Honeysuckle’s final race ended with victory in the Mares’ Hurdle under Rachael Blackmore, who dedicated it to the late Jack de Bromhead
So many golden days, so many legendary stories – but who could have written this one? Rachael Blackmore wanted Honeysuckle to go out on a high with “one more big day”.
And yesterday was one final chance for the champion mare to hear the mighty Cheltenham roar ring out in her honour before she is retired.
It was a fairytale ending for Honeysuckle. But it was also a highly emotional day one at the festival for trainer Henry de Bromhead, whose beloved late son Jack had praised her as “the best mare ever”.
The young jockey had appeared on RTÉ talking about Honeysuckle shortly before his tragic death last September during a beach race in Kerry at the age of 13.
“She’s unreal, she’s unreal,” said Jack, while admitting she was “a bit angry sometimes” and might “turn her bum to you or bite you – unless you give her carrots”.
But the youngster loved her. And so, this win on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival was always going to be deeply poignant for all concerned.
Honeysuckle was the mare that had helped Blackmore’s career go stellar and this was their race – the duo had won the Mares’ Hurdle in 2020 before graduating to the Champion Hurdle which they won for the last two seasons.
Blackmore rewrote the history books as she became the first female jockey to win the prestigious event.
It’s rare that things work out as planned – and it looked as though Honeysuckle would be pipped to the post. But she magically flew in on angel’s wings – and the cheers and smiles among the crowds showed that the delight was universal.
Blackmore was visibly emotional when she spoke after the race. “We all wish a very special kid was here, but he’ll be looking down on us,” she said.
In the winner’s enclosure afterwards, there were cheers after De Bromhead singled out Jack’s friend Kian ‘Tubs’ McNally – who used to ride with Jack – and who he said is “going to be a champion jockey some day”.
“We’re really grateful for the support and the reception. It’s been an incredibly tough time,” said De Bromhead.
“You dream that this sort of win would happen, but more often than not they don’t, so it’s amazing.
“I think it’s the result that everybody wanted. She’s an incredible mare and Rachael is also incredible. We’re just so lucky to have had her.”
Tomorrow will see what was previously the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle be run under the new name of the Jack de Bromhead Novices’ Hurdle.
Yesterday, meanwhile, was a day of incredible drama and success for Irish racing, as the visitors won a phenomenal five out of seven races.
Out on the Cheltenham gallops at sunrise with the thunder of hooves pounding along the turf, trainer Barry Connell was calm as he waited for the day to unfold.
He had already proclaimed that he had “the best horse” in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle field.
A winner of two bumpers, a maiden hurdle and the Grade One Royal Bond at Fairyhouse, Marine Nationale had so far been unbeaten. And Connell was certain he could deliver once again.
It was the kind of bullishness that chimed with his former career as a stockbroker, but does not always come off so well in the even more competitive world of horse racing.
Such confidence could have backfired badly – and nobody was more aware of that than Connell.
It’s rare that things work out as planned, and the cheers and smiles among the crowds showed that the delight was universal
“I told the whole of Ireland to back him and Good Land in the Ballymore,” he later told RacingTV, after he had provided the first Irish winner of the festival in the curtain-raiser at 9/2.
“If I’d got it wrong, I’d have to have worn a disguise on the boat home.
“I genuinely thought I had the best horse in both races, so why not say it?”
The fairytale extended to winning jockey Michael O’Sullivan (22) from Mallow, Co Cork, who triumphed again later on when he won on board Jazzy Matty in the Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, the second last race of the day, on what was only his second Cheltenham appearance after a debut last year.
His father, William, won the Foxhunters’ Chase at Cheltenham in 1991 and his cousin, Maxine, also rode a winner for his uncle.
Last year, O’Sullivan rode in the Kim Muir on the Thursday but was still in college in UCD, finishing his degree in animal science – and he had to watch the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on his laptop.
He said Connell had been “very, very good” to him, and had not even given him any instructions yesterday.
“Barry being confident didn’t put pressure on me, but I suppose the punters took it into account and that brings a small bit of pressure but I can only do what I can do. Barry put his neck out and he was right,” said O’Sullivan.
“I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid. It’s a bit surreal and it won’t sink in yet. This year has been so good it’s hard to appreciate it. I don’t think it can be topped but I’m just enjoying every minute of it.”
Nursing a hangover and taking a breather for a cup of coffee with his sons William, Paul-Emmet and Nicholas was fashion designer Paul Costelloe.
Costelloe had backed Facile Vega because he likes the French-bred horses, saying: “They take it seriously.”
But he considers himself a “poor punter”. “I walk down to the bookies, I check the prices and I look for something [better] than 4/1 – I won’t go any lower,” he said, adding that he has become “a little more cautious” with age and so usually backs each way.
Sensibly, he was off to back Honeysuckle, describing her as “a great old horse”, before adding: “But old horses can still run, you know, like myself.”