In the minutes after storming to victory in the showpiece race on the Cheltenham Festival’s opening day, an incredulous and breathless Rachael Blackmore paid tribute to the brilliant unbeaten mare Honeysuckle, who had just helped her make history.
‘It’s all about her,’ said the 31-year-old Blackmore, who had just become the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle, one of the greatest races of the jumping calendar.
Brilliant though Honeysuckle was in taking her career record to 11 wins from 11 runs, it was the only thing Blackmore got wrong on Tuesday.
Rachael Blackmore celebrates after her historic victory aboard Honeysuckle at Cheltenham
Blackmore became the first female jockey to ever win Cheltenham’s Champions Hurdle race
In reality, it was all about the woman who did not become a professional jockey until she was 25 in a career that initially looked like it might struggle to get over the first hurdle.
Now she has won the biggest race yet for a female jump jockey. That accolade had been held by Bryony Frost thanks to her win on Frodon in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Blackmore’s six-and-a half length win from Sharjah on 11-10 favourite Honeysuckle trumps that though. Along with the Gold Cup on Friday and next month’s Grand National it is one of jump racing’s big three.
No wonder Blackmore could hardly believe what was happening to her. The jockey, who was partnering her fourth Festival winner, said: ‘I really can’t believe we have won a Champion Hurdle.
‘It is just incredible. This is such a special race and I am just so thankful to be a part of Honeysuckle.
‘Her run last time was a career best until today and she is getting better the whole time. 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 the winner of a Champion Hurdle. It is so far removed from anything I ever thought could be possible. Maybe there is a lesson in that for everyone out there.’
Asked whether her win would be an inspiration for young female jockeys, Blackmore said: ‘There is no deal about it any more. If you want to be a jockey, drive on. To young people out there, if you want to do something go and do it because me standing here shows that anything can happen.’
Never giving up has been the mantra of Blackmore. The daughter of a dairy farmer and a teacher, she is not from a racing family. Her younger sister is a lawyer and her older brother a graphic designer.
Initially, Blackmore wanted to be a vet before ending up studying equine science in Limerick. Back then she wanted to be an amateur jockey not believing it was feasible to turn professional. She did not do that until she was 25 and even then it was a move done in hope of turning a trickle of rides into a respectable flow.
Blackmore holds the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy aloft on Tuesday afternoon
A chance link up with Honeysuckle’s trainer Henry de Bromhead was a turning point and the winners are now more like a tidal wave in Ireland where she is currently only six wins behind Paul Townend in the Irish Jockeys’ championship. And she might not be finished this week. Her remaining rides at the Festival include De Bromhead’s A Plus Tard in Friday’s Gold Cup and Blackmore will be hoping it goes as smoothly as the Champion Hurdle went for Honeysuckle.
The seven-year-old had destroyed her rivals when winning a second Irish Champion Hurdle last month and this was a repeat performance as she jumped to the front two hurdles from home. By then the writing was on the wall for reigning champion and fellow mare Epatante, who got squeezed up and inconvenienced a few times in the race but not enough to make an excuse as she was beaten by just over nine lengths into third.
Aidan Coleman, Epatante’s jockey, said: ‘She got stopped a bit turning in and might have been second otherwise. But the winner has won well so no excuses.’
The most bizarre performance of the race came from Goshen, the unlucky faller at the last in the Triumph Hurdle last year. He was almost unsteerable for jockey Jamie Moore as he finished eighth of the nine finishers, with Abacadabras a third-hurdle faller.
Goshen’s trainer Gary Moore said: ‘Going round the first bend he was lugging out right and he couldn’t have made it any worse if he’d tried. I know he was unlucky in the Triumph but I don’t think this track suits him — and it certainly didn’t suit him today.’
In the immediate aftermath of the win, Blackmore paid tribute to unbeaten mare Honeysuckle
With easy wins for the Willie Mullins-trained 8-11 favourite Appreciate It in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Nicky Henderson’s 4-9 favourite Shishkin in the Arkle Chase to add to Honeysuckle’s win, it was a bad day for the bookmakers despite the victories of Sue Smith-trained 28-1 shot Vintage Clouds in the Ultima Handicap Chase — a first Festival win for jockey Ryan Mania — and Noel Meade’s 80-1 shot Jeff Kidder in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
Both Appreciate It and Shishkin, who was adding to his win in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, are stars that will hopefully grace future Festivals.
Blackmore definitely will too. Reflecting on her Champion Hurdle success, De Bromhead said: ‘She is a brilliant rider on any horse and Honey is just a brilliant horse. The combination of them is deadly. It’s the perfect storm.’
That storm gave the sunshine on the strangest, crowdless Festival on Tuesday. Blackmore tells a story of going to see the legendary three-time Champion Hurdler Istabraq when she was at primary school. ‘It was a school tour, I am from Tipperary so it was local,’ she said.
Now Blackmore is as big a part of Champion Hurdle history as Istabraq. It is some story.