Chacun Pour Soi crowned best chaser as ratings reflect Irish domination

Chacun Pour Soi has been crowned the best chaser trained in Britain or Ireland in the 2020/21 Anglo-Irish Jumps Classification.

The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old won four of his five starts during a tremendous campaign, his only defeat coming when third in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

He bounced back to winning ways in the William Hill Champion Chase at Punchestown the following month, a performance which earned him a mark of 176 and saw him end the season as the highest-rated chaser in training.

Second on the list is Henry de Bromhead’s WellChild Gold Cup hero Minella Indo, who is only a pound behind Chacun Pour Soi on 175.

The eight-year-old got the better of stablemate A Plus Tard (172) in the blue riband, with Al Boum Photo (170) finishing third in his bid for a historic third consecutive Gold Cup victory.

Allaho earned himself a rating of 174 with a brilliant display in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, while the Paul Nicholls-trained Clan Des Obeaux is the highest-rated British-based horse after being given a mark of 172 for his thrilling Punchestown Gold Cup triumph.

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Martin Greenwood, BHA Steeplechase Team Leader, said: “With Irish domination a running theme throughout the 2020/21 season, it is no surprise that they head nearly every division in the latest Anglo-Irish list, limited to performances rated 150 and above for the first time.

“Chacun Pour Soi is narrowly rated the top chaser on 176, with stable companion Allaho rated 2lb lower on 174 – topping the middle-distance division – and Minella Indo splitting the pair, while finishing in pole position in the staying category. Aintree and Punchestown winner Clan des Obeaux is the only British-trained horse to feature in the 170s.”

Andrew Shaw, Senior Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board National Hunt handicapper, said: “There was a clean sweep for Irish‐trained horses in all three steeplechase categories.

“Allaho put in a spectacular display of jumping when powering his way to victory in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. Minella Indo produced the best staying performance of the season in the Gold Cup, and Chacun Pour Soi’s electrifying display in the Champion Chase at Punchestown sees him top the overall chase division.”

Shishkin and Energumene lead the way in the novice-chase division, both earning marks of 169 during campaigns full of promise.

Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin was undefeated in five starts in his first season over fences, culminating with victories in the Arkle at Cheltenham and the Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

Shishkin enjoyed a flawless campaign
Shishkin enjoyed a flawless campaign (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The Mullins-trained Energumene missed Cheltenham, but won the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown and a Grade One at Punchestown.

Greenwood added: “There are plenty of potential superstars in the novice ranks, topped by Energumene and Shishkin in the two-mile division, the pair both rated 169 and both unbeaten, the only disappointment being that they did not get the chance to race against each other.

“Three horses in the longer-distance divisions are the next best, all rated 163. Royale Pagaille finished the season on a low note after finishing lame in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and both Envoi Allen and Monkfish blotted their copybooks at Punchestown.”

Champion Hurdle heroine Honeysuckle leads the way over hurdles with a rating of 165, a pound clear of a trio of fellow Irish-trained starts on 164 – Sharjah, Stayers’ Hurdle winner Flooring Porter and Klassical Dream.

Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham
Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

The leading novice hurdlers were wide-margin Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Appreciate It (160) and the brilliant Bob Olinger (159), who dominated his rivals in the Ballymore at Cheltenham, while Monmiral (153) rates as the season’s best juvenile following success at Aintree.

Shaw said: “Honeysuckle was the standout hurdler of the season in an unbeaten campaign which resulted in four Grade One victories from as many starts, with the highlight being her scintillating display in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, earning her the season’s highest mark of 165.

“Her rate of improvement over the past couple of years would indicate that there is every chance she could better that figure next season.”

Honeysuckle extends unbeaten run with dominant Punchestown display

Honeysuckle capped an amazing campaign when taking her unbeaten record to 12 in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.

Henry de Bromhead’s remarkable mare followed up her victory at Cheltenham with another convincing display in the hands of Rachael Blackmore.

Asked to go and win the race after jumping the second-last flight, Honeysuckle soon put daylight between herself and her rivals.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle
Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle (Brian Lawless/PA)

Her supporters had a slight scare coming to the last when the 4-7 favourite steadied going into it, giving Sharjah a chance to catch her.

However, she pulled away again on the run-in to score by two and a quarter lengths. Epatante was 10 lengths away in third in a repeat of the positions in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Honeysuckle was cut to 2-1 favourite from 11-4 to defend her Champion Hurdle crown at Cheltenham next spring with Paddy Power.

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“It’s 100 per cent relief – I nearly threw it away at the last,” said Blackmore.

“She was feeling the season a little bit I think, but she’s just phenomenal.

“I wasn’t as comfortable throughout the race on her today, but still she just delivers.

“Real stars get jockeys out of trouble. I did sleep last night – sleeping is never a bother.”

Rachael Blackmore with her Punchestown trophy
Rachael Blackmore with her Punchestown trophy

Blackmore and De Bromhead have endured a disappointing week by their own high standards, with Honeysuckle a first success at this year’s Festival.

Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo had to miss his intended run on Wednesday due to a minor issue while star novice hurdler Bob Olinger was ruled out of his Punchestown engagement at a late stage due to coughing.

De Bromhead said: “We weren’t having an amazing week, but she always gets us out of trouble. She’s amazing. I’m just delighted for Kenny (Alexander, owner), Peter (Molony) and everyone involved.

“She was brilliant and Rachael was brilliant on her.

“She’s like a lot of those really good horses, she has such a will to win and Rachael is so good on her.

“She’s done that before at the last, but thankfully Rachael had it all under control. It’s been an amazing season and that’s a great way to finish it off.”

Honeysuckle jumps the last at Punchestown
Honeysuckle jumps the last at Punchestown (Brian Lawless/PA)

Molony, who is Alexander’s racing manager, admitted there is a “temptation” to switch to chasing with Honeysuckle, who was a point to point winner before embarking on her career under rules.

He said: “We have to sit down and have a chat about it (plans for next season).

“The safe option would be to go back over hurdles and it’d be wonderful if we could win another Champion Hurdle in Cheltenham and another Irish Champion Hurdle – that would be wonderful.

“There is a temptation there (to go over fences). She’s a wonderful jumper – she looks like a chasing mare. The temptation is there – how exciting would it be, but we’ll have a chat.

“I know she does (jump fences), I’ve seen her do it (schooling on Sunday mornings). We’ll see.”

Honeysuckle out to complete Champion double

Henry de Bromhead is delighted with Honeysuckle as the dream mare bids to take her perfect record under rules to 12 in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.

Honeysuckle has simply gone from strength to strength and has already won seven Grade Ones.

