Cheltenham Festival: Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore win back-to-back Champion Hurdles

Tuesday March 15 2022, 9.05pm, The Times

There should be something very special about a champion. As Rachael Blackmore rode Honeysuckle back before the massed galleries of the great amphitheatre that is the Cheltenham unsaddling enclosure, there was no doubt that we had seen something very special indeed.

In three minutes and 50 seconds of running time, the assured, young woman from Tipperary and the elegant, little mare from County Waterford had brought this tumultuous corner of the sporting world to sporting delight as they took the Champion Hurdle for the second year. Sure, Honeysuckle had started at odds-on to stretch her unbeaten sequence to 15, but no champion event is ever a given and as the ten runners drilled down towards us on the first circuit, you knew that keeping the title would be no easy ride.

The massive Appreciate It was an awesome sight as he thundered into and over the flight with Not So Sleepy and Zanahiyr in close attendance, while Blackmore and Honeysuckle kept guard on the outside. They were not fluent over that hurdle, but a huge leap at the next kept them right in it.

Honeysuckle would be a good 70 kilos lighter than Appreciate It and has firm, but feminine features, a description which could be applied to the slight figure in owner Kenny Alexander’s blue with white spotted silks up behind the mane. Blackmore has a quite upright stance through a race, her back slightly hunched, her hands down on the withers. But she resonates governance and was, once again, faultless as this Champion Hurdle unrolled.

This is a place where no quarter will be asked or given. Coming down the hill, she was behind Appreciate It, with Zanahiyr and others pushing up to block the outside. There was a gap to take before the second last and she was through it without hesitation. But the commitment meant she would lead round the final bend with the hounds of hell behind her and the great roar of the grandstand up ahead.

That was where you saw the rider insist her partner share her determination. There was nothing particularly pretty about it. Coming to the last right in front of us, Blackmore was a little punching dynamo, the reins grabbed in both hands, the whip slapping down withers to insist on take-off, before more was asked all the way to the line.

Epatante had closed but neither she or Zanahiyr could threaten, Epatante finishing three-and-a-half lengths adrift, with Zanahiyr another length in third, and Appreciate It fading into seventh, albeit with great credit in his first race since this day 12 months ago. Last year, Honeysuckle and Blackmore had raced home to an empty grandstand, now the cheers rolled down in welcome. This was not a victory, but a coronation.

The queen could scarcely believe it. “It’s just incredible,” Blackmore, still breathless, said. “Walking out there in front of the stands with all the people — this is such a special place and I’m so lucky to be riding winners here.

“She’s just an incredible mare. She decides when she’s happy to go and I haven’t stopped her from doing that yet. She’s unbelievable and so much work goes into her at home. Henry (De Bromhead, the trainer) has a massive team of staff and they deserve all the credit for this victory as well.”

The sun had only just risen above Cleeve Hill when the trainer had supervised his star’s early canter; it was now deep in the haze behind the grandstand but his face was aglow. “I can’t believe she’s done it again,” De Bromhead said. “It’s a joy to train her and we’re blessed to have her. It’s been a fairytale. I’m always preparing for it to end but she just keeps winning.

“Most people here were willing her to win. You just have to pinch yourself. We feel so lucky to be involved with her.”

The crowd was awash with happiness as it saluted the horse that had delivered and the young woman, with the blue and yellow armband of Ukraine, who has done so much to restore the faith. Blackmore’s mother, Eimir, is a teacher and she had words to teach us now.

She said: “I am very proud that she has given people something to cheer about at a time when there is a lot of unhappiness in the world.”

There is always an aftermath to triumph, as horse and jockey go their different ways. Blackmore did her interviews, but you could see the seriousness behind the smiles. She had a horse to ride in the next and was to be brought brutally back down to earth when taken out by another faller at the second last. Before that, Honeysuckle did a lap of honour and was then led up to the washdown area by Colman Comerford, his blue eyes shining with a happiness given only to a very few.

Colman has handled the now dual champion since she joined De Bromhead after winning her only point-to-point four years ago.

“She’s amazing,” he said, with exasperated affection, as the great mare rubbed her head against his chest while he tried to hose down her flanks. “She’s pretty good to deal with, but she’s not a pet and at home she doesn’t look very special and works alongside the National winner Minella Times. But out on the track — well, she’s different.”

Washdown finished, he walked her back to where a gaggle of fans wanted to touch her face and take her photo. Honeysuckle stood there, cool, elegant, and quite unfussed with the whole proceeding. But the memory still buzzed of those four galloping minutes out on the track, and not for the first time you could shake the head in grateful wonders at the pair of champions we now have.

Just 40 minutes later…
The race after her triumph, Blackmore came heavily off Telmesomethinggirl in the Mares’ Hurdle, above, but walked away from the fall and rode Champion Green in the next race, finishing 11th.

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