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Cheltenham Icons: A look at Honeysuckle's career

Honeysuckle helped Rachael Blackmore become the 'Queen of Cheltenham' during their glorious stint together and signed off with a barnstorming, emotional farewell success. 

The mare twice won the Champion Hurdle in the Cotswolds in a four-race unbeaten sequence on the biggest stage in National Hunt racing, but arguably her farewell victory in the Mares' Hurdle in 2023 is the race jumps racing aficionados will recall most fondly.

Though she was unbeaten for four years in her pomp, it was arguably the vulnerability at the end of her career that helped Honeysuckle cement her status amongst the greats of the game. 

Horse Racing

Early promise there for all to see

Honeysuckle was to become a flag-bearer for owner Kenny Alexander and the Henry de Bromhead stable and the quality was there for all to see from the get-go.

She won a Mares Maiden point-to-point at Dromahane in April 2018 and, the following week, was bought by Alexander at the Goffs sale for what turned out to be a bargain at €110,000.

Her first start under Rules came at Fairyhouse – a place she would turn into a home from home in her career – in November 2018 via a two-and-a-half-mile maiden hurdle in which she needed minimal urging from Blackmore in the saddle to move clear by some 14 lengths.

That was the start of a four-race sequence as a novice over timber that saw Honeysuckle make a progressive rise through the grades with Listed success at Thurles, a Grade 3 back at Fairyhouse in January and, finally, the Grade 1 Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final back at the Co Meath track during their Easter Festival in 2019.

Graduating into the big league

After another smooth success at Fairyhouse on her comeback in November, de Bromhead grasped the nettle and sent Honeysuckle into battle in the Hatton's Grace at the same venue soon after.

An open Grade 1 against older horses, including geldings, proved no barrier as the likes of Bacardys, Apple's Jade and future Stayers' Hurdle winner Penhill were put to the sword. 

Next stop was the Dublin Racing Festival and an Irish Champion Hurdle where the likes of Sharjah, Petit Mouchoir and Supasundae were amongst the opposition but, in the end, it was Darver Star that forced Blackmore to pull out the stops jumping the final flight before a deserving win.

Beginning a Cheltenham Festival odyssey

There were inevitable mumblings about the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham the following month but that was left, instead, to another mare in Epatante to win.

Honeysuckle's maiden pilgrimage to the Cotswolds instead pitted her against the outstanding Benie Des Dieux in the Mares' Hurdle, where her stamina could kick in.

She was 9/4 second-fav and won out after Blackmore cleverly snuck up the running rail on the turn for home to pinch an advantage as Paul Townend and Benie Des Dieux travelled wider to challenge. 

Despite over-jumping at the last flight, Honeysuckle came up the hill strongly to win and stay unbeaten.

Eerie Cheltenham silence can't dim Honey's delight

Another Hatton's Grace win and a second Irish Champion Hurdle victory – this time by 10 lengths – ensured that Honeysuckle and her team could not forego a challenge for the two-mile Championship in the Cotswolds in 2021.

Epatante was the defending champion but the money poured in for Honeysuckle and she went off 11/10 fav in front of the empty Prestbury Park grandstands.

Blackmore had her positioned perfectly throughout the race and they stormed up the hill to win, kick-starting a week that would see the jockey make history as the first female to finish as the leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival courtesy of her super six wins. 

Underscoring her dominance in the division, Honeysuckle ended the term by completing a spring Champion Hurdle treble at Punchestown. 

On top of the world

From there, Honeysuckle was queen of all that she surveyed for a spell. She had no trouble defending the Hatton's Grace in late 2021 in her customary comeback and made it a hat-trick of Irish Champion Hurdles in front of an adoring Leopardstown crowd at the Dublin Racing Festival on her next appearance.

Then it was to Cheltenham, this time with the stands bulging once more, as she delighted racegoers by seeing off Epatante to successfully defend her Champion Hurdle crown – the first mare ever to do it twice. 

The Honeysuckle army were marching to her beat now and Punchestown capped another perfect season as she put away a field that included Teahupoo from the Gordon Elliott yard.

Defeat does not mean the end

Teahupoo was to come back and haunt her, however, in the Hatton's Grace in December 2022.

All appeared to be going well as Honeysuckle and Blackmore travelled up strongly to the second last but the usual kick was not there this time and both Klassical Dream and Teahupoo sped by her late on as she weakened to suffer her first defeat at the 17th time of asking under Rules.

De Bromhead got her ready for Leopardstown in February as usual and a heavyweight clash with rising star State Man from the Willie Mullins camp.

State Man proved too strong, though Honeysuckle stuck at the challenge to hold on for second admirably as her crown slipped away. 

What had once been geared as a collision course for a potential winner takes all meeting with Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle in Cheltenham now morphed into a 'will she-won't she' retirement conundrum.

Fitting farewell in the Cotswolds 

In the end, connections decided that taking on Constitution Hill was futile and, instead, it was to the Mares' Hurdle once more at Cheltenham for Honeysuckle's farewell. 

The doubters were plenty – she was as a big as 9/4 joint-fav at the off – but there was a deafening roar as Blackmore and Honeysuckle came to challenge long-time leader Love Envoi jumping the last.

Briefly it looked like she'd succumb but she found extra as Richard Holies in commentary declared that Honeysuckle 'would have her fairytale ending'. 

An emotional winners' enclosure saw her welcomed back by the de Bromhead's, mere months on from the tragic passing of the trainer's son, Jack, in a pony riding accident. 

Those embraces will live long in the memory and the name Honeysuckle – winner of 17 of her 19 career starts and 13 Grade 1 races – will always have a place amongst the pantheon of great two-mile hurdlers. 

Any odds displayed were correct at the time of writing and are subject to fluctuation.

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