The Sweet Roar Of Success For Cheltenham's Golden Girls

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore are led in by jubilant owner Kenny Alexander with Peter Molony, right | PA Images


CHELTENHAM, UK–There are horses, and then there's Honeysuckle (GB). Thought it may seem like sacrilege to compare the superstar hurdler to the greatest racehorse of the modern era, there has been no better winning sequence on the turf since Frankel (GB) stepped off it to the breeding shed a decade ago, and Honeysuckle isn't stopping yet.

The daughter of Sulamani (Ire) is now a dual Champion Hurdle winner, a treble Irish Champion Hurdle winner, unbeaten in 15 starts under rules, plus her debut triumph in a point-to-point at Dromahane at the age of four. It was that romp of a maiden win when still a raw frame of a filly that pricked up the ears of Peter Molony, who manages the racing and breeding interests of Honeysuckle's owner Kenny Alexander and bought the mare at the Goffs Punchestown HIT Sale on his behalf for €110,000.

Visibly emotional as Honeysuckle was led in from her third consecutive victory at the Cheltenham Festival, Molony admitted, “I looked at her pedigree and I wasn't interested. But I was working for Goffs and I thought I had better go and have a look at her. And to do what she did in her point-to-point when she was just such a big frame of a horse was quite something. Then I just had to persuade Kenny.”

It is an understatement to say that Alexander will be glad that he did. For there is currently no bigger star in National Hunt racing than Honeysuckle. The mare's lustre is enhanced immeasurably for her unbreakable partnership with Rachael Blackmore, who owned Cheltenham last year with her six Festival wins. All that was missing then was the famous roar, but boy did she and Honeysuckle receive one this time around.

With the crowds returned to Prestbury Park two years on from the world coming almost to a standstill as the pandemic took its grip, those who packed the tiers that make up the heady amphitheatre surrounding Cheltenham's winner's enclosure gave it their lusty best as the golden girls returned triumphant again.

“It was incredible, walking back down there,” said Blackmore. “I've never felt an atmosphere like that. There wasn't a moment's silence. People here, it's just an amazing crowd, an amazing atmosphere. It's easy to say that when you're winning, but it's a very special place and to hear those cheers this year was very special.”

She continued, “Part of me was thinking that I should have been more nervous 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 to win all those races in succession.”

While Blackmore was happy to put her faith in her faultless mount, Molony confessed that the nerves had been getting to him.

“To be honest, the weeks leading up to her races, it's torture,” he said. “But it's first-world torture, and we'll enjoy it now looking back.”

He added, “She's eight now and we're probably looking at next year being her last season.”

Whenever Honeysuckle does eventually retire she will become an important foundation mare at Alexander's New Hall Stud in his native Scotland, a farm made famous by the Thom family, breeders of Group 1 winner Donna Blini (GB), who went on to greater fame as the dam of Japanese superstar Gentildonna (Jpn).

Alexander, who predominantly races mares with a view to establishing a formidable National Hunt broodmare band, has the majority of his horses in training in Ireland, and the British-bred Honeysuckle, a graduate of Dorset-based The Glanvilles Stud, has been a huge credit to her trainer Henry de Bromhead, whose annus mirabilis in 2021 included landing Cheltenham's holy trinity of the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup, and then adding his first Grand National success to the mix. 

Four of the last seven runnings of the Champion Hurdles have been won by mares, the last two by Honeysuckle, who on Tuesday was chased home by Epatante (Fr) (No Risk At All {Fr}), the 2020 winner. The latter's trainer Nicky Henderson has had plenty of success in that race over the years, with his eight wins stretching back to 1985, and though he had to settle for second in the day's feature race, he will have returned to Lambourn a happy man on Tuesday evening. 

Henderson drew first blood at Prestbury Park during the afternoon, sending out Constitution Hill (GB) (Blue Bresil {Fr}) and Jonbon (Fr) (Walk In The Park {Ire}) to finish first and second in a fiercely competitive running of the G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He then struck again in the G1 Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle with Marie's Rock (Ire) (Milan {Ire}) for the Middleham Park Racing team. 

