Champion jockey Blackmore's Breffni links
After her stunning achievement in finishing the Cheltenham Festival as top rider with six wins, Rachael Blackmore followed up by becoming the first female jockey ever to win the most famous race in the world, the Aintree Grand National.
If she wasn’t before, the Tipperary woman is now certainly a household name in Ireland and the UK and has achieved universal popularity given her unassuming manner and her extraordinary accomplishments in the saddle.
Not many, though, may be aware of the 31-year-old’s strong Cavan links. Her grandmother, Patricia Shaffrey, is a native of Bailieborough and she has many family members in the county still in Bailieborough, Crosserlough and Virginia including Shaffreys and the well-known Callaghan sporting clan. Rachael’s mother Eimir’s first cousin is Savina Donohoe, the curator of Cavan County Museum.
Patricia Shaffrey's family owned the Commercial Hotel in Bailieborough, opposite where the Bailie Hotel now stands. Her brother Peter, Rachael's grand-uncle, later owned the Percy French hotel in Ballyjamesduff and the well-known Stag's Head and O'Brien's pubs in Dublin.
Peter's brother Paddy, who is hale and hearty, won a Senior Championship medal at corner-forward with Bailieborough Shamrocks in 1957.
Eimir charted the family history this week.
“My mother is from Bailieborough. She was Patricia Shaffrey but the family used to call her Bubbles. She lived with her siblings in Bailieborough. My uncle Peter who recently died, he owned and ran the Percy French hotel in Ballyjamesduff,” Eimir told the Anglo-Celt.
“Peter was an absolutely wonderful man. Rachael’s win now has reconnected me with a lot of my cousins from Cavan. You know the way life goes on and you kind of lose contact and you only meet at funerals but so many of them have made contact with me and it’s really lovely to be able to reconnect with my roots in Cavan.”
Patricia Shaffrey was married in Dublin and eventually settled in south Co Tipperary with her husband.
“She married Owen Lysaght and he worked with Guinness’s. They lived in Dublin,” explained Eimir.
“When my father retired from Guinness’s, he was the national sales manager and he would have been very well known among vintners and hoteliers. When he retired, he bought a stud farm down here in Tipperary, a place called Bawnbrack Stud in Killenaule.
“From the time Dad was southern manager, they always had the idea. He was in Clonmel at one stage and they bought a farm there. They sold that and bought Bawnbrack.
“I remember visiting Killenaule for the first time, I was just starting in UCD at the time, and thinking that it was very far away from civilisation! They never let me forget that I went on to marry my neighbour.
“The very first Christmas we were in Tipperary, Charles, Rachael’s Dad, came with his friends and asked myself and my sister out for a drink. And that was it, I am a Killenaule woman now!”
Rachael’s stellar successes have captured the imagination of the public. The family home in Killenaule has been flooded with card and letters of congratulations, said Eimir, who works as a schoolteacher.
“We are absolutely bowled over by the amount of support she is receiving, it’s incredible. We have been inundated with letters from people saying ‘I actually don’t follow the racing but I follow Rachael’.
“I think it’s a positive story for youngsters to get out and try and live your dreams.
“They say if you can’t see it, you can’t be it but she has wonderful jockeys who went ahead of her like Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh and they did a lot to try and bring women in racing forward.
“She had a win there tonight in Ballinrobe. She’s a lucky girl because she’s doing what she loves and if you have a passion in your life, you can consider yourself very lucky, can’t you?”
The family connection with horses goes back a long way. Rachael’s father grew up around them and her and her siblings learned to ride as small children and progressed from there.
“Charles’s family have been here for generations at a place called Mortlestown Castle. His father would have always had National Hunt horses and his siblings would have always had ponies and that sort of thing. All of us ride including myself so it was just natural when the children came along that they would ride.
“We live on a farm, we live in the country and it’s lovely to be able to do a sport where everybody is at the same level.
“The children did the traditional thing, they went to Pony Club. There’s another connection with Cavan there. When she was in Pony Club, Rachael was on the Irish pony Club Games team. The Games team, you’d see them at the RDS there, jumping off the ponies, getting back on, it’s like a relay.
“We are very friendly with Paul and Marian Keogan from Ballyjamesduff through that. In 2003 we went on a trip with them for the Irish team.
“Their son Alan has also kept his connection with the horses, he runs a showjumping and eventing yard, he has hunters and he sort of specialises in re-training horses who are problematic. He’s based in Castlerahan. I was talking to them this morning and getting the update on how they’re all doing.
“In these Games they get to learn how to win and they also get to learn how to lose and I think all those things help them. They went to the Pony Club at seven and stayed till about 15 or 17, they’re learning all the time.”
Rachael always had that competitive drive, she smiled.
