Blackmore and Honeysuckle go in search of historic win in Champion Hurdle
Battle with fellow mare and reigning champion Epatante could give racing the lift it needs
Rachael Blackmore wins the Irish Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle at Leopardstown during the Dubli Racing Festival. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
No woman has ever ridden the winner of one of jump racing’s unofficial ‘Triple Crown’ races – the Grand National, Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle.
So should Blackmore and Honeysuckle stretch their unbeaten partnership to 11 it will be timely shot in the arm for a sport dogged by recent criticism and feeling unusually unsure of itself.
Already faced with the task of steering the big-race favourite, it’s probably unfair such expectation gets heaped onto Blackmore’s shoulders too.
The good news is that there’s abundant evidence from the 31-year-old Tipperary woman’s pioneering career to date of her overcoming much weightier considerations than the hopes and dreams of favourite backers.
Honeysuckle digs deep when she has to, she gets me out of trouble when she has to. She’s just been phenomenal
It is well recorded by now how the amateur rider who turned professional as a last resort has transformed the face of the toughest sport of all.
Building on the accomplishments of amateur giants Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, Blackmore has long since binned the condescending label of ‘female jockey’ and done so in a sport that makes no allowances for gender in the saddle.
It’s a story to make racing feel good about itself and if the woman herself is famously diffident about filling any overtly political role then the wider impact should she win the Champion Hurdle will still be enormous.
Maybe the only valid comparison could be with the American jockey Julie Krone and her winning a leg of the US Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, on Colonial Affair in 1993.
That was on the Flat where more recently women closer to home such as Hollie Doyle have also pushed themselves to the forefront.
Alongside her English contemporary Bryony Frost, Blackmore has taken popular perceptions of women riding professionally over jumps – with the inevitable falls that are part of the package – and tilted them on their axes.
Both have won at Grade One level at the festival and elsewhere, Frost landing the King George VI Chase on Frodon over Christmas. But the significance of Blackmore succeeding in one of the championship races can hardly be overstated.
“Honeysuckle digs deep when she has to, she gets me out of trouble when she has to. She’s just been phenomenal and I can’t find fault with her,” she said. “It’s what any jockey dreams about, getting teamed up with something like her. It’s just a privilege.”
Perhaps the most crucial statistical element to this Champion Hurdle is how the jockey neither wants or gets an allowance but her partner does.
Both Honeysuckle and the reigning title-holder Epatante receive 7lbs from their male rivals.
Considering how many would suspect beating them off levels is a task beyond Goshen, Sharjah & Co anyway, then conceding half a stone to such outstanding talents looks a major problem.
Epatante was just the fifth mare ever to lift the hurdling crown last year and will try to be the first to successfully defend it.
Should she do so it will be a remarkable 10th win in the race for JP McManus overall and a fifth in a row for the owner. It would also be a ninth for her trainer Nicky Henderson.
Barry Geraghty’s retirement sees Aidan Coleman doing the steering but the strategy is going to be the same: with her finishing kick, Epatante’s card will be the last played.
With her stable companion Aspire Tower, Goshen and Silver Streak in the race it’s unlikely there will be any hanging around pace-wise
She does, however, line up with a question mark over her on the back of a shock defeat to Silver Streak at Christmas. A back niggle was subsequently diagnosed but it’s not the norm for Champion Hurdle winners to emerge on the back of a defeat.
Since she hasn’t been beaten at all in 10 career starts that isn’t a consideration for Honeysuckle.
Much more relevant is how her last race, the Irish Champion Hurdle, was her most impressive of all to date.
Henry de Bromhead’s mare definitively dismissed concerns about her at two miles in the top grade at Leopardstown. She is a festival winner already and gives every sign of still progressing.
With her stable companion Aspire Tower, Goshen and Silver Streak in the race it’s unlikely there will be any hanging around pace-wise, which could put the emphasis on stamina once they turn into the straight.
By then, all things being equal, Honeysuckle could have a target on her tail for Epatante to aim at.
It has the makings of a classic Anglo-Irish head-to-head up the hill.
Should Blackmore and Honeysuckle get the best of it, however, the biggest winner of all may be the sport itself.