Rachael Blackmore made history to become the first female jockey to win the Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle at The Festival™ supporting WellChild – then said she hoped it would inspire others to follow their dreams.
Blackmore partnered the 11/10 favourite Honeysuckle, who becomes the sixth mare to win the most prestigious prize over hurdles. The seven-year-old never looked likely to be beaten and came home the comfortable six and a half length winner over Sharjah, who was runner-up for the second year in succession.
Blackmore said: “I am speechless, to be honest. She is just so incredible. I just can’t believe we’ve won a Champion Hurdle. Kenny Alexander, Peter Molony – they’re both at home with their families watching; it’s a pity they can’t be here today, but I tell you, when I was crossing the line I didn’t care.
“Honeysuckle was just incredible. She’s done everything I’ve wanted her to do throughout the race. When Goshen headed off and came back in, I was just slightly worried there, but she’s done everything I wanted her to do. I really just can’t believe it.
“Henry produces her every day in that kind of form for me to steer around, and it’s unbelievable. This is such a special race and I am just so thankful to be a part of her – it’s all about her. She’s unbeaten, and she’s improving. Her last run was her career best until today; she’s getting better all the time. It’s just phenomenal.
“To me, 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 a winner of a Champion Hurdle. It’s just so far removed from anything I ever thought could be possible, so maybe there’s a lesson in that for everyone out there.
“You can’t do it without getting on the right horses, and I’ve been extremely lucky in that sense, getting linked up with a yard like Henry de Bromhead’s. You need to be riding those horses and that’s a massive part of any jockey’s career, being in the right place at the right time and getting linked up with the right yard.”
Blackmore also spoke of how going to visit the three-time Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq on a school trip had inspired her as a youngster.
She said: “We went to see Istabraq on a school tour – I’m from Tipperary so it was local – I never envisaged when we went to see him back then that I’d be riding the winner of a Champion Hurdle. When every person becomes a jockey they dream about riding at Cheltenham and all these things, but riding a winner like this is unbelievable.
“There’s no deal about female jockeys anymore, I don’t think. If you want to be a jockey, you can be a jockey – drive on, you know. To young people out there, male or female, if you want to go and do something, do it, because for me standing here right now, it shows that literally anything can happen.
“The people are what make Cheltenham, Cheltenham. Fair play to everyone here, they gave a cheer when we came back in, and it’s still very special, but it’s definitely not the normal Cheltenham of old. Hopefully we will see the thousands back here next year.”
Trainer Henry de Bromhead told ITV Racing: “It is stuff you dream of – I never thought this would happen. It’s amazing, like I say, you dream about it.
“She’s not actually tiny, she’s quite deceptive. She’d be 16.1hh, so plenty big enough. Look, she’s an amazing mare. She’s incredible and what a partnership she and Rachael have.
“Rachael was amazing, I thought she was so cool throughout the race. I was saying I had to bite my tongue before they went out as I was so worried I would say something stupid to her and mess her up, but that was amazing.”
The trainer went on to say: “It’s amazing. Rachael is as good as any of them – male, female, she is as good as any of the guys. I’m ecstatic with the result but I’m delighted for them (Rachael and Honeysuckle). She never ceases to amaze me. I’m not saying I would have predicted that but she is an incredible mare.
“She has just gone into a different zone the last year, she really has. In the situation we are in we are lucky to be here. Fair play to the BHA, IHRB, Cheltenham and everybody to set up brilliant protocols and allow us to continue the sport.
“She came in a very laid back chilled out mare and now if you go in it takes two to brush her, two to tack her. She is just her. You don’t mind any of it when they have that ability. She is an amazing lady (Honeysuckle).
“At the start I’m so use to mine being handy away but after we jumped two or three Rachael looked really happy. Maybe after jumping the second last she had to go after her but then suddenly she was swinging. I was kind of happy but with Goshen going off 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.
“There is that as well (getting over the last) as you just want them to get over. They are such a great team the pair of them. They have got a great relationship but Rachael is a brilliant rider on any horse and Honeysuckle is just deadly. It’s a perfect storm. I’m not sure if she will go to Punchestown we will see. We will discuss it with Kenny (Alexander, owner) but there is every chance.”
The six and a half length runner-up was Sharjah. His trainer Willie Mullins said: “It was a great run for him, and he was just beaten by a super mare. We’re very happy with that, he came with him run and he ran to his best.
“We’ll head to Punchestown with him next. He’s very likeable and we’re very pleased with his run, we just weren’t good enough on the day. Honeysuckle looks to be very special.”
Jockey Paul Townend, added: “It was a good run around and he ran his race, he was just no match for the winner who was very good.”
Third home was the 2020 winner, Epatante, who was a further three lengths adrift. Her trainer Nicky Henderson said: “She ran into a pocket or two that she didn’t need to be getting into, but that’s maybe because she wasn’t travelling quite well enough to get out of them.
“She’s run well, and she might have been second with a clearer run, but take nothing away from the winner, who was exceptional. We wouldn’t have beaten her in a million years.”
Aidan Coleman, Epatante’s jockey, added: “She’s run her race I think. She got stopped a bit turning in and might have been second otherwise, but the winner has won well so no excuses on that front.”
Hughie Morrison, trainer of Not So Sleepy (5th) said: “You have to be pleased with fifth, but when it’s decent jumping ground like this he can’t boss it and they got away from him. He needs winter ground to be at his best, but I think we’ve run above ourselves. He wasn’t far behind them, and he’s worth pursuing in these good graded races.”
Gary Moore, trainer of Goshen (eighth) 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. It was right handed when he won so well at Wincanton the other day, and there’s always been a bit of a thing about going left handed.”
1st – Honeysuckle – Henry de Bromhead 7-11-03 Rachael Blackmore 11/10F
2nd – Sharjah – Willie Mullins IRE 8-11-10 Paul Townend 11/1
3rd – Epatante – Nicky Henderson 7-11-03 Aidan Coleman 4/1
Distances: 6½, 3
Time: 3m 54.63s
Winner owned by Kenny Alexander
Breeder: Dr G W Guy
Breeding: b m Sulamani (IRE) – First Royal (GER) (Lando)
Henry de Bromhead – 10th winner at The Festival™ supporting WellChild
Rachael Blackmore – 4th winner at The Festival™ supporting WellChild