Her latest triumph at the top level came at the Cheltenham Festival last month when she lifted the biggest prize of them all, the Champion Hurdle.

Success on Friday would be a fitting way to cap her remarkable campaign.

Honeysuckle has never run at Punchestown – but it is where she was sold for €110,000 three years ago, just days after winning a point-to-point. She went to be trained by De Bromhead – and the rest is history.

“Every Sunday morning she reminds me how good she could be over fences as she just starts popping away and she does jump them really well,” he said.

“She’s done that all her life, so we don’t really think about it, and to win at Punchestown would be brilliant. It’s where we started the journey.”

De Bromhead was thrilled by her success at Cheltenham.

“She came off the bridle a little coming down the hill, but once she came upsides it was nice to watch,” he added.

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“I was surprised she was that far back, but obviously it worked out – Rachael (Blackmore) was brilliant on her. They’re a great combination.

“She seems good. This is the first time she has run back after travelling, so that’s different. But she seems really well, and we’re happy.

“We’ll see about chasing – it’s something to discuss in the summer. She’s so good over hurdles you wonder if you can visualise her in a mares’ beginners’ chase somewhere.”

Blackmore and Honeysuckle have been an invincible partnership for the past three seasons.

“I love riding her, but that goes without saying,” the Grand National-winning jockey told BetVictor.

“She was incredible in Cheltenham, and seems to be improving all the time.

“She seems to have come out of Cheltenham really well. She didn’t go to Punchestown last year, but seems so well this year we’re hoping to keep it going.

“I think her performances this year show she’s improving. From the Irish Champion to Cheltenham, she’s improved with every run – and I’m just very lucky to have her.”

De Bromhead boosts his challenge with Champion Hurdle fourth Aspire Tower and Jason The Militant accompanying their illustrious stablemate.

“Aspire Tower will take her on again,” added the County Waterford handler.

“He’s in great form and came out of Cheltenham well, but his jumping let him down a bit there.

“Jason The Militant was a bit unfortunate (to unseat) at Aintree, but he seems in mighty form.

“It was frustrating. But he came back safe and sound, and we can’t complain too much.”

Sharjah, runner-up to Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle, takes the mighty mare on again and is Willie Mullins’ only representative in the race.

“Sharjah ran a fantastic race in Cheltenham,” said the champion trainer.

“I don’t think he could have improved much more.”

Former Champion Hurdle winner Epatante will be taking on Honeysuckle again
Former Champion Hurdle winner Epatante will be taking on Honeysuckle again (Tim Goode/PA)

Epatante was only third in the defence of her Cheltenham crown. But connections are pleased with the Nicky Henderson-trained mare as she has another crack at Honeysuckle. It is also her first race in Ireland.

“It’s a great race, and Honeysuckle is going to be very hard to beat,” said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.

“Nicky’s very happy with her, but he was happy with her going to Cheltenham as well. She has a bit to do to reverse the placings – Honeysuckle is very good and she is going to take a lot of beating.

“We just hope she runs a big race.”

Honeysuckle heads Punchestown’s Champion Hurdle field

Henry de Bromhead fires a three-strong team in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown – with the peerless Honeysuckle at the forefront.

The brilliant mare has taken her form to a new level this season, winning a second Irish Champion Hurdle before a dominant display in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

She is 11 from 11 under Rules and is odds-on to remain unbeaten against seven rivals on Friday.

De Bromhead also fields the five-year-old Aspire Tower, a fine fourth at Cheltenham, and Jason The Militant who unseated Rachael Blackmore at Aintree.

Denise Foster’s Abacadabras returned to winning ways at Aintree, though, and will ensure Honeysuckle does not face a stroll in the park.

Willie Mullins’ Sharjah got closest to her last month and also lines up, as does Nicky Henderson’s Epatante – winner of the 2020 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

With Goshen and Darver Star completing the eight-strong field, the race is set to be one of the highlights of the week.

Just six have been declared in the Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle – and they include De Bromhead’s Decimation, due to run on Wednesday.

Stablemate Bob Olinger is the headline act, though, after his imperious display at Cheltenham in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

Mullins will field three of his rivals – Gaillard Du Mesnil, who proved no match for him at Cheltenham, Ganapathi  and N’Golo.

Jessica Harrington’s Ashdale Bob, a Grade Two winner at Fairyhouse last time out, is also in the field. But Mullins’ Supreme winner Appreciate It is a notable absentee.

Rachael Blackmore on the crest of a wave after National heroics

Rachael Blackmore is still struggling to comprehend the magnitude of her achievement after claiming Randox Grand National glory at Aintree.

The 31-year-old is used to breaking boundaries, having risen from relative obscurity to becoming one of the leading National Hunt jockeys on either side of the Irish Sea in the space of six years as a professional.

Just last month Blackmore became the first woman to ride the winner of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, aboard the brilliant mare Honeysuckle, and her six winners at the Festival saw her crowned leading jockey.

While those significant triumphs transcended sport to a certain degree, Saturday’s historic victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase has seen reluctant superstar Blackmore receive global acclaim.

“It’s still hard to process it all, to be honest. It’s been unbelievable,” she said.

“I was meant to fly home on Saturday night, but I missed my flight so I came home on the boat on Sunday and got home on Sunday evening.

“I genuinely lay awake in bed all night on Saturday. I was completely exhausted and got into bed thinking I was going to have a great night’s sleep, but I just could not shut down. I’ve been catching up on sleep ever since!

“I just couldn’t believe what had happened, I suppose. Your adrenaline would still be up and you’d be thinking about what was one of the biggest days of my life, so sleep just wouldn’t allow!”

Blackmore is well used to big-race success, but admits the feeling of winning the National on the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Times was different to anything she has experienced before.

Rachael Blackmore receives the Randox Grand National trophy
Rachael Blackmore receives the Randox Grand National trophy (David Davies/PA)

“It’s a very exciting race to be part of,” she told the PA news agency.

“I’d ridden Minella Times before, and he’s a beautiful horse to ride who jumps really well, so I was looking forward to going over the National fences with him.

“There’s a lot of anticipation in the build-up to the National. It’s so unique – 40 horses and 30 jumps. I suppose excitement was the overriding emotion on Saturday morning.

“You know very quickly if a horse is taking to the fences or not, and Minella Times absolutely took to them. After we jumped two or three fences, I knew he was really enjoying himself, and we got a fantastic passage around.

“Once you’ve got over The Chair and the water jump, you can kind of take a breath then as you’ve got over everything and you just have to go and do it once more!”

While Minella Times appeared to have victory in safe-keeping up the run-in, it was not until he passed the post that Blackmore let herself believe she had secured the most momentous of wins.

