In almost all sports worldwide, equestrian sports included, the debate over gender issues and the fight for equality continue. But in Britain and Ireland, 2020 can be at least looked back on as a year of progress for female jockeys. In flat racing, Hollie Doyle surpassed her own record of 119 winners in a season, finishing fourth in the Flat Jockeys Championship. In jumps racing, we saw the continued progression of female riders like Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore. The latter, in particular, had a stellar 2020, and it looks like she could have an even better 2021.
Blackmore, who hails from County Tipperary, Ireland, has struck up a partnership with trainer Henry de Bromhead, and the pair will head to the 2021 Cheltenham Festival with a lot of confidence. In fact, we could argue that Blackmore has the strongest book of rides ever for a female jockey going into a major racing festival in Britain.
Before looking at some of Blackmore’s excellent chances at Cheltenham (16th-19th March), it’s worth mentioning why her ascendency to the elite level is so important. A couple of years ago, a comprehensive study was done on the issue of gender when it came to jockeys’ success. And when we say comprehensive, we mean it – over one million races were analysed over 14 years. The conclusion was that male and female jockeys performed to an equal standard.
Frost and Kelly have also excelled in big events
The only difference was that male jockeys got the chances in the big races, whereas females were overlooked. Just one in a hundred top-class rides went to women. That’s been changing, albeit very slowly. Over the last couple of years, female jockeys like Blackmore, Lizzie Kelly and Bryony Frost have been given opportunities in Grade 1 races – and took them. But it’s been a trickle, rather than a flood of opportunity.
So, as we approach the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, it should be noted that Blackmore has a book of rides (provided by de Bromhead) that will be the envy of most jockeys. Most notably, there is Honeysuckle, who is the market leader in the Cheltenham betting for the Grade 1 Mares’ Hurdle. Blackmore and Honeysuckle won that race last year, and another victory (Honeysuckle is unbeaten in her career) would see Blackmore become the first female jockey to win two consecutive Grade 1 races at Cheltenham.
Blackmore has other fine chances too. Bob Olinger is the second-favourite for the Marsh Novices’ Hurdle (another Grade 1 event), and she will likely ride Notebook in the prestigious Queen Mother Champion Chase. Notebook isn’t the favourite, but the horse has class and wouldn’t be a shock winner. Aspire Tower might also give Blackmore a chance at becoming the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle.
Blackmore has huge chance in Gold Cup
And then there is the Cheltenham Gold Cup – arguably the most prestigious event in British racing; perhaps even outstripping the Grand National as the holy grail for jockeys. Henry de Bromhead trains the second and third-favourites – Minella Indo and A Plus Tard. The latter is assumed to be Blackmore’s choice. A Plus Tard represents the best chance for a female jockey to land the Gold Cup in Cheltenham’s history.
Only a handful of women have ridden in the Gold Cup. Linda Sheedy was the first female jockey to appear in the event back in 1984. But there was a 23-year wait until the next, Lizzie Kelly in 2017. Blackmore has a chance – a good chance – to put down a marker for female jockeys. We should also note that Bryony Frost and her horse, Frodon, have a solid chance if they opt to run in the Gold Cup. Frost became the first woman to win (on Frodon) the King George VI Chase back in December.
We should finish by saying that Blackmore doesn’t owe anything to anyone. There was no leap of faith taken by Henry de Bromhead to give her the choice picks from his burgeoning stable. Blackmore has risen to the top by being too good to ignore. She might leave the festival with the award for top jockey, something that was perhaps unthinkable for a woman just a couple of years ago. Hopefully, her success will convince the top trainers that they have erred in the past by overlooking female jockeys.