Blackmore Makes History At Cheltenham

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Rachael Blackmore is the first woman to ride the winner of the Champion Hurdle | racingfotos.com

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Jump racing was lifted from the doldrums on the opening day of Cheltenham as Rachael Blackmore became the first woman to win a championship race at the Festival aboard Kenny Alexander's unbeaten Honeysuckle (GB) (Sulamani {Ire}).

Her 7-year-old mount in turn continued her flawless career to become the third mare in five years to win the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle following Annie Power (Ire) (Shirocco {Ger}) and last year's winner Epatante (Fr) (No Risk At All {Fr}), who had to settle for third this year, the two mares being split by Sharjah (Fr) (Doctor Dino {Fr}).

With the Cheltenham Festival having been one of the last major sporting events to have taken place under normal circumstances before Britain was placed in lockdown 12 months ago, this time around jump racing's showcase meeting fell foul of the restrictions which have blighted so many sports events around the world. Where such a ground-breaking achievement from the Irish jockey would usually be met with a response bordering on the delirious from racegoers, Blackmore and Honeysuckle returned in front of an empty stand to a winner's enclosure devoid of atmosphere. 

That, however, removes nothing from the latest high in the upwardly mobile career of Blackmore, who admitted that this significant milestone was “never even a dream”. Her first Grade 1 win came in partnership with Honeysuckle at Fairyhouse almost two years ago. Since then, the Henry de Bromhead-trained mare has become the horse who not only defines the excellence of Blackmore but matches it stride for stride.

“She is just so incredible. I just can't believe we've won a Champion Hurdle,” said Blackmore. “Kenny Alexander, Peter Molony—they're both at home with their families watching; it's a pity they can't be here today, but I tell you, when I was crossing the line I didn't care.

“Honeysuckle was just incredible. She's done everything I've wanted her to do throughout the race. Henry produces her every day in that kind of form for me to steer around, and it's unbelievable. 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.”

She added, “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.”

Honeysuckle had looked the model of composure on her way to post and it was an air which she maintained throughout the two-mile contest, as she coasted in the slipstream of the early leading duo of Silver Streak (Ire) (Dark Angel {Ire}) and Goshen (Fr) (Authorized {Ire}), travelling with ease throughout. Asked to go on by Blackmore after jumping the penultimate flight, the mare breezed past the leaders unextended as though they were standing still and swiftly opened up a seemingly unassailable lead. Meeting the last hurdle perfectly, her historic victory was sealed as she powered farther clear of the field to finish six and a half lengths ahead of Sharjah, who finished runner-up for the second year in a row.

De Bromhead, who was landing his tenth win at the Festival and first in the Champion Hurdle, said, “I couldn't have been more relaxed watching her as she always seemed happy. It's amazing. 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. 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.”

He continued, “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.”

Now unbeaten in 11 races, Honeysuckle, bred at Dorset's The Glanvilles Stud by Geoffrey Guy, has played an important role over the last three seasons in waving the flag for a dwindling National Hunt breeding programme in Britain. She may yet bolster it further in years to come as she will become the crown jewel at her owner Kenny Alexander's burgeoning National Hunt stud in Scotland. New Hall Stud in Ayrshire, which he bought from Gordon Thom in 2016, has already produced Group 1 winners on the Flat, including Donna Blini (GB) (Bertolini), later the dam of Japan's Horse of the Year Gentildonna (Jpn) (Deep Impact {Jpn}). It is now home to an elite band of jumps mares assembled by Peter Molony for Alexander, one of the few major owners in the National Hunt world to place a specific emphasis on racing fillies and mares.

Racing reprieve

To a degree, the jumping brigade has been holding its breath going into this year's Cheltenham Festival following the negative publicity surrounding the controversial photograph of Gordon Elliott which surfaced on social media a fortnight ago. The leading Irish trainer has just started a six-month ban but his Cullentra House stable celebrated victory in the race immediately following the Champion Hurdle, the G1 Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle. Denise Foster is the interim licence-holder at the Elliott yard and her name thus enters the Cheltenham record books as the trainer of Black Tears (GB) (Jeremy), the second British-bred winner of the day who  ousted hot favourite Concertista (Fr) (Nathaniel {Ire}) on the line. 

The 7-year-old mare was also the second Grade 1 winner for the late Garryrichard Stud stallion Jeremy during the opening day following the emphatic victory of the imposing Appreciate It (Ire) in the G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, a seventh winner of that particular race for the Festival's leading trainer Willie Mullins.

A number of horses have been removed from Elliott's stable over the last fortnight, including Envoi Allen (Fr) (Muhtathir {GB}), who is considered one of the bankers of the meeting and who runs in Thursday's G1 Marsh Novices' Chase. 

The former Elliott-trained Galvin (Ire) (Gold Well {Ire}), the winner of all four of his starts this season coming into the Festival, provided a first Cheltenham victory for his new trainer Iain Ferguson, who had been responsible for breaking in the 7-year-old. Unfazed by his recent change of scene, Galvin continued his winning run with victory in the Sam Vestey National Hunt Chase under Jack Kennedy, who had earlier also partnered Black Tears.

The winners continued to be spread across a range of Irish stables, with 80/1 shot Jeff Kidder (Ire) (Hallowed Crown {Aus}) springing a surprise in the G3 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle for Noel Meade and owners Albert Dravins and Eamonn Scanlon. But it wasn't all Ireland's day. The facile success of Appreciate It in the opener was almost mirrored by another odds-on favourite in the G1 Sporting Life Arkle Novices' Chase when Shishkin (Ire) (Sholokov {Ire}) continued his dominant run through that division with a 12-length win over the running-on Eldorado Allen (Fr) (Khalkevi {Ire}). 

That success, the seventh in a row for Shishkin, including his win in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, put Nicky Henderson and Lambourn on the scoresheet, while one of the most heartening results of the day came immediately afterwards in the G3 Ultima Handicap Chase for Yorkshire-based trainer Sue Smith. Running in the race for the fifth time, the 11-year-old grey Vintage Clouds (Ire) (Cloudings {Ire}) summoned up a front-running performance replete with grit and courage to claim a first Festival win for himself and for his jockey Ryan Mania. The Scottish-born rider is best known for teaming up with Smith to win the 2013 Grand National aboard Auroras Encore (Ire). He retired from race-riding the following year at the age of just 25 before making a comeback in 2019.

“It's an unbelievable thrill. It's a shame that my first Festival winner comes under these circumstances, but it truly doesn't matter. It will be a very memorable day. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would come and ride a Cheltenham winner, especially so soon after coming out of retirement. I couldn't be happier.”

Mania will spend the rest of the week travelling between the more regular beat of Huntingdon and Hexham. Rachael Blackmore, however, second only to reigning champion Paul Townend in the Irish jockeys' table, has a near-full book of rides at Cheltenham this week, including the favourites in the first and last races on Wednesday's card.

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