She added: “I could hear the commentator saying we were four lengths ahead, and I knew my horse wasn’t fading under me – he was going to stay galloping to the line. That is when I had the realisation that it might happen – and a few strides later it did happen.

“The feeling was just complete elation. It’s slightly different to Cheltenham – where you’re riding Honeysuckle in a Champion Hurdle, she’s favourite, and there’s a good bit of pressure attached to it.

“Going out in the Grand National, I didn’t feel any pressure. There’s not the same expectation, because everyone involved knows the amount of luck that’s involved.

“After Honeysuckle, my initial feeling was more relief, and then joy, whereas after the National it was complete joy straightaway.”

Rachael Blackmore could not believe she had claimed National glory
Rachael Blackmore could not believe she had claimed National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)
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Usually so composed in a race and afterwards, Blackmore did not find it so easy to keep her emotions in check on Merseyside.

“I probably was (emotional) afterwards, but it’s the Aintree Grand National – it’s such a big race,” she said.

“That’s not to say they’re not big races at Cheltenham. But Cheltenham is four days, with extremely important horses running every day – you can’t really allow yourself to kick back on Tuesday evening and enjoy the day, because you’ve a very important day the next day.

“After the National, Aintree was done. I had a ride in the bumper, but it’s just different.”

Among those who have congratulated Blackmore on her National triumph are tennis great Billie Jean King and Ringo Starr, drummer with The Beatles.

“It’s phenomenal,” she said.

“We used to go on camping holidays to France when we were younger, and The Beatles would be on the CD player in the car.

“I grew up listening to them, so it’s hard to believe when you’ve got people like that sending you well wishes.

“I’ve received well-wishes from everywhere, and people are just so kind. I feel extremely lucky to be in the position I’m in.”

Unlike many of her weighing-room colleagues, Blackmore was not bred to be a jockey.

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham
Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

However, from an early age, the daughter of a dairy farmer and a secondary schoolteacher loved horses –  and the Grand National in particular.

She added: “I remember when the sileage was cut trying to get my pony to jump the channels of grass in the field – and imagined I was jumping fences at Aintree.

“The Grand National was the first thing that captured my imagination in the world of racing. It’s that kind of special race that captures a global audience – I never thought that I’d be winning it some day.

“I know I keep saying it, but it is genuinely hard to comprehend.”

Blackmore has certainly not had it easy, kicking off her riding career as an amateur struggling for winners on the point-to-point circuit before making the bold decision to turn professional at the age of 25.

Her career in the paid ranks got off to a steady rather than spectacular start, but she insists she never doubted she had made the right decision.

She said: “It took me a while to get that first winner as a professional, but I was no stranger to waiting a long time for a winner – they didn’t exactly come thick and fast as an amateur.

“There was never a moment where I thought ‘have I done the right thing?’, and that was mainly because I was riding a lot more.

“I was going racing nearly every day. It might have only been for one or two rides, but I was racing a lot more than before – which meant I was getting more practice and getting better at what I was doing.

“I received a lot of support. Shark Hanlon was my main backer then, and I wasn’t getting anxious because the winner wasn’t coming because that is racing, unfortunately.”

Not one to seek the limelight, Blackmore is nevertheless aware of her current position as a role model to potential jockeys of the future – whether that be male or female.

She said: “When I was starting off, I was seeing Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh achieving massive things. Seeing what they were achieving encouraged me and never made me think about gender – I never entered the weighing room thinking about gender.

“Hopefully that will just carry on now, and the same encouragement will be there for other people.

“We’re very lucky in our sport that it (gender) isn’t an issue. It’s the same with the likes of Hollie Doyle on the Flat – you’d be hoping that those things will all help.”

Blackmore is keen to pay tribute to De Bromhead, who himself has enjoyed remarkable success at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Henry de Bromhead and Blackmore at Aintree
Henry de Bromhead and Blackmore at Aintree (David Davies/PA)

As if becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same week were not enough, he also saddled the second in the Gold Cup and the first two in the Grand National, with Minella Times followed home by stablemate Balko Des Flos.

“Henry’s achievements are nothing short of phenomenal,” she said.

“It’s incredible what he’s done – it has never happened before. I really hope that angle of it is not forgotten.

“To train those winners in Cheltenham, and have a one-two in the Gold Cup, was incredible – and then to come out and have a one-two in the Grand National, it really is a phenomenal story.

“He’s an exceptional trainer, and I feel very lucky to be part of his team. He’s got a very good team of staff that work for him, and it’s a privilege to be part of the whole thing.”

Blackmore and Townend (left) are battling out for the jockeys' championship in Ireland
Blackmore and Townend (left) are battling out for the jockeys’ championship in Ireland (PA)

With Cheltenham and Aintree in the rear-view mirror for this season, Blackmore is relishing the challenges ahead – with the Punchestown Festival next on the big-race calendar.

She can look forward to plenty of high-profile mounts and potentially making more history, as a thrilling race with Paul Townend to be crowned Ireland’s champion jockey comes to its climax.

Theirs is a friendship and rivalry which dates back to Blackmore claiming a very first victory on the pony racing circuit when she was just 15.

“I’d say I rode in five or six pony races in total, and Paul would have been very accomplished at the time and the champion pony race rider,” said Blackmore.

“For me, it took a lot longer for the penny to drop. He was extremely good back then, and I was definitely not in the same league.

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore during the Grand National
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore during the Grand National (Tim Goode/PA)

“You wouldn’t think we’d be in the situation we are now if you look back at the video. If you had to pick someone to ride a Grand National winner of the future from that video, I’d say I’d have been about 500-1!”

She added: “The last four weeks have been brilliant, but you can never accomplish everything you want to accomplish in racing.

“Racing is constantly turning. We came back from Cheltenham, and that was brilliant, but a few days later we were in Fairyhouse for the Irish Grand National – then we were in Aintree and now we’re gearing up for Punchestown.

“It’s a constant, evolving wheel where you’re definitely enjoying what’s happening, but you’re also getting focused on what’s coming up.

“I suppose there’s pressure there to prove you are what people say you are. But at the same time, if pressure got to me I’d probably be in the wrong job.

“It isn’t really a job to me. You’re a very privileged person when you can do something you love and get paid for it.”

Although Blackmore’s focus is very much ending a remarkable campaign on a high at present, she hopes there will be time to celebrate this summer – once coronavirus restrictions allow.

She said: “The minute Covid has decided to cease and resist, there will be a party!

“We have a break at the end of June, so it would be nice to get away if we can, but I don’t think you can do too much planning in the current circumstances.”

British runners tempted by £100,000 bonus at Punchestown

A British-trained winner of the Punchestown Champion Hurdle is in line to collect a £100,000 bonus.

Irish runners won a staggering 23 of the 28 races run at the Cheltenham Festival last month – including the Unibet Champion Hurdle, which went the way of Honeysuckle.

Henry de Bromhead’s brilliant mare is set to go for the double under Rachael Blackmore – and big-race sponsors Paddy Power are offering the bonus in the hope of tempting competition from Britain.

The Nicky Henderson-trained Epatante got closest to Honeysuckle at Cheltenham from the home contingent when third. She is expected to reoppose later this month.

Spokesperson Paddy Power said: “We gave the Brits a beating at Cheltenham and now we’re laying down a challenge to the tune of £100k – come and have a go if you think you’re good enough.

“Honeysuckle blew her rivals away last month and will be well fancied for the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown, but now there’s an extra cash incentive for any British raider who thinks they can dethrone the queen.”

Entries for the race will be revealed on Monday, April 12.

Henry de Bromhead planning to keep Gold Cup one-two apart if he can

Minella Indo and A Plus Tard are likely to run at Punchestown and Aintree respectively after providing Henry de Bromhead with a one-two in the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The Knockeen-based handler enjoyed a memorable week in the Cotswolds – becoming the first trainer to saddle the winner of the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Gold Cup in the same week.

Minella Indo completed the feat when denying better-fancied stablemate A Plus Tard in Friday’s feature – and could now bid to crown his season with victory in the Punchestown Gold Cup on April 28.

“I look back at the Gold Cup with disbelief, to be honest. I watched it back this morning and was kind of going ‘this didn’t happen’,” De Bromhead said on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme.

“Minella Indo kept staying and I’m not sure we’ve seen the half of him – he’s so tough.

“I haven’t really spoken to Barry (Maloney, owner) about plans, but Punchestown would be great if he seems good – I think we should strongly consider Punchestown.”

A Plus Tard ran an excellent race to fill the runner-up spot under the all-conquering Rachael Blackmore and could head for the Betway Bowl at Aintree, given his preference for left-handed tracks.

De Bromhead also nominated next season’s Betfair Chase at Haydock as a possible target.

Minella Indo and A Plus Tard after the Gold Cup
Minella Indo and A Plus Tard after the Gold Cup (David Davies/PA)
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He added: “The one question about A Plus Tard going into Cheltenham was he’s got so much class, would he get the last two furlongs? But he really did, in fairness to him – and wouldn’t he have been a very impressive winner if ‘Indo’ wasn’t there?

“A Plus Tard’s form is ridiculously better on left-handed tracks, so if he’s well, we’re considering Aintree for him.

“That (going left-handed) limits him, but the race at Haydock could be a lovely race for him in the autumn.

“When you have two horses like that, you’d love to try to keep them apart as best you can.”

The first of six winners on the week for De Bromhead and Blackmore was the brilliant mare Honeysuckle, who stretched her unbeaten record to 11 with a runaway success in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday.

While future plans are up in the air, connections have mooted the possibility of a career over fences, with a bid to emulate the great Dawn Run – the only horse to win a Champion Hurdle and a Gold Cup – in mind.

“It’s something we’ll have to give a lot of thought to and ultimately it comes down to Kenny (Alexander, owner),” said De Bromhead.

“She’s an extremely valuable mare. There’s probably a little bit more risk over fences, but without wanting to tempt fate, she goes off loose every Sunday morning in our indoor school and she takes off and goes off jumping for sport.

“Every Sunday morning she jumps a chase fence about four times and she loves it.

“I haven’t actually schooled over fences outside, but she’s a point-to-point winner and makes that shape over hurdles, so if Kenny said he’d like to go chasing – I think it’s something we all need to discuss, the pros and cons, and then ultimately it’s down to Kenny to decide what he wants to do.”

Bob Olinger was awesome in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle
Bob Olinger was awesome in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Michael Steele/PA)

De Bromhead, who also struck Festival gold with Put The Kettle On in the Champion Chase, Bob Olinger in the Ballymore, Telmesomethinggirl in the Mares Novices’ Hurdle, Quilixios in the Triumph Hurdle, faces a period of isolation after returning to County Waterford.

He added: “It’s been a bit quiet for me, as I have to quarantine for five days, but it’s buzzing around the place.

“Last year we went with similar horses and a similar team. We had two winners and we were happy, (but) people were saying we’d be top trainer and things like that, but we possibly didn’t quite fulfil what we had hoped we could do.

“Coming into this year, you know it could just be the same as the year before, but we ended getting what we got and it’s just incredible.

“It’s so tough to win there (Cheltenham). Everybody has the ups and downs of the place – that’s racing to be honest, but at Cheltenham even more so as it’s so competitive.

Rachael Blackmore enjoyed a memorable week
Rachael Blackmore enjoyed a memorable week (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“There’s plenty of ups and downs and you really appreciate the ups when you get them.”

De Bromhead was also keen to praise the achievements of Blackmore, who became the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle and the first to be crowned leading jockey at the Festival.

He said: “She works hard and has had to work hard. She’s a 10-year overnight success.

“She’s had all the knocks. I know the feeling and you just have to work your way through it and try to step forward and not back.

“Rachael appreciates what it takes to be at the top of this game. She’s brilliant to work with and has every race planned out.

“I thought some of her rides this week were brilliant. She’s just a great rider and a great person.”

Blackmore stepped forward as Cheltenham reminded everyone how great racing can be

Rachael Blackmore must have heard on the grapevine that the 2021 Cheltenham Festival was holding out for a heroine – and she answered the call to game-changing effect.

This year’s showpiece meeting got under way, undoubtedly, at a highly vulnerable tipping point of public perception for the sport of racing.

It was against a potentially bleak backdrop that Blackmore shone a light with historic triumph after historic triumph – surpassing the achievements of hundreds of jockeys of whichever gender by winning the Champion Hurdle, four more Grade Ones and consequently the leading rider award, the first female to come close to any of the above.

Rachael Blackmore holds the Ruby Walsh Trophy as the leading rider at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival
Rachael Blackmore holds the Ruby Walsh Trophy as the leading rider at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival (Tim Goode/PA)

She finished a mere second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup as A Plus Tard could not quite manage to haul back his Henry de Bromhead stablemate Minella Indo, ridden by Jack Kennedy.

Her spectacularly successful meeting will, of course, be career-defining – although plenty more glories surely lie ahead – but it is more than a personal triumph, because it has upended the landscape of possibilities, for female jockeys especially, when it comes to habitually riding winners on National Hunt’s greatest stage.

More perhaps than any of that, or certainly at least as significant, is that Blackmore’s exemplary timing has been in evidence not just in the thick of the action but in the bigger picture, at a moment when racing needed her like never before.

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Doubts are still cast by many over the probity of holding the Cheltenham Festival with a near quarter-of-a-million footfall 12 months ago when the consequences at the start of a developing pandemic were unknown.

Those rumblings may never be dispelled – and yet, potentially damaging as they have been for racing, a darker cloud hung over the sport in the weeks before this year’s meeting as the lovers and haters struggled equally to comprehend an image which first stretched universal credibility and then sensibilities.

After Gordon Elliott confirmed the authenticity of a photograph circulated on social media of him sat on a dead horse, racing was aghast and beset by headlines calling into question its very being.

As the County Meath trainer began a year-long ban, the second six months suspended, the sport therefore got under way with its reputation hanging in the balance and its future well-being perhaps dependent on a feelgood Festival.

Bob Olinger was a Grade One winner for Rachael Blackmore on Wednesda
Bob Olinger was a Grade One winner for Rachael Blackmore on Wednesday (Michael Steele/PA)

In the ongoing absence of crowds and owners, because of coronavirus restrictions, that was going to be no easy task.

But step forward Blackmore.

Her utter domination arrived in partnership for the most part with De Bromhead, who eventually had to cede the meeting’s top trainer award to the record-breaking Willie Mullins, but shared the limelight throughout as he marginally outdid even Blackmore by becoming the first ever to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup at the same Festival.

Blackmore fired her first big opening salvo when Honeysuckle stormed to a near seven-length victory in Tuesday’s Unibet Champion Hurdle.

She was only just getting started, though.

Next came two Wednesday winners, De Bromhead’s Bob Olinger off the blocks in the opening Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and Sir Gerhard rounding out the card in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.

Blackmore’s three falls to earth in between merely reminded one and all of how remarkable her achievements were becoming, and how dangerous jump racing can be – whatever the talent of the participants.

Rachael Blackmore and Allaho were outstanding winners of the Ryanair Chase
Rachael Blackmore and Allaho were outstanding winners of the Ryanair Chase (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Two more winners on Thursday included a breathtaking performance from horse and jockey as the front-running Allaho dismissed his Grade One rivals in the Ryanair Chase by 12 lengths and more.

By the time the Gold Cup came round in the middle of Friday afternoon, Blackmore already had the Festival’s top rider award surely in safe keeping – although Kennedy made her wait just a little longer by pegging back the score, thanks to Minella Indo.

Blackmore’s celebratory post-race interviews had begun to have a glorious groundhog feel to them, if such a thing is possible.

She spoke eloquently and modestly throughout, though, about how much she owed those who had put her in position to keep winning Cheltenham’s greatest races.

In truth, Blackmore was the gift that kept on giving – and in 2021, racing could never have more reason to be grateful.

Honeysuckle and Blackmore make it an opening day at Cheltenham to savour

Honeysuckle extended her flawless record to 11 runs and 11 wins as she cruised to an unchallenged six-and-a-half-length victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

Remaining on the outside of the field for most of the race, Rachael Blackmore – the first female to ride the winner of the great race – asked the mare to take the lead two flights from home and they easily powered past their rivals and up the hill to make Festival history.

The 11-10 win was one of a handful of victories for favourites on day one of the Festival, with Willie Mullins’ 8-11 shot Appreciate It opening the meeting with a facile 24-length victory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin then justified his price of 4-9 when comfortably taking the Sporting Life Arkle Novices’ Chase with 12 lengths to spare.

There were some surprises, however, with Sue Smith’s Vintage Clouds bagging the Ultima Handicap Chase at 28-1 on his fifth attempt, and Noel Meade’s Jeff Kidder landing the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at massive odds of 80-1.

Picture of the day

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Paul Townend smiles and celebrates after Appreciate It's demolition job in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle
Paul Townend smiles and celebrates after Appreciate It’s demolition job in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Tim Goode/PA)

Quote of the day

“Rachael is a brilliant rider on any horse and Honeysuckle is just a brilliant horse. The combination is deadly – it’s the perfect storm”  – Henry de Bromhead on Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after their Champion Hurdle success.

Performance of the day

Nico de Boinville and Shishkin clear the last to win the Arkle
Nico de Boinville and Shishkin clear the last to win the Arkle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Despite the much-anticipated clash with Energumene never materialising, Shishkin still managed to demonstrate his superiority in the division with a dominant success in the Arkle. The seven-year-old jumped immaculately from the off and was hardly stretched in maintaining his flawless record over fences, with his nearest rival, Colin Tizzard’s Eldorado Allen, 12 lengths behind.

Ride of the day

Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning the Champion Hurdle
Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning the Champion Hurdle (David Davies/PA)

Tasked with protecting Honeysuckle’s unbeatable reputation, Rachael Blackmore did not flinch under the pressure of piloting the 11-10 favourite and remained completely in control as she kept the mare on an untroubled path throughout the race. Asking her mount to soar clear of the other runners at precisely the right moment, Blackmore never gave Honeysuckle fans a flicker of a doubt as the pair made an 11th successive win look easy.

What’s next?

Paul Townend and Chacun Pour Soi are a formidable partnership
Paul Townend and Chacun Pour Soi are a formidable partnership (PA)

Wednesday’s action is headlined by the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with Chacun Pour Soi leading the field for the two-mile Grade One contest. He is set to take on reigning champion Politologue, with Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra and Kim Bailey’s First Flow others in the mix. Also on the card is the cross-country chase, where two-time winner Tiger Roll will attempt to retain his title after losing it to French raider Easysland last season. The concluding race is the Champion Bumper, where Willie Mullins saddles the undefeated Sir Gerhard and the highly-regarded Kilcruit.

Hollow sounds but no hollow victory for Blackmore and Honeysuckle

The Cheltenham Festival began on Tuesday – but it was unlike any we had ever seen before.

While the action on the track lived up to expectations with Honeysuckle winning the Champion Hurdle, the red-hot bankers Appreciate It and Shishkin taking the first two races and even a popular grey hitting the target in Vintage Clouds, it was hard not to notice the eerie silence in the cavernous grandstands.

Prestbury Park is the perfect place to house a huge crowd, a natural amphitheatre of a place surrounded by the glorious Cleeve Hill. Everything about it screams prestige.

To be on course when Rachael Blackmore guided Honeysuckle to a dominant display in the feature was a true privilege, and the few who were there did their best to make as much noise as possible – but understandably with such limited numbers, in such a massive arena, it did not sound very loud.

It is such a shame for Blackmore, who should surely no longer be referred to as a ‘female jockey’, that she was denied the welcome in by the punters – and given she was backed into 11-10 favouritism, the acclaim would surely have been even more raucous than usual.

But as those involved in the industry keep insisting, we are lucky enough to be racing when other sectors are on their knees.

With the spectre of last year’s meeting even taking place as it did still looming large – and hot on the heels of the Gordon Elliott story – racing had some ground to make up in public perception.

The whole course was split into different areas, keeping the British and Irish competitors separated, and maintaining Covid protocols.

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There is no doubt that, while those in the enviable position of working here each year may moan about having to fight through crowds to beat deadlines, with the punters absent, it became blatantly obvious what they bring to the occasion.

With no Guinness Village, all bars and food outlets firmly closed and just the odd worker walking around before racing, you could have been at any weekday meeting staged behind closed doors since racing returned in June.

However, once the action started, we were reminded of what a special place Cheltenham really is.

The first race, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, as is becoming the norm, went to a Willie Mullins-trained hotpot in Appreciate It.

With a much smaller field than usual, Paul Townend was always in command, and the 8-11 favourite simply bounded clear – winning by a yawning 24 lengths and forcing Mullins to concede he must be a bit better than even he imagined.

Appreciate It clears the last in splendid isolation
Appreciate It clears the last in splendid isolation (Tim Goode/PA)

“The way he finished the race today, he looks as good as any of our previous winners of the race – it was a Vautour-like performance,” said Mullins.

Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin had the unenviable moniker of being the home banker of the week in the Sporting Life Arkle – and while his trainer admitted that in having to rule Altior out of the meeting on Monday, he feared it might be one of ‘those’ weeks, there was never a moment of anxiety on the way around.

“We’d always hoped (to win like that), but you never expect,” said Henderson.

“It was strange – it will be all week without the crowds – but it doesn’t make it any easier watching them. Winners here are winners, though, and without the crowd they are still special.”

Shishkin is owned by Joe and Marie Donnelly, who have a small but select string at the meeting including the hat-trick-seeking Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, and they donated £10,000 of their prize-money to the charity WellChild, who have partnered with Cheltenham this year.

Shishkin was sensational in the Arkle
Shishkin was sensational in the Arkle (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Vintage Clouds rolled back the years, with Sue Smith’s 11-year-old winning the Ultima Handicap Chase at the fifth attempt – and although he would have deserved his ovation too, it would not have matched Blackmore’s.

Always in the perfect position, Honeysuckle sprang clear off the home bend to win by six and a half lengths from Sharjah, who had to settle for second again.

It is a result which will propel Blackmore outside the racing bubble into the wider sports world.

She said: “I’m speechless, to be honest – she’s just so incredible.

“I can’t believe we’ve won a Champion Hurdle. Kenny Alexander (owner) and Peter Molony (racing manager) are both at home with their families. It’s a pity they can’t be here today.”

That was the sentiment we all felt. While the racing was as incredible as ever, we were left hankering for absent friends.

There were also two winners that in other times would have added to Elliott’s tally.

Now in the care of the new boss of Cullentra House Denise Foster, Black Tears produced a telling late challenge in the Mares’ Hurdle, while Galvin won the National Hunt Chase for Ian Ferguson.

Jack Kennedy rode both – and regarding the absence of crowds, said: “To be honest, you’d only notice it walking out and walking back in.

“When you cross the line, it’s still the very same feeling when you ride a winner.

“It’s a shame there’s no one here, but it’s great that we’re able to keep going with it – and I’m delighted to get a couple of winners.”

While that sentiment probably rings true for most punters as well, it just somehow means more shouting one home on track – and there will be plenty counting down to the Cheltenham Festival 2022 already.

Champion Hurdle glory secures Blackmore’s place at the top of her sport

Rachael Blackmore was lost for words after steering Honeysuckle to an historic victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Unlike many of her weighing-room colleagues, the 31-year-old was not bred to be a jockey, being the daughter of a dairy farmer and a secondary school teacher.

However, she is the perfect advertisement of where sheer hard work and perseverance can get you – rising from little-known amateur to becoming one of the most respected members of her profession on either side of the Irish Sea in the space of six years.

Unbeaten in 10 previous starts and a brilliant winner of last year’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle was all the rage to ensure Blackmore became the first female jockey to claim victory in the sport’s most iconic hurdle race.

Her legion of fans will have been shouting her on at home too, as the 11-10 favourite kicked clear into the straight and powered up the hill to beat old rival Sharjah by six and a half lengths.

“For me, this was never even a dream – it is so far from what I ever thought could happen in my life,” said an emotional Blackmore.

“Being in Cheltenham and riding a winner of a Champion Hurdle is so far removed from what I dreamt could be possible.

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“Maybe there’s a lesson in that for everyone out there.”

In typically modest fashion, Blackmore was keen to heap praise on her willing partner and De Bromhead and his team, rather than taking due credit herself.

Rachael Blackmore aboard Honeysuckle
Rachael Blackmore aboard Honeysuckle (Michael Steele/PA)

“I’m so thankful to be a part of her (Honeysuckle) – it’s all about her,” she said.

“You can’t do it without getting on the right horses, and I’ve been extremely lucky in that sense, getting a link-up with a yard like Henry de Bromhead’s.

“That is a massive part of every jockey’s career – being in the right place at the right time and getting linked up with the right yard.”

Blackmore recalled visiting the hugely popular three-time Champion Hurdle hero Istabraq as a schoolgirl.

“We went to see Istabraq on a school tour,” she said.

“I’m from Tipperary, so it was local.

“I never envisaged back then, when I went to see him, that I’d be riding the winner of a Champion Hurdle – it’s incredible.

“When every person becomes a jockey they dream about riding at Cheltenham and all these things, but riding a winner like this – I’m sorry for repeating myself – is just unbelievable.”

Blackmore has always been reticent to discuss her achievements as a ‘female jockey’.

This victory provides just more evidence, as if it were needed, that she is more than a match for her male counterparts.

She said: “There’s no deal about it any more, I don’t think. It’s not that I don’t talk about it, I just think if you want to be a jockey you can be a jockey – drive on.”

The biggest shame, of course, is that Blackmore and Honeysuckle were not welcomed back into the hallowed winner’s enclosure to the usual raucous fanfare.

“It’s a shame the crowds aren’t here, because the people are what make Cheltenham what it is,” she added.

“But it was nice that the people that are here gave us a cheer when we got back in.

“It still feels very special, but it’s not the normal Cheltenham of old. Hopefully we’ll see the crowds back here next year.”

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle unstoppable in Champion Hurdle

Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle as she guided Honeysuckle to a brilliant victory at Cheltenham.

Blackmore produced the heavily-backed 11-10 favourite to lead between the final two flights and she bounded up the hill to go on and win in impressive fashion.

Silver Streak, Not So Sleepy and Goshen were the expected pacesetters early on, with Abacadabras falling at the third flight.

As the field went out into the country, it soon became apparent Jamie Moore was having steering problems on Goshen, whose chance soon went as a result.

Honeysuckle moved forward with ease, leaving the opposition in her wake as the Henry de Bromhead-trained mare powered away to take her 100 per cent record over hurdles to 11.

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The pair crossed the line six and a half lengths clear of 2020 runner-up Sharjah, with last year’s winner Epatante another three lengths away in third place.

Blackmore said: “I’m speechless, to be honest – she’s just so incredible.

“I can’t believe we’ve won a Champion Hurdle. Kenny Alexander (owner) and Peter Molony (racing manager) are both at home with their families. It’s a pity they can’t be here today.

History-making success for Rachael Blackmore
History-making success for Rachael Blackmore (Tim Goode/PA)

“When Goshen headed off and then came back in I was just slightly worried, but she did everything I wanted her to do throughout the race and it’s just unbelievable.

“Henry produces her every day in that kind of form for me to just steer round. I’m so thankful to be a part of her (Honeysuckle) – it’s all about her.

“She’s getting better and improving. Her run the last day was a career-best and again today.

“It’s phenomenal.”

De Bromhead said: “It was unbelievable. She’s a very laid-back, chilled out mare – she’s amazing.

“I’m so used to mine being ridden handy away and after two or three hurdle Rachael looked really happy.

“After jumping the second-last she had to get after her and Goshen going to the right for a while was a bit worrying as well, but all in all it was probably one of the more relaxed races I’ve watched here.

“Coming down to the last you just wanted her to get over it, obviously.

“Rachael is a brilliant rider on any horse and Honeysuckle is just a brilliant horse. The combination is deadly – it’s the perfect storm.

“I’ll discuss it with Kenny and see what everyone would like to do, but I’d say there’s every chance she’ll head to Punchestown.”

Cheltenham Festival day one – Let battle commence as stars converge again

With the 2020 Cheltenham Festival beginning just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to take hold, the four-day meeting was the last major sporting event to survive before the country was forced into lockdown and all public gatherings were cancelled.

Twelve months later the world is still not fully recovered and all sporting fixtures must take place behind closed doors, with the Festival no exception.

With no crowds to witness the lifting of the tapes in the very first race of the meeting, there will be no Cheltenham roar, nor will there be the famed reception that awaits winning horses when they return to the parade ring.

Empty grandstands at Cheltenham
Empty grandstands at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

The Cheltenham Festival is as much about the top-flight racing as it is about the off-course atmosphere, however, and still promises to be of its usual calibre, despite the empty grandstands.

The first day is headlined by the Unibet Champion Hurdle, where last season’s heroine Epatante is poised to face the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle – on whom Rachael Blackmore could make history – and a resurgent Goshen.

The Sporting Life Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase looks at the mercy of Shishkin, although Allmankind will not go down without a fight.

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Let battle commence…

Appreciate It – right from the start

Paul Townend could be all smiles again with Appreciate It
Paul Townend could be all smiles again with Appreciate It (PA)

It is a rare thing these days for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle not to kick-off proceedings with a Willie Mullins hotpot and this year is no exception, with Appreciate It having been a warm order since a terrific performance in Grade One company over Christmas. Ballyadam got closer to him at the Dublin Racing Festival, but while Appreciate It promises to be better over further – and fences – in time, all the evidence suggests there is little point in ignoring the obvious.

All eyes on Shishkin

Shishkin warmed up for Cheltenham with an easy success at Doncaster
Shishkin warmed up for Cheltenham with an easy success at Doncaster (Tim Goode/PA)

Top of the bill is Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, who has built a flawless record over fences since triumphing in the Supreme at the Festival last season. The Mullins-trained Energumene was his chief rival following a highly-impressive display when taking the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown by 10 lengths, but was withdrawn on Friday after a suffering an injury. Dan Skelton’s Allmankind wears his heart on his sleeve in front, so the Henderson hotpot will still have to be as advertised to get the job done.

Honeysuckle in full bloom ahead of Champion showdown

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore struck in the Irish Champion Hurdle
Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore struck in the Irish Champion Hurdle (Niall Carson/PA)

Epatante bids to defend her crown in the feature race on the opening afternoon, after a three-length success 12 months ago. There is a question or two, however, after the Henderson runner disappointed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She also faces strong opposition from Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle, who has yet to suffer a single defeat in 10 starts under rules and was a 10-length winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle. If she can get her head in front it will see Blackmore become the first woman to ride a Champion Hurdle winner. Gary Moore’s Goshen, who was agonisingly denied victory in the Triumph Hurdle last year when unshipping Jamie Moore at the final hurdle, looked to have bounced back to his brilliant best when easily winning the Kingwell Hurdle and has very much rejoined the reckoning off the back of that performance.

Concertista centre stage in Mares’ Hurdle

Concertista and Paul Townend in winning action at Leopardstown over Christmas
Concertista and Paul Townend in winning action at Leopardstown over Christmas (PA)

The Henderson, Mullins and Skelton yards will face off once again in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Mullins’ Concertista was a 12-length winner at the Festival last season and has since enjoyed two further big-race successes, stepping up in trip on both occasions to prove her ability over two and a half miles. Henderson’s Coral Cup winner Dame De Compagnie reverts to hurdles after unseating Nico de Boinville in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, while Skelton’s Roksana is back down in distance – having dipped her toe in the staying division waters before defeating Jessica Harrington’s Magic Of Light in the Warfield Hurdle at Ascot.

Correct Destination?

Next Destination was a tenacious winner at Newbury
Next Destination was a tenacious winner at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Paul Nicholls made a surprise late decision to reroute his unbeaten novice Next Destination from a prospective clash with Monkfish on Wednesday to the Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase, which closes the card on day one. In the absence here of Royale Pagaille – who will sport the famous colours of Monkfish’s owners in Friday’s Gold Cup – it may prove a wise move. But Galvin will have his supporters too, following a run of four successive victories over fences. Now with Ian Ferguson after moving from Gordon Elliott, he also has strong Festival form in the book.

Honeysuckle and Epatante promise Champion Hurdle to savour

Honeysuckle bids to dethrone Epatante in a mouthwatering clash for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

The market for the feature event on day one of the Festival is dominated by the two top-class mares, with Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle just about edging favouritism off the back of a scintillating display in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

That dominant victory saw the seven-year-old stretch her unbeaten record to double figures, leaving connections with a mixture of expectant nerves and excitement for her biggest assignment yet.

CheHoneysuckle at Cheltenham on Sunday morningltenham Festival Gallops – March 14th
Honeysuckle at Cheltenham on Sunday morning (David Davies/PA)

Peter Molony, racing manager for Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander, said: “She arrived in Cheltenham on Saturday night and travelled well, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

“I do get desperately nervous, but if you’re not pumped up for this you’re not going to get pumped up for anything.

“She’s an amazing mare, and we’re very lucky to be in this position, so we may as well enjoy it.”

Honeysuckle already has a Festival win on her CV, having outgunned Benie Des Dieux in an epic Mares’ Hurdle 12 months ago.

The daughter of Sulamani was made to pull out all the stops when successfully defending her crown in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse on her first start of the current campaign, but raised her game significantly when powering clear of her Irish Champion rivals.

“She was incredible in Leopardstown,” added Molony.

“It’s well documented Henry didn’t have her fit enough for her first run of the season in the Hatton’s Grace – she blew up for the first time in her life in a race.

“Henry mentioned the other day that he thinks she’s still improving. If that is right, and we can get her there at the best of her ability on Tuesday, it will be very exciting.”

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A huge part of the Honeysuckle story is jockey Rachael Blackmore, who bids to become the first female jockey in history to ride a Champion Hurdle winner.

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore have formed a formidable partnership
Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore have formed a formidable partnership (PA)

Molony has nothing but praise for the rider, saying: “It sounds a funny thing to say, but it’s almost like people have forgotten she’s a woman at this stage – she can hold her own with any man.

“She’s so balanced, and horses run so well for her and jump so well for her, and she’s got a fantastic tactical brain.

“She’s got all the attributes – she’s fantastic.”

Honeysuckle produced many of her best performance over longer distances, so De Bromhead was thrilled to see her prove she can be just as effective over two miles last time out.

The Knockeen-based trainer, who also saddles Aspire Tower, said: “She looks very effective over anything really. All the judges say her last day was her best performance so far.

“Aspire Tower ran really well to finish second at Leopardstown at Christmas, and we decided to go straight to the Champion Hurdle.

“I’m very happy with him. He’s in great form, and we’ve put him away for Cheltenham.”

Epatante provided trainer Nicky Henderson with his eighth Champion Hurdle success last season – and owner JP McManus with his ninth.

She looked as good as ever on her seasonal reappearance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November, but returns to the Cotswolds with something to prove after suffering a shock defeat when bidding for back-to-back wins in Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Nicky Henderson with Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante
Nicky Henderson with Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante (David Davies/PA)

Henderson said: “She as very impressive in the Fighting Fifth. She picked up Sceau Royal after the last and went past him with so much class.

“She wasn’t herself at Kempton – but fair play to Silver Streak, who was very good on the day. He set a proper test, and at no stage were we in a position to have a crack at him.

“I think we’re back in the right place now.”

The Evan Williams-trained Silver Streak is once again in opposition, having finished third and sixth in the last two Champion Hurdles, but the biggest threat to the two mares could be Gary Moore’s Goshen.

The five-year-old was set for a wide-margin win in the Triumph Hurdle at last year’s Festival before his agonising exit at the final obstacle.

He was then beaten twice on the Flat in the autumn, and finished stone last in Cheltenham’s International Hurdle in December, but bounced back with a wide-margin success in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on his latest outing.

Moore said: “He seems in good order. I’m very happy with him. He’s done everything right this morning (Monday), so it’s all systems go.

“There will be loads of pace. He doesn’t have to make the running. They can do that for him if they want. It’s down to Jamie (Moore).

“We’re 100 per cent ready to go.”

Willie Mullins runs last year’s runner-up Sharjah, as well as Saldier and intriguing French recruit James Du Berlais.

The former has 19 lengths to make up on Honeysuckle on their meeting in the Irish Champion, a race he also disappointed in last season before raising his game at Cheltenham.

Sharjah needs to bounce back to form
Sharjah needs to bounce back to form (PA)

Mullins said: “I don’t know what it is about the Irish Champion Hurdle with Sharjah – it maybe comes too soon for him after Christmas.

“The better the ground the better his chance, and if we can just adjust tactics this year it might make the difference.”

Of James Du Berlais, he added: “He had a very busy season in France last year, and was bought by Simon (Munir) and Isaac (Souede) as a novice chaser – but it’s a long time to wait, so we put him in training.

“I was happy to run him somewhere and I’m not going to run him in the Stayers’ Hurdle. I said ‘let’s run him in the Champion Hurdle and let him have a go there’, rather than do nothing the whole spring.”

Denise Foster’s Abacadabras and the Hughie Morrison-trained Not So Sleepy are the other hopefuls.

Honeysuckle is dream and a privilege for Blackmore

Rachael Blackmore is seeking a piece of history when she lines up on the unbeaten Honeysuckle in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

Blackmore, chasing Paul Townend hard in the race to be champion jockey in Ireland, would become the first female rider to win the showpiece race on the opening day of the Festival.

Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle was a winner at the meeting 12 months ago when coming out on top in a titanic battle with Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle, but is in against the boys this time – as well as fellow mare and last year’s winner Epatante.

Honeysuckle surveys the surroundings at Cheltenham on Sunday
Honeysuckle surveys the surroundings at Cheltenham on Sunday (David Davies/PA)

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“Honeysuckle is incredible,” said Blackmore.

“She’s never let us down so far, and I’m just hoping we can continue in the Champion Hurdle.

“She digs deep when she has to, she gets me out of trouble when she has to – she’s just been phenomenal, and I can’t find any fault with her.

“It’s fantastic to be involved with a horse of her calibre. It’s what any jockey dreams about, getting teamed up with something like her. It’s just a privilege.”

Honeysuckle is owned by Kenny Alexander, who has a strong band of mares – but none comes close to Honeysuckle.

“Her owner, Kenny Alexander, his main aim was to win the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham – and that was a fantastic achievement for him to be able to do that, with the help of Peter Molony (racing manager),” added Blackmore.

“We got that done last year, and I think her performance at Leopardstown (in the Irish Champion Hurdle) was ultra-impressive. So why not have a stab at the Champion Hurdle?

“It’s an extremely competitive race – these championship races are unbelievable. There’s last year’s winner Epatante, Goshen. Hopefully we are on our A game and can produce the goods again.”

Blackmore has an outstanding book of rides this week – and with A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup, she could even pull off a famous double.

She said: “I have a massive good book of rides at Cheltenham; the likes of Champagne Gold (County Hurdle or Martin Pipe), if he goes, Captain Guinness (Arkle), Notebook (Queen Mother) and A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup. I’m very much looking forward to riding him as well – I could go on all day.

“We’ve had a fantastic year so far. This is the important week, so hopefully the success can carry through.”