Rachael Blackmore makes history as Honeysuckle storms to Champion Hurdle

‘This was never even a dream for me, it was so far from what I thought can happen in my life’

Rachael Blackmore celebrates  on Honeysuckle after victory in the Unibet  Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. Photograph:  Michael Steele/PA Wire

Rachael Blackmore celebrates on Honeysuckle after victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Michael Steele/PA Wire

 

Racing got a perfect result in the most imperfect circumstances when Rachael Blackmore created history on the Unibet Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle at Cheltenham on Tuesday.

A landmark moment in sporting history was created by the 31-year-old jockey who became the first woman to ride the winner of hurdling’s championship event.

In front of desolate stands Blackmore and Honeysuckle stretched their unbeaten record to 11 with a resounding six-and-a-half length defeat of Sharjah and last year’s winner Epatante in third.

If the well backed 11-10 favourite was a great result for punters then the outcome was a timely shot in the arm for a sport beleaguered by controversy due to Gordon Elliott’s ban after the now infamous photo of him sitting on a dead horse.

It also confirmed how Blackmore’s ascent to the top of the toughest game of all continues to be as groundbreaking as it has been spectacular.

However, the significance of this single success in one of the biggest races at the greatest stage of all promises to echo far beyond any empty stand.

Typically the woman of the moment was reluctant to dwell too much on any political element to it.

Rachel Blackmore on Honeysuckle comes home to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Photograph: Mark Cranham/Inpho
Rachel Blackmore on Honeysuckle comes home to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Photograph: Mark Cranham/Inpho

“There’s no deal about female jockeys anymore, I don’t think.

“If you want to be a jockey, you can be a jockey – drive on, you know. 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.

“This was never even a dream for me, it was so far from what I thought can happen in my life, riding a Champion Hurdle winner at Cheltenham. Maybe there is a lesson in that for everyone out there.

“When I was a girl I went to see Istabraq on a school tour. I can’t believe all these years later I’m riding the winner of the race he won three times,” Blackmore added.

However, the historic angle to such a singular success was impossible to avoid.

It’s 38 years since Caroline Beasley was the first woman to ride a festival winner but only two years since Bryony Frost was the first female rider to win at Grade One level.

It even opens up the tantalising prospect of a Champion Hurdle -Gold Cup double on Friday when Blackmore teams up with Honeysuckle’s stable companion, A Plus Tard.

Honeysuckle ridden by Rachael Blackmore stretches clear to win Unibet Champion Hurdle during day one of the Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA Wire
Honeysuckle ridden by Rachael Blackmore stretches clear to win Unibet Champion Hurdle during day one of the Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA Wire

“It’s unbelievable for everyone in the yard. It’s a massive team and Henry [de Bromhead] produces her every day in that form and I just get to sit on her.

“She’s so straightforward to ride and when you know you have an engine under you it’s so easy to do things in a race,” she said.

Getting it right when it counts most is what top jockeys get paid for and Blackmore and her superb partner never missed a beat.

In contrast, one of the big English hopes Goshen ruined his chance by hanging violently right down the back-straight. But the longer the race went on the more in control Honeysuckle looked.

Taking it up from her stable companion Aspire Tower after the second last she soon shot clear and made light of the hill to follow up her festival success a year ago in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Inevitably De Bromhead couldn’t compete with his jockey for attention in the aftermath and was hardly bothered by that.

Thirteen years after his first major star, Sizing Europe, failed to justify favouritism in the Champion Hurdle, his new leading light made no mistake.

“Rachael is as good as any of them – male, female, she is as good as any of the guys. I’m ecstatic with the result but I’m delighted for them [Rachael and Honeysuckle]. She never ceases to amaze me. I’m not saying I would have predicted that but she is an incredible mare.

“She has just gone into a different zone the last year, she really has. In the situation we are in we are lucky to be here. Fair play to the BHA, IHRB, Cheltenham and everybody to set up brilliant protocols and allow us to continue the sport,” he said

The long-term implications of such a success for women in racing are unquantifiable but such a universally acclaimed headline act on day one of the festival proved immediately opportune.

In the very next race Black Tears beat the odds-on favourite Concertista to secure a first festival winner for trainer Denise Foster.

Having stepped into the role of licence holder at Elliott’s Cullentra stables just a couple of weeks ago it was a landmark moment for Foster.

She wasn’t at Cheltenham to welcome back her winner which inevitably conjured gloomier echoes of a sorry episode.

However, on the day that was in it, Blackmore was immovable from centre stage.

Cheltenham Day One Results

1.20 Supreme Novices' Hurdle
1 Appreciate It 8-11
2 Ballyadam 6-1
3 For Pleasure 40-1

1.55 Arkle Challenge Trophy
1 Shishkin 2/5
2 Eldorado Allen 33/1
3 Captain Guinness 10/1

2.30 Ultima Handicap Chase
1 Vintage Clouds 28/1
2 Happygolucky 10/3
3 Aye Right 11/2
4 Cepage 14/1
5 One For The Team 17/2

3.05 Champion Hurdle
1 Honeysuckle 11/10 F
2 Sharjah 11/1
3 Epatante 4/1

3.40 Mares’ Hurdle
1 Black Tears 12/1
2 Concertista 5/6
3 Roksana 3/1

4.15 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
1 Jeff Kidder 80/1
2 Saint Sam 9/2 JF
3 Elham Valley 66/1
4 Houx Gris 9/2 JF

4.50 National Hunt Novices’ Chase
1 Galvin 7/2
2 Next Destination 3/1
3 Escaria Ten 11/4
4 Snow Leopardess 16/1

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