Honeysuckle created history on the opening day of Cheltenham Festival 2022 by becoming the first mare to win the Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle twice.
Repeating her success of 2021, the eight year old was the three and half-length winner from Epatante, the 2020 winner. Zanahiyr was another length away in third. With jockey Rachel Blackmore aboard Honeysuckle crossed the line to a huge roar from the crowd – made all the more emotional because it was the enormous cheer the winning combination had been denied 2021 due to the COVID-19 ban on spectators that year.
It is the seventh victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle for a mare following African Sister (1939), Dawn Run (1984), Flakey Dove (1994), Annie Power (2016), Epatante (2020) and Honeysuckle (2021). Returned the 8/11 market leader, Honeysuckle became the 40th favourite in 92 runnings of the Champion Hurdle to succeed.
It is a 10th victory at The Festival for jockey Rachael Blackmore, who in 2021 was also the Top Jockey at The Festival with six wins that year; a 16th Festival win for trainer Henry de Bromhead and a fourth for owner Kenny Alexander.
Honeysuckle becomes the 25th Champion Hurdle winner to be trained in Ireland. She has now won all 15 of her starts under Rules and earned over £1 million in prize money.
Winning jockey Rachael Blackmore said: “It was incredible, to be honest. Walking back down there, I’ve never felt an atmosphere like that. There wasn’t a moment’s silence. People here – it’s just an amazing crowd, amazing atmosphere. It’s easy to say that when you’re winning, but it’s a very special place and to hear those cheers was very special.
“She [Honeysuckle] always finds a way, she really does. I was kind of wider than I’d like everywhere, and maybe wasn’t as happy halfway round, but I just slotted in and we got our gap then. It was fantastic. I’m so happy Kenny Alexander is here as well. He’s a really good man and a class owner, and I’m really glad he was getting cheered on.
“Jockeys dream of getting on good horses, but she takes that to a whole new level. She’s special, she’s once in a lifetime, and I’m so lucky to be riding her.
“Part of me was thinking, I should be more nervous here before the race, but I actually do have a lot of confidence in her. It would be weird if I didn’t, because she’s never let me down. She’s incredible. Henry [de Bromhead] gets her to the races every day in the form he does, and that’s an extremely tough feat, to train a horse, or a mare, to win all those races in succession. It’s unbelievable.”
Rachael Blackmore’s mother Eimir said: “I absolutely can’t believe it. I’m absolutely lost for words, it’s amazing and the crowd has been fantastic, so thanks to everybody here for making it so special.
“I was nervous, I’m always nervous, but I’m getting better and I’m working very hard on it! The mare is just fantastic and Henry has done such a good job. I just feel really lucky to be part of the fairytale.
“This is just fairytale stuff. Who would have thought? The support she’s got from everybody and the good feeling that has come out of this has really been fantastic. It shows that if you have a dream, you can make the dream come true.
“I’m very proud that she’s given people something to cheer about in a time when there’s a lot of unhappiness in the world.”
Winning trainer Henry de Bromhead said: “It is unbelievable. It is better than last year with the crowd here and Kenny (Alexander, owner) and Caroline and everybody. It’s amazing. It is a never ending fairytale. It is incredible. I just really hoped that she could get that Cheltenham roar and it is fantastic that she has got it. She got it in the Mares’ Hurdle but for this she missed out last year it is amazing. It is brilliant for our team and everyone. Rachael was sublime and I can’t believe it as usual. She is just amazing and we are so lucky to have her. I did feel the pressure more with the build up. The dream result was her winning with Rachael and the crowd being back here to give her that roar.
“She is incredible. I’m always trying to prepare myself for it to end but she just keeps winning. It is brilliant (she has become the people’s horse) and it is no more than she deserves. If all the good will and good lucks could win you a race she would have won by a furlong. Most people here were willing her to win. The support we get with her is just mental.
“You have to pinch yourself how lucky we are to be involved with a horse like her. She is just incredible. It is relief but obviously ecstasy as well in the sense I hoped she would get the welcome she got.
“She is brilliant [Rachael]. She had so much horse underneath her at the second last, they are just a dream team.
“I put myself under pressure as you want to be competing at these places and it is tough to do that and you need everything to go your way. It is incredible everything happened for us.
“To win the races she is winning she deserves every bit of credit she gets. She is an incredible mare to stay sound and do this year in year out. It is definitely close to the best day of my career.”
Photographs by Ian Yates www.eyewhy.co.uk. Click on images to view larger version.
Successful owner Kenny Alexander said: “If you don’t get nervous today what is the point of running them? I always get nervous even if I’m running one at Carlisle or Tramore. Today we well revved up and it was a case of let’s rock and roll. I’ve got my wife here as well. It is a very special day. I’m glad all the crowd were here as well.
“She is a dream horse. It is better (having the crowd with you) than against you. It bis just fantastic. We’ve been over in Ireland a couple of times to see her and she got a great reception and she got another one here.”
Nicky Henderson, trainer of runner-up Epatante, said: “They are two great mares. Epatante ran a great race and couldn’t have done any more. She’d been going great and she’s done nothing wrong. I’d have thought she’d run again this season but it’s a question of where. Aintree comes quick and Honeysuckle will be lurking again at Punchestown, so where do you go? I put her in the Scottish Champion Hurdle this morning, as she’s only rated 153, but that’s a handicap and she’s hardly going to come down now is she. I’ve probably blown that now.”
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