Fantasy no more: Blackmore 1st woman to win Grand National

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A Hollywood fantasy turned into reality on Saturday when Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win Britain’s grueling Grand National horse race, breaking down one of the biggest gender barriers in sports.

Blackmore, a 31-year-old Irishwoman, rode Minella Times to a landmark victory at odds of 11-1 in the 173rd edition of the famous steeplechase at Aintree in Liverpool, northwest England

“I don’t feel male or female right now. I don’t even feel human,” Blackmore said. “This is just unbelievable.”

Blackmore is the 20th female jockey to compete in a race that has been a mud-splattered British sporting institution since 1839. Women have only been allowed to enter the National as jockeys since 1975, making it a male-dominated event — until now.

“I never even imagined I’d get a ride in this race, never mind get my hands on the trophy,” Blackmore said.

After all, the 1944 Hollywood movie “National Velvet” was the story of a 12-year-old girl, Velvet Brown — played by a young Elizabeth Taylor — who won the Grand National on The Pie, a gelding she won in a raffle and one she decided to train for the world’s biggest horse race. In the story, Brown was later disqualified on a technicality, having dismounted before reaching the enclosure.

Even though Aintree was without race-goers because of the pandemic, cheers rang out as Blackmore made her way off the course — still aboard Minella Times — and into the winner’s enclosure. She looked as if she couldn’t believe what she had done.

“For all the girls who watched National Velvet!” tweeted Hayley Turner, a former female jockey. “Thank you Rachael Blackmore, we’re so lucky to have you.”

Blackmore, the daughter of a dairy farmer and school teacher, grew up on a farm and rode ponies. She didn’t have a classic racing upbringing, though, making her ascent in the sport all the more inspirational.

A professional jockey since 2015, she rode the second most winners in Irish jump racing in 2018-19, the same season she won her first races at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival. She was already the face of British and Irish horse racing before arriving at Aintree, having become the first woman to finish as the leading jockey at Cheltenham three weeks ago.

Now she’s won the biggest race of them all, one that even non-horse racing enthusiasts turn on to watch and one that first captured Blackmore’s imagination. Indeed, her first memory of horse racing is going over to a friend’s house and taking part in a sweepstake for the National.

A beaming Blackmore had special words for her parents, who “took me around the country riding ponies when I was younger.”

“I can’t believe I am Rachael Blackmore. I still feel like that little kid — I just can’t believe I am me,” she said.

“I hope it does help anyone who wants to be a jockey. I never thought this would be possible for me. I didn’t dream of making a career as a jockey because I never thought it could happen.”

The previous best performance by a female jockey in the National was Katie Walsh’s third-place finish on Seabass in 2012. That always looked under threat by Minella Times, who went out as the fourth favorite of the 40 horses in a race run over 4 1/4 miles (6.4 kilometers) and features 30 big and often brutal fences.

Minella Times was always near the front of the field and Blackmore timed the horse’s run for glory to perfection, easing past long-time leader Jett with around three fences to jump.

The famous, draining run to the line — about 500 meters from the last fence — was a procession as Minella Times won by 6 1/2 lengths.

“He was just incredible and jumped beautifully,” Blackmore said. “I tried to wait as long as I could. When I jumped the last and asked him for a bit, he was there.”

One of the other two female jockeys in the race, Bryony Frost, was taken to the hospital after being unseated from her horse, Yala Enki.

The Long Mile was destroyed after suffering an injury while running between two of the fences. It was the second equine fatality since safety changes to the race were introduced in 2013.

Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

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BENSALEM, Pa. – Taiba won the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby by three lengths for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

Ridden by Mike Smith, Taiba ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.67 and paid $4.80, $3 and $2.60.

It was Baffert’s fourth win in the Grade 1 event at Parx Racing. He also won in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Smith won the race for the third time, all aboard Baffert horses.

Zandon returned $3.80 and $2.60. Cyberknife was another 3 3/4 lengths back in third and paid $3 to show.

Taiba was coming off a second-place finish in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth in July. The colt was 12th in the Kentucky Derby under Tim Yakteen, who took over training him while Baffert was serving a 90-day suspension.

“He had a little bit of a rough trip in the Haskell, but we had some time to get him ready for this one,” Baffert said from his base in California. “He proved today he is a good horse. He is getting better and better.”

Baffert Taiba will be pointed toward the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. The colt has three wins in five starts this year.

Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs has modified paths to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, awarding points to the top five finishers in qualifying races and increasing significance for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and late prep season events.

Most Derby prep races during the qualifying series for 3-year-olds will award points on a 10-4-3-2-1 sliding scale after using a 10-4-2-1 system since 2013. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, run during the season-ending championships on Nov. 4 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, will increase points from 20-8-4-2 to 30-12-9-6-3 to differentiate the Grade I event from others during prep season.

Select prep races for the 20-horse Derby field have elevated points from a 10-4-2-1 scale to 20-8-6-4-2 to increase their importance and motivate hopefuls to begin their 3-year-old campaigns earlier in the season, track officials stated in a release.

“We believe these modifications adhere to and amplify our goal of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting gate for a race at the classic distance of 1\ miles on the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs vice president/general manager Mike Ziegler said.

The 149th Kentucky Derby and Oaks for fillies will be held on May 5-6, 2023. Derby qualifying season begins with Saturday’s $300,000, Grade III Iroquois for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

The point changes apply to Oaks qualifiers.

Elevated Derby preps include the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in Louisiana; Southwest at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas; Withers at Aqueduct in New York; Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida; Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in California; Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky.