Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore got the reception they so richly deserved following an imperious defence of the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
A year ago, the queens of the sport returned victorious to only a smattering of applause from the few lucky enough to be in attendance in the middle of a pandemic.
Wind the clock forward 12 months and the Cheltenham faithful were intent to play their part, with National Hunt racing’s two golden girls receiving an ovation that was a year in the making.
“It’s incredible. The reception we got the whole way down the straight. This is such a special place and we missed the crowds last year. To have them back this year is just unbelievable,” said Blackmore.
In truth, the bedlam began long before the dynamic duo crossed the line, with the packed enclosures struggling to contain their enthusiasm when Blackmore moved sweetly into position A before the home turn.
There was just a brief lowering of the volume as former champion Epatante threatened to make a race of it on the run to the final flight.
But 8-11 favourite Honeysuckle soon ensured the packed grandstands were rocking once more as she powered up the famous hill to claim her second Champion Hurdle, her third Festival win and take her career record to 15 from 15.
What followed were scenes of unabashed jubilation from the huge majority of those on track.
“I wish I had the English vocabulary to explain how it felt coming back in. All the way down the chute, the reception we got – I was absolutely buzzing,” Blackmore added.
“Last year was fantastic and we were delighted to be here, but Cheltenham is about the people and they really didn’t let us down.
“Walking in here to the winner’s enclosure, any time you come in here and don’t have to take a hard right or a left and get to go straight on, that’s an incredible place to be.”
It all appeared relatively straightforward during the race itself, with Blackmore sitting wide for much of the way before moving into the slipstream of the leaders running down the hill.
The rider, however, told a slightly different tale.
“To be honest early on I was a little bit wider than I wanted to be. I didn’t get a great jump at the second and I wasn’t in as good a rhythm as I’d hoped,” she said.
“But Honeysuckle is just in a different league. It doesn’t matter what you do in a race, she’ll find a way to get her head in front.
“She’s got a fair turn of foot and seems to be getting quicker even. It’s easy to ride her with so much confidence as she always finds a way to do it.
“It was some feeling jumping the last and hearing the crowd. It’s just an incredible place.”
Honeysuckle’s initial Champion Hurdle success was the first of six Festival winners for Blackmore last year, ensuring she was crowned the Festival’s leading rider.
Trainer Henry de Bromhead also went on to enjoy an incredible week, with his tally of six including the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Put The Kettle On and the Gold Cup with Minella Indo.
De Bromhead is not one for getting carried away. But even he was visibly moved by the sheer weight of emotion that poured down from those on the steps surrounding the hallowed winner’s enclosure.
There was at least one shout of “three cheers for Honeysuckle”, after which a rendition of “Honey, Honey, Honey” broke out to the tune of “Ole, Ole, Ole”. Nowhere does it quite like Cheltenham.
“It is a relief, but obviously it’s ecstasy as well in that I really hoped she’d get the welcome that she got,” said De Bromhead.
“I’m always preparing myself for the day she gets beaten, but she won here last year with no crowd and I just really hoped she’d get that roar. It’s amazing.
“Rachael is brilliant and they’re just a dream team.
“I put myself under pressure. You want to be competing at this place and it’s very tough to do that – you need everything to go your way.
“The races Honeysuckle is winning, she deserves every bit of credit she gets.
“She’s an incredible mare – it’s so seldom they can do this year in, year out.”
Among those looking on among the commotion was a certain Frankie Dettori.
The ever-popular Italian, sporting a hat given to him by his late friend Barney Curley, knows a thing or two about brilliant racemares, of course, due to his association with the great dual Arc winner Enable.
He said: “She’s the Enable of jump racing. She’s unbeaten, has won two Champion Hurdles – amazing.
“Rachael is doing a great job and that is what racing needs – a star. And she is a star.
“It’s great to be here to witness it.”
Amen to that, Frankie.