. 

Frontrunner Love Envoi looked as though she was going to do enough to win jumping the last ahead but Honeysuckle produced a spirited late challenge and grabbed victory.

The scenes in the winners' enclosure post-race as Blackmore and trainer De Bromhead savoured the moment – just months after the latter lost his teenage son Jack in a tragic accident – embodied all that can be good about sport amid such devastating loss and those images will be shown for a very long time. 

Ryanair Chase glory on Envoi Allen followed, taking her tally of Festival wins to 14 and counting. 

Many had gone before, but Rachael Blackmore has truly raised the bar in terms of achievements by female riders at the Cheltenham Festival. Her efforts and the role model she has become are only likely to ensure that subsequent generations will challenge the records she continues to break. 

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