When Rachael Blackmore leaves the stalls at around a quarter past seven on Saturday evening at the Curragh she will become only the third female jockey to ride in the Irish Derby.
Having been given the opportunity to ride the Emmet Mullins trained King Of the Throne in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby she will join a select group of riders, including Ana O’Brien and Joanna Morgan.
Speaking to Racing TV following the announcement Blackmore said: “I can’t believe it to be honest, it’s pretty cool to be riding in it. Fair play to Emmet (Mullins) for giving me the opportunity to ride in it. It’s a big deal for him as well, having his first runner in the race.
“It’s very exciting and I’m really looking forward to it. I feel like I’m an imposter in it to be honest. It’s such an incredibly special race. I never even dreamt of riding in Irish classics. It really does mean a lot to get the opportunity to ride in a race like this and I’m very grateful to be given it.”
It’s been 44 years since Joanna Morgan, a young apprentice at the time, made history when she rode Riot Helmet, for her boss Seamus McGrath, finishing last behind the French-trained Malacate. It was a day Morgan remembers fondly: “It was an extraordinary experience. I wasn’t one bit nervous. He was a great ride, but as a 50/1 shot I knew I didn’t have much of a chance.”
Morgan, a true pioneer of racing, was the first woman to ride a winner as a professional jockey in Ireland, and was the first woman jockey to ride a winner at Royal Ascot.
Back in those days the Irish Derby was sponsored by the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes, a company owned by the McGrath’s. They had won the race with their own horse Weaver’s Hall in 1973. Riot Helmet was the stables second string that day.
When I caught up with the former trainer she was in Doncaster at the sales with her daughter. I asked her about the day she made history: “It was probably a bit of a publicity stunt on the owners behalf, because of course they were sponsoring the race. There was huge media hype ahead of the race. I’d beaten Lester Piggott about four months beforehand at the Phoenix Park, to become the first woman jockey to beat Piggott on the race track. I had gotten a lot of publicity over that. It was unheard of at the time. That was Ireland back in those days, women weren’t supposed to do those sort of things.”
As for the race itself Morgan said: “My very last memory of the race is that they jumped out of the gate and they went five furlong pace for a mile and a half. I could not believe it. I’ve ridden mile and a half races, and I’ve won on horses in sprints and I’ve won on horses over all trips. They just hit the gate and ran, I couldn’t believe the pace.
“In the end I finished last in the race, but he came out about a month later and he won a maiden in Naas by about 30 lengths. It just shows you the difference in class, he won by almost half the track. That was my abiding memory of it. I was just 21 years of age at the time.
“I had few more rides on the day. To be honest I was more nervous about riding a favourite in a different race. There was no pressure on me in the Derby. It was a doddle, because he was such a good ride.”
Lack of Opportunity
Morgan was unfortunate not to have ridden in the Epsom Derby a few years later when she was due to ride a horse for a trainer based in Wales, but the horse was withdrawn late to deny her the opportunity.
She never got any further opportunities at the top level, something she puts down on being classed as a lightweight jockey: “When I came out of my time as an apprentice I was known, rightly or wrongly, as a lightweight jockey. There was much lighter weights then, but I got that label of being a lightweight jockey. I don’t know why but all you did was get all the bloody bottom of the handicap horses and you never seemed to get the better horses.
“And of course, they always had the old adage of, a girl is not as strong as a fella. But it’s not, I mean especially flat horses. You see how the girls are doing everywhere now. When I was riding I was very fortunate insofar as there was great opportunities. Travelling all over the world doing these like promotional races, riding against the professionals all over the place. I went to Australia, New Zealand, South America, Japan, I got trips everywhere because they were trying to get the women going that time.”
“I couldn’t understand why it didn’t really take off for women jockeys. It’s only now that it’s getting going in England, because when you think about it logically. In any other equestrian sport women are just as highly thought of, because you carry less muscle on your torso you’re not actually as generally heavy as a fella. You have a smaller frame, it’s easier to do the weight and it’s only knack at the end of the day.”
For Blackmore, it’s not like she hasn’t rode on the flat before. She’s won ten times on the flat, including the Listed Martin Molony Stakes at Limerick last week aboard the Emmet Mullins trained Oriental Eagle.
Morgan is delighted that the 30 year-old from Killenaule, Co Tipperary is getting her chance to ride in the Irish Derby this weekend, and knows that she’ll take it all in her stride: “Oh, geez, I have great admiration for her. She’s a fantastic role model as a jockey, top dollar. She’s just a jockey, not male or female. She’s just excellent. Rachael’s hardy and strong, fit and well able. She’s as good as any of them. If I was still training I would certainly use her.
“The thing you have to remember is, it was exactly the same in my year when I started. You had to be on the ball. You have to work that bit harder. It’s more of a struggle for a woman but you have to put in a bit more effort. Nothing comes easy but you get your rewards because you’re as fit. Obviously and you have to be sharper than the lads.”
“Mentally you have to manoeuvre your career and you have to make the right decisions, because any bit of a falter and you’re more likely to get knocked If you’re a woman. You’re more exposed, it’s that more difficult. You have to be tougher, harder, smarter and sharper and you really do have to have that mental strength as well as everything else to navigate your way into a career.
“She won’t be a bit nervous on the day. It’ll be a doddle. It’ll be a fun day out. She’s on a 50/1 shot, she won’t be nervous. She’s not gonna fall off, is she? I’d say just enjoy yourself. There’s no pressure on her. It would be different if she was on a 1/5 shot. She’s just a cool dude, she’s well able,” said Morgan.