Jockey Rachael Blackmore races into the record books… at a deserted Cheltenham Festival

Her first racing triumph, aged 13 and riding a pony, gave no hint that Rachael Blackmore would one day make history.

But yesterday she entered the record books by becoming the first woman to win the Champion Hurdle, highlight of the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

Miss Blackmore, 31, from Killenaule in County Tipperary, romped to victory on the favourite, Honeysuckle.

However, she had to make do with a low-key celebration in the winner’s enclosure afterwards as for the first time in the world-famous racing festival’s 161-year history no fans were allowed.

Triumph in the fashion stakes: Rachael Blackmore

Last year’s event was mired in controversy after it was allowed to go ahead at a time when other countries around the world were locking down to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Organisers and ministers were criticised amid fears the crowds during the four-day event would aid the spread of Covid-19.

The 150,000 fans from all over the world packed into bars on the course – and hotels, restaurants and pubs in the Gloucestershire town – leading to claims the festival had acted as a ‘superspreader’.

The World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, day two of the festival. But the Government did not introduce a national lockdown until two weeks later. Pictures of the normally bustling racecourse yesterday showed empty car parks, deserted grandstands and vacant enclosures.

Instead there was a sea of tarpaulins bearing the names of the sponsors as fans were forced to watch on TV from home.

Only a few hundred people – mainly jockeys, trainers, officials and some media – are being allowed in each day.

Such a difference: Cheltenham racecourse packed on March 10 2020 (top)... and empty, March 16 2021 (bottom)

Such a difference: Cheltenham racecourse packed on March 10 2020 (top)… and empty, March 16 2021 (bottom)

Trainer Nicky Henderson admitted this year’s festival ‘will be weird’ and ‘won’t have an atmosphere’.

A Cheltenham spokesman said: ‘It’s a real shame for the local economy and for racing fans that it’s not possible for spectators to attend this year.

‘However, just as last year when the festival went ahead in accordance with government advice that it should do so, we continue to respect and adhere to the nationwide restrictions in place.’

The festival is particularly popular with Irish fans, who would have roared on Miss Blackmore. But the lack of a crowd did little to dampen her joy at winning.

‘For me, this was never even a dream – it is so far from what I ever thought could happen in my life,’ she said.

Making history: Rachael yesterday as the first female winner of the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle

Making history: Rachael yesterday as the first female winner of the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle

‘Being in Cheltenham and riding a winner of a Champion Hurdle is so far removed from what I dreamt could be possible. When every person becomes a jockey they dream about riding at Cheltenham and all these things, but riding a winner like this is just unbelievable.

‘It’s a shame the crowds aren’t here, because the people are what make Cheltenham what it is. But it was nice that the people that are here gave us a cheer. It still feels very special. Hopefully we’ll see the crowds back next year.’

Miss Blackmore, the daughter of a dairy farmer and a teacher, has come a long way since winning the Tipperary Ladies’ Handicap Hurdle in 2011, her first proper race victory.

After studying equine science at the University of Limerick, she turned professional in 2015 – the first Irishwoman to do so since the 1980s.

Her mother says she was always a daredevil and her career as a jump jockey has seen her break her nose, wrist and collarbone.

But she has also shown her feminine side, posing for a glamorous fashion shoot. Miss Blackmore played down her place in the record books yesterday.

Asked whether her victory would inspire young women to take up the sport, she said: ‘It does not matter what you are. You know, we are jockeys, we win races.’

She will seek to make history again on Friday when she hopes to be the first female jockey to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, in which she rides A Plus Tard.

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