Perfection might be overrated but it’s rarely felt better than when Honeysuckle brought the curtain down on her superb career with a hugely emotional victory at Cheltenham on Tuesday.
The magnificent mare and her jockey Rachael Blackmore have been racing’s headline act during turbulent times and somehow delivered an exemplary final flourish in the Close Mares’ Hurdle.
Having been unbeaten through four campaigns, including a pair of Champion Hurdle victories, Honeysuckle’s impregnable aura got splintered this season with two defeats that smacked of a great talent on the wane.
The option to skip Constitution Hill in Tuesday’s feature underlined that sense, leaving some to write off her chances back in a race that first announced her talent on the biggest stage of all in 2020.
Except once again when it counted, and in the desperately poignant context of trainer Henry de Bromhead losing his 13-year-old son Jack last September, Honeysuckle came up trumps.
Blackmore had the 9-4 joint-favourite in position An off a slow pace, tracking Love Envoi, and the pair had it to themselves up the final hill, when popular sentiment might have been worth the length and a half winning margin.
As fairytale farewells go it was hard to top. Tennis great Pete Sampras won a US Open and never played again. John Elway got the MVP in winning a Super Bowl. But Cheltenham on Tuesday had a symmetry that really did seem flawless.
“You dream of the fairytale ending but so often it doesn’t happen. This is what she deserves,” said a tearful De Bromhead.
“We’ve obviously had a terrible year with Jack and everything and the support people have given us ... most of it [the rapturous reception into the winners’ enclosure] is for Honey because she’s been so unbelievable, but everyone has shown us so much support.
“It’s been an incredibly tough time and you dream these kind of things will happen, but more often than not they don’t so it’s amazing,” he added.
Honeysuckle and Blackmore became racing’s poster-partnership, particularly during the Covid-hit 2021 festival when securing a historic Champion Hurdle.
“It’s incredible what she’s done for me but it’s incredible what she’s done for all of us,” the rider said. “Henry has done such an unbelievable job. What a way to be able to walk into the winners’ enclosure today.”
Michael O’Sullivan did that walk twice on a breakthrough day for the 23-year-old jockey.
The Cork rider turned professional only a year ago after completing an Agricultural Science degree in UCD and was unable to employ his 3lb claim on Marine Nationale in the opening Sky Bet Supreme.
However, he was typically poised in pouncing late up the hill to get the better of the favourite Facile Vega.
To emphasise the emergence of a major new riding talent, O’Sullivan doubled up on the 18-1 Jazzy Matty who go the better of a close finish in the Boodles Hurdle for trainer Gordon Elliott.
O’Sullivan’s boss Barry Connell is in no doubt he’s been ahead of the game in employing the rider.
“He’s a thinker, a very smart guy. He’s 23, he’s not a kid and I have no problem him not being able to claim. He doesn’t need his claim. I never thought about putting a more experienced jockey [on the horse]. If you gave me any jockey, I wouldn’t swap him,” Connell said.
Marine Nationale was a vindication of sorts for the 63-year-old businessman from Carrickmines in Dublin who has poured millions into his racing passion over the last two decades.
Now training as well as owning his string of up to 40 horses, his vocal faith in Marine Nationale was backed up when it counted and both he and O’Sullivan have Good Land to look forward to in Wednesday’s Ballymore.
“I was on the record we had the two best novices in Ireland. The first bullet has gone in – the second will go in tomorrow!” Connell predicted.
The Willie Mullins team bounced back immediately from Facile Vega’s defeat with El Fabiolo decisively getting the better of his much-anticipated duel with Jonbon in the Arkle.
Squeezing up the inside of his stable companion Desert Dynamo, El Fabiolo overcame a final fence blunder to earn 3-1 quotes for next year’s Champion Chase.
Mullins reached 90 festival winners in all when the odds-on Gaillard Du Mesnil powered up the hill to land the marathon National Hunt Chase.
The Grade One-winning grey had his task eased somewhat as Mahler Mission still held a good lead until exiting at the second last.