Rachael Blackmore is enjoying a potentially historic season in her native Ireland – and although she may not admit it herself, it is also surely a case of when rather than if she will break her duck at the Cheltenham Festival.
Unlike many of her weighing-room colleagues, Blackmore was not bred to be a jockey. The daughter of a dairy farmer and a secondary school teacher, the 29-year-old spent her formative years in college with the aim of becoming a veterinary surgeon.
But after stints studying science and maths in Dublin and equine science in Limerick, there was a change of plan.
Speaking at a Cheltenham Festival press event at The K Club Hotel and Resort in County Kildare, Blackmore said: “I kept failing at maths, so I had to kick out of that fairly quick. I was trying to educate myself, but it was a hopeless case.
“I always wanted to be a vet – that was kind of my dream.
“People say to me now ‘your dreams are coming true’. But I could never even have dreamt about being a professional jockey, because I could never see it as any sort of reality. It was so far from what I thought I could ever achieve.
“Being a vet is what I wanted to be, but I was poor enough at academics. I’m happy enough now anyway.”
Even before her years at college, Blackmore had been bitten by the racing bug.
Her first ‘victory’ came on the pony-racing circuit, where she touched off a subsequent champion jockey in Paul Townend.
“I grew up on a farm, surrounded by horses,” she said.
“I did pony club and a bit of eventing and hunting – all those kind of natural routes.
“I did a lot of pony-club games, and the pony I was on – Tommy – was pretty fast. So from there, I got into pony racing.
“In my first experience of pony racing, I actually beat Paul Townend a nose – which was a big highlight. Little did I think we’d be where we are now.
“It’s quite funny watching the video back – because Paul was only 12 or 13, but he was so polished already and looked like he was going to be a champion jockey of the future. I just look horrendous beside him – but I won anyway, which was the main thing.”
Wind the clock forward around 15 years, and it is Townend – champion National Hunt jockey in Ireland in 2011 – who once again leads the way.
Blackmore is right on his tail, though.
A mixture of shyness, modesty and perhaps a shade of superstition means she is none too keen to discuss her title prospects – but the fact is the former champion conditional is closer than any female jockey has ever got to being crowned champion, either on the Flat or over jumps in Britain or Ireland.
Blackmore has already ridden more than 80 winners this season – more than doubling her best previous tally – but she can certainly not be accused of taking her position for granted.
“The angle that I’m female is not something that really resonates with me – just the fact that I am where I am at this stage of the season is unbelievable,” she said.
“The championship wasn’t a target for me – it would have been a very unrealistic target. The thing has just evolved.”
With any discussion just yet of the championship put on the back-burner, Blackmore – who shares a house with boyfriend Brian Hayes and leading amateur riders Patrick Mullins and Richie Deegan – is looking forward to the four biggest days in her sport at Prestbury Park.
Recalling her first visit to the Cotswolds, she said: “My first memories of Cheltenham are to do with The 21 Club (a nightclub). It will be a bit different this year, I think!
“I was 19 or 20 when I first went over. I went with two friends of mine for two or three days and viewed Cheltenham from the other side.
“It was a great few days, and I hope I’m going over this year with a few rides. That’s where I wanted to be when I was 19 or 20 in my nice, fancy dress -looking in at what the lads were doing.
“Cheltenham is a fantastic place. It’s all about Cheltenham all year round – there’s no other Festival like it. There’s such build-up and hype, and I just really look forward to it.
“I think for any jockey who takes out a licence – amateur or professional – a winner in Cheltenham is a dream. That would be something.”
Blackmore might have portrayed a timid figure in front of the assembled press in the plush surroundings of The K Club, but make no mistake – there is an inner steel and burning ambition within.
She can certainly not be accused of taking her position for granted, and perhaps it is the fear of failure – along with a daily breakfast of porridge and Nutella – that has driven her to become one of the elite jockeys in the Irish weighing room.
“If you’re good enough you’ll get the chance – if you stick at it,” she said.
“In my case it was a long time – but I got the chance.
“I love what I do. I’m privileged to be doing this as my job. Girls I went to school and college with are in jobs now, and getting good money, but they don’t love what they’re doing.
“I love what I’m doing – but at the same time I try not to think about it. I just want it to keep going, so I’m trying not to dwell on things.
“You’re constantly looking forward.”