Blackmore and Honeysuckle looking for one last Cheltenham Festival hurrah

All-Irish all-girl combination will start favourites for Tuesday's Mares' Hurdle

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle are three-time winners at the Cheltenham Festival with Tuesday's Mares' Hurdle their final ride together (Reuters via Beat Media Group subscription)
Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle are three-time winners at the Cheltenham Festival with Tuesday's Mares' Hurdle their final ride together (Reuters via Beat Media Group subscription)

By James Toney at Cheltenham

They are an A-list racing double act seeking the perfect happy ending with a plan to leave the audience wanting more.

It'll be 1577 days since Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore first teamed up when they go to post for the Mares' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday.

At a time when racing needed a lift, they've provided one of those feel-good stories this sport does best.

There are few more popular horses in training as Henry de Bromhead's stable star. From humble beginnings in the Fairyhouse Membership 2019 Now Available Mares Maiden Hurdle - first prize €6,776 - they've soared the heights.

They went on a winning run of 16 races, with three Festival wins, including back-to-back victories in the showpiece Champion Hurdle.

Together they've won €1,538,84 and counting with a remarkable form line that reads 1/1111/1111/111/1111-132.

Blackmore is now box office, a jockey who has already transcended her sport to the mainstream and her partnership with Honeysuckle has defined that success.

But a first-time defeat at Fairyhouse last December ended hopes of a rare perfect career, while Honeysuckle found rival State Man too much in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in February.

That means they'll be no bid for a third Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham - where a win would have put her up there with storied legends like Istabraq, See You Then and Hatton's Grace.

Instead, she'll take on her own sex in the Mares' Hurdle, a race she won three years ago in a thrilling finish.

Some have questioned the decision to seek a lesser challenge for this farewell performance. While her glory days are in the past, Honeysuckle's run in the Irish Champion Hurdle was hardly a humiliation, beating the highly-regarded Vauban, four years her junior, to come second.

"Every jockey dreams of a partnership with a horse like Honeysuckle, she's been just incredible for me and my career and hopefully we've got another chapter left to write yet," said Blackmore.

"From those first races I knew she was going to be something special and those three wins at Cheltenham were incredible and so different.

"Winning the Champion Hurdle with no fans in the stands was strange and then last year was just the opposite, I've never heard noise like it or had a reception like that.

"We've had two races this year and while it was weird not walking into the winner's enclosure on her, I think they were still two good performances. It was hard to take, when she had that record, but we're excited to be going to Cheltenham again. What she’s achieved and allowed me to achieve in my career will never be forgotten."

Honeysuckle will go up against another former Champion Hurdle winner in Nicky Henderson's Epatante in what is already shaping to be a fascinating renewal of a race which made its Festival debut just 15 years ago.

De Bromhead - who became the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup treble in 2021 - expects to bring nearly 20 runners to the Festival, with Honeysuckle and Gold Cup winners Minella Indo and A Plus Tard his ‘Galacticos’.

"They are getting older but we're looking forward to it, we've got plenty of younger horses coming through too," he said.

"We've had a special few years at Cheltenham but it's always tough, it doesn't get any easier even when you've been there and done it.

"We'll just take the one winner but when you've got one, you always want another."

With 18 Festival wins on his resume, de Bromhead knows sentiment can't play a part deciding his Cheltenham assignments. Some have expressed frustration Honeysuckle will not tilt at history and a Champion Hurdle hat-trick, a race expected to be at the mercy of Nicky Henderson's rising superstar Constitution Hill.

"My only thinking is finding the race that we’ve the best chance of winning," he added.

"I think it’s fair to say that we’d have a better chance of winning the Mares' Hurdle that than the Champion Hurdle and that's all the matters."