“She was climbing out of her cot before she was one! She has an older brother Jonathan and a younger sister Charlotte. The first pony we bought, I suppose it wasn’t really a suitable pony for the children at all in the sense that it was very fast and had very few brakes.
“It was bought for her brother and Rachael quickly grew into it and they were off. They did all the normal things then, the hunting and the Pony Clubbing and eventing and showjumping.
“That was their childhood. That’s what they did. There is a great sort of equestrian theme here in Tipperary as there is in other parts of the country and that was their playground.
“It’s only when you think back on it, the picnics and loading the ponies. It really was wonderful, they learned to look after and respect their ponies, their ponies had to be looked after first and that gave them a work ethic.
“They had to do everything themselves. Rachael’s fast pony had to be galloped around a ploughed field before she could take it out hunting, otherwise it would have been too excited altogether. Those are all the things you think about now.
“Her Dad Charles taught the children to ride, I did a lot of the logistics of driving them around but he taught them to ride initially and took them hunting so I think he is responsible for making good horsemen and women out of them.”
After her brilliant successes in the Cotswolds, the family didn’t dare to even hope for a Grand National success.
“Absolutely not. To be honest with you, I was hoping that Honeysuckle would win because there was a lot of pressure and when Honeysuckle won, I said ‘you can’t be greedy, she’s after having a win, that’s brilliant’.
“She went on and had a second winner and then had six. I thought, ‘brilliant, she’s had her day in the sun now, that’s it’. She had a winner then on the first day of Aintree but coming up to the big race, I just said ‘please God just bring her home safe’ and that’s the absolute truth and I mean it for all the jockeys.
“I don’t usually watch it but I was here with Charles. With the pandemic, everyone is being very careful and we were on our own here and I just said I was going to watch it. I watched it and it was just brilliant, it was like a fairytale, we just couldn’t believe it.
“I got excited then when she jumped the last and I said ‘maybe this is going to happen’ and Charles was just saying ‘hold on, she’s not home yet!’.
“You have to cross the line, anything can happen. We have been absolutely flooded with everyone wishing us well, it’s just been amazing.”
While Rachael has been lauded for breaking down barriers, she prefers to avoid the media attention. While she is happy to be perceived as a role model, she sees no difference between male and female sportspeople at the elite end, said her mother.
“To be honest with you, Rachael is just a jockey. She has spoken at length about labelling people and I think in the modern world we have to get away from labelling people and pigeon-holing them. She likes to be considered a jockey and she loves the fact that she won the Grand National but she has won it as a jockey and not as a female jockey.
“When you come off at a fence, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female, it hurts the same. “I think the marvellous thing is that people are not concentrating so much on her being female if she wins a race and it makes you think that maybe things are changing. Equestrian spot has been one of the only sports where men and women can compete on an equal footing and it is to be commended.
“Girls and women are the backbone of the racing industry, they do a lot of the work behind the scenes, the riding out and everything else, and it’s only right that they would be represented at the top table.”
Being a jockey is one of the toughest gigs in sport; there are battles with the scales, inevitable falls and injuries and no shortage of pressure when the stakes are high. Only a certain type of individual is cut out to succeed.
“She won her big race and she came home and she had to ride in Thurles the next day and she won that too, that was after Cheltenham. She did the same after Aintree.
“It’s just work to her, this is her job. This is what she does. I go to school, Charles goes farming, she goes racing.”
Naturally, though, her achievements put her in the public eye.
“The first day in the local shop, they rang me up and said ‘will I keep the papers for you’ and I said ‘oh, absolutely, do’. He rang the second day and said she’s in the paper again and after day three I said ‘you’re ok!’.
“I think the world needed a good news story, everybody was well due a good news story.”
One of the great legacies of it all for Eimir has been the chance to re-connect with family in Cavan and elsewhere.
“I would have visited Cavan but I wouldn’t have extremely strong memories of it. I came at the end of our family, I’m one of seven, and I’m towards the end. The more children you have, it gets more difficult to travel around but I would have known my Uncle Philip and Auntie Ina very well, I would have met the Shaffreys who were in Dublin more than the relations in Cavan growing up.
“My Auntie Jo lived in Kildare so between Kildare and Dublin, we would have seen a lot of them that way.
“People are getting a great kick out of it. My cousin Peter Shaffrey Jr is in Antwerp and over Rachael winning, we are chatting away. Whatsapp is brilliant, you get to meet people who you might not have seen in a long time.
“The Shaffrey family were a very big family and they went on to have big families themselves so I have lots of cousins. They are lovely people, salt of the earth and they have all enjoyed seeing Rachael doing well.”
There may even be an exhibit in the County Museum in Ballyjamesduff some day!