“We had four runners today and if you'd have told me this morning I'd have had all four finishing in the first two I'd have said it was going to be a good day,” said Henderson, the most successful British trainer of all time at the Festival with 72 wins. “In golf you're meant to play to your age, so when you're 66 you've got to go round in 66 and so on. I'm 71 so the first winner this week took me to that and we've put one in the bank for next year just in case I don't last.”

With 23 horses set to run at Cheltenham this week, Henderson is the best represented among the British trainers but his team pales into relative insignificance against the amassed troops from the Irish stables of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, who have 71 and 68 potential runners respectively. 

Mullins had to wait until the last race of the day for his first win in the Ukraine Appeal National Hunt Challenge Cup with Stattler (Ire) (Stowaway {Ire}), ridden by his son Patrick. As an acknowledgement of the grave troubles beyond the bubble of the Cheltenham Festival, the six runners in the finale all carried saddle cloths in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, while the jockeys bore armbands in blue and yellow throughout the day. 

Edwardstone A Homegrown Star

Prices for the top National Hunt horses may have skyrocketed past the reach of many owners but there is still the odd fairytale to be written, even at Cheltenham. And it will be hard to find a more heartwarming result all season than that of Edwardstone (GB) (Kayf Tara {GB}) in the G1 Sporting Life Arkle Trophy. 

Bred by his owners Robert Abrey and Ian Thurtle, the 8-year-old has been the star turn this season for Alan King, who in the last 12 months has been represented by the dual Group 1-winning stayer Trueshan (Fr) (Planteur {Ire}) and Group 2-winning juvenile Asymmetric (Ire) (Showcasing {GB}). Such results are testament to his all-round skills as a horseman, but it is the jumps world with which King has been more readily associated over the years, and in Edwardstone he looks to have a prospect to rival former stable stars such as Voy Por Ustedes (Fr), My Way De Solzen (Fr) and Katchit (GB).

Abrey and Thurtle, two old friends based in Norfolk, currently have only Edwardstone's dam, the 17-year-old Nothingtoloose (Ire) (Luso {GB}), in their paddocks. She is soon to be joined by Midnightreferendum (GB) (Midnight Legend {GB}), the Grade 2-placed four-time winner and daughter of their late broodmare Forget The Ref (Ire) (Dr Massini {Ire}). Both the latter and Nothingtoloose were campaigned in the point-to-point field by the pair before retiring to stud, and are now both black-type producers.

Edwardstone, already a treble winner over hurdles, has been one of the revelations of the season since going novice chasing and, after being brought down on his debut over fences in November, hasn't looked back, remaining unbeaten in his last five starts. 

Hailing the result “a dream come true”, Robert Abrey said, “The adrenaline is running a bit at the moment. We were just trying to breed a nice horse and this fella turned up.”

He added, “We're just a couple of amateurs. We looked down the list even in our bumpers and thought 'what are we doing here?'. Alan got him going and the horse could be quite bullish as a youngster. It's really all credit to Alan and his team at Barbury Castle for all the work they have put into this horse over the last three or four years.”

With Nothingtoloose heading to Ireland to visit Walk In The Park (Ire) this season, the mare is set to be represented by another runner in the coming days as Edwardstone's full-sister Nothingtochance (GB) is entered to make her debut in the bumper at Southwell on Monday. 

As James Thomas outlined in Tuesday's TDN, the numbers are stacked against British breeders in the National Hunt division but the opening day at Cheltenham was one to savour in that regard, with three Grade 1 winners carrying the GB suffix. And, as also referenced, top-class jumpers are often not that far removed from top-class horses on the Flat. 

A reminder of that was delivered by Brazil (Ire), winner of the G3 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle to give trainer Padraig Roche his debut Festival victory with his first runner. This time last year, the 4-year-old son of Galileo (Ire) was still under the care of Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle, where his full-brother Capri (Ire) was also trained to win the St Leger for the Coolmore partners. Capri, bred, like Brazil, by Lynch Bages Ltd and Camas Park Stud, is now ensconced at Grange Stud and has been presented with a rather nice update by his brother as he embarks on his career as a National Hunt stallion.

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