Racing: Female jockey Rachael Blackmore makes history with Cheltenham Champion Hurdle win

Jockey Rachael Blackmore rides to victory on Honeysuckle (far right). PHOTO: AFP

CHELTENHAM, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) - Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on Tuesday (March 16), riding Honeysuckle to an historic victory in front of empty stands.

The sun shone as the favourite romped home by six-and-a-half lengths - the mare's 11th win in 11 races.

The win for Blackmore and Honeysuckle is a much-needed shot in the arm for racing after shocking pictures emerged of leading Irish trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse.

The three-time Grand National-winning trainer was earlier this month banned for a year, six months of which are suspended, by racing authorities.

But the sport took centre stage at the Cheltenham Festival as Blackmore made headlines for the right reasons.

"To me, this was never even a dream," said the 31-year-old Irish jockey, who rode her first winner in 2011 as an amateur before turning professional in 2015.

"It was so far from what I ever thought could happen in my life - to be in Cheltenham, riding a winner of a Champion Hurdle." She made light of her history-making achievement on day one of the event - the highlight of the jump-racing calendar.

"It doesn't matter what you are," she said. "We are jockeys. It is just a privilege to be here."

Trainer Henry de Bromhead said it was a joy to watch the winner in Blackmore's assured hands.

"It's amazing," said de Bromhead. "Rachael is as good as any of them - male, female, she is as good as any of the guys."

Former top Irish amateur jockey Katie Walsh said Blackmore's achievement was special.

"Absolutely brilliant," she told the BBC.

"I just think it is brilliant. She deserves this so much. She works hard and it is history.

"She has brought it to another level (female riding). It is great and so special to be watching on."

Jockey Rachael Blackmore celebrates on Honeysuckle after her victory at Britain's Cheltenham racecourse. PHOTO: AFP

Last year Cheltenham attracted a barrage of criticism after the event went ahead with crowds of around 50,000 per day for the four-day extravaganza as the pandemic took hold in Britain.

This time round, due to strict Covid-19 protocols in place, there are no crowds present, not even owners, on the racecourse in southwest England.

'Massive loss'

Ian Renton, the regional director for The Jockey Club, which owns Cheltenham racecourse, told AFP it was crucial for the event to go ahead even without spectators after a tough year for the sport.

"For the racing community, it is so important that it goes on," he said.

"For owners, trainers, jockeys, stable staff their livelihoods rely on the meeting, it is the showcase for the sport."

The lack of crowds deprives the Festival of its raucous atmosphere but also impacts hugely on local businesses.

"It regularly brings in over £100 million (S$180 million) to the local community, hotels, restaurants, clubs and the like," Renton told AFP.

"It is a massive loss and is a very tough time on top of everything they have been through during the pandemic."

One local taxi driver said he would usually take between £2,000 and £3,000 for the week but faced a quiet few days.

One of Elliott's horses, Black Tears, won the Mares Hurdle but it will go down as trained by Denise Foster, who has stepped in to train his horses.

Veteran trainers Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson showed their hunger is as great as ever.

Mullins, 64, and 70-year-old Henderson welcomed back Appreciate It and Shishkin after impressive victories in the Supreme Novices Hurdle and Arkle Chase.

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