Cheltenham Festival: Rachael Blackmore makes history by winning Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle

THE TIMES, 17 March 2021

History in every image, Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore took this year’s Champion Hurdle and gave jump racing a story to bring the smiles back.

Honeysuckle is an elegant seven year old mare winning for the 12th successive time since it all started four years ago in a point to point in County Cork. Rachael Blackmore is a calm composed 31-year-old who in becoming the first woman to win this Cheltenham highlight, gave us the ultimate proof that in racing as in so much of life, brains are more important than brawn.

At nine stone Rachael would be a stone lighter than her main male rivals. But, in only her sixth season as a professional, she has long convinced that she concedes nothing when it comes to race management. Never forget that in equine athletics it is the horse who does the running. Provided you have the skill to stop them tearing off with you and the strength to hold them together in a finish, it is where you position them and when you commit that are crucial. Yesterday’s Champion Hurdle was just the latest proof that this is where Rachael excels.

She never overcomplicates. With Not So Sleepy, Silver Streak and Goshen predictably forcing the pace, she kept Honeysuckle to the outside with plenty of space to cover every move. Goshen’s steering almost broke as he swerved wide off to the right in the back straight but then the whole field bunched up to race down the hill towards the third last. Rachel and Honeysuckle on the outside was the best place to be. At this stage, last year’s winner Epatante didn’t have much room but it was soon clear that the ladies had the legs of all of them.

They make a matching pair. Honeysuckle is elegant rather than huge, and above her Rachael has a quite a straight legged, round-backed stance and drives forward with a chivvying, neck-slapping persistence which yesterday crescendoed ino a soaring leap at the last to rocket home six long lengths clear of Sharjah with Epatante a further three lengths back.

“It’s absolutely incredible. I’m speechless to be honest, I really am,” said an understandably euphoric Blackmore. “I can’t believe we just won a Champion Hurdle, it’s incredible. I hope [owner] Kenny Alexander is getting a kick out of this at home, I’m sure he is and Peter Molony [his racing manager]. It’s unbelievable for everyone in the yard, they all work so hard. Coleman Comerford who rides her out, such a massive team. Henry (De Bromhead, Honeysuckle’s trainer) just produces her every day in that form and I get to steer her round. It’s just incredible.”

But giddiness is not Rachael’s way. “She’s so straightforward to ride and when you have an engine under you it’s very easy to do things in a race,” she said of Honeysuckle “This is such a special race and I am just so thankful to be a part of her – it’s all about her. She’s unbeaten, and she’s improving. Her last run was her career best until today; she’s getting better all the time. It’s just phenomenal.

“To me, this was never even a dream. 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. It’s just so far removed from anything I ever thought could be possible, so maybe there’s a lesson in that for everyone out there. You can’t do it without getting on the right horses, and I’ve been extremely lucky in that sense, getting linked up with a yard like Henry de Bromhead’s. You need to be riding those horses and that’s a massive part of any jockey’s career, being in the right place at the right time and getting linked up with the right yard.”

“There’s no deal about female jockeys anymore,” she added.  “Look it doesn’t matter what you are, we’re jockeys, we’re winning races and it’s just a privilege to be here. If you want to be a jockey, you can be a jockey – drive on. To young people out there, male or female, if you want to go and do something, do it, because for me standing here right now, it shows that literally anything can happen.”

Trainer Henry de Bromhead was having the finest of what have already been many splendid hours in his twenty-year career and has been the major ally in Rachael’s climb to the top over the last few seasons.  “It’s stuff you dream of,” he said, “I never thought this would happen. It’s amazing, like I say, you dream about it. Honeysuckle is an amazing mare. She’s incredible and what a partnership she and Rachael have. Rachael was amazing, I thought she was so cool throughout the race. I was saying I had to bite my tongue before they went out as I was so worried I would say something stupid to her and mess her up, but that was amazing.”

48 year-old de Bromhead took over his father Harry’s licence to train on the family farm at Knockeen, County Waterford in 1999. Understated he may be but never under rated. Honeysuckle was his tenth Cheltenham Festival winner and is unlikely to be the last as he fields six runners in each of the next three days. This afternoon’s batch will include Put The Kettle On bidding to repeat last year’s victory, this time running in the Champion Chase, Friday will see A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup, and on Thursday he will saddle the Gordon Elliott transferee as many people’s banker in the Marsh Novices Chase.

We came to Cheltenham hoping for something to match the sunshine and we found it and more. Best of all were glimpses of a future that look bright. The massive powerhouse that is Appreciate It set his neck out and ran right away from his rivals in the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle to be followed by a regal round of jumping from Shishkin to not allow a breakneck early gallop unsettle him on his way to a majestic win in the Arkle.

Next year Shishkin will be bidding for the Champion Chase. Another year on and Appreciate may join battle for the two-mile crown if he has not been taken longer distance to the Gold Cup. But highest of all is the thought of what Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore might do as the future beckons. Yes, how good a feeling to take from Cheltenham, that the best is yet to come.

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