Rachael Blackmore believes Honeysuckle remains an underrated force, despite the fact that the mare will extend her unbeaten record to 15 races if she defends her Champion Hurdle title on Tuesday afternoon.
Honeysuckle’s win last year was the first in a series of groundbreaking achievements last spring for 32-year-old Blackmore.
The first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle was three days later crowned the first female rider to be the Cheltenham Festival’s leading jockey, with an amazing six wins over the four days. A few weeks later she was propelled on to the global sporting stage by becoming the first woman to land the Grand National, on Minella Times.
Expectations are huge as Rachael Blackmore returns to jump racing’s biggest stage this week
Expections are huge as Blackmore returns to jump racing’s biggest stage, but she is confident the tenacious Henry de Bromhead-trained mare, who is so entwined with her career, will not let her down following an easy win in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle.
‘She has never put a foot wrong,’ said Blackmore, who first rode Honeysuckle in a mares’ maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse in November 2018. ‘On a few occasions she hasn’t done it ultra-impressively but she has still done it. That is extremely impressive — when a horse can dig so deep and get you out of trouble.
‘The exceptional ones can do that. She has been absolutely massive to my career. She’s a jockeys’ dream.’ Since riding at last year’s festival, Blackmore’s profile has gone stratospheric. Not many in Britain outside racing would have heard of her 12 months ago, but that all changed as she enjoyed a run of success that even the all-time great jockeys would be envious of.
The Grand National win, in particular, cemented her place in the history books and was responsible for her being voted BBC International Sports Personality of 2021.
Endorsements and ambassadorial roles have followed, from representing Jockey Club Racecourses and the owners of Cheltenham to being the face of Tipperary Fresh Milk!
The 32-year-old was the first female rider to be the Cheltenham Festival’s leading jockey
But Blackmore seems nonplussed by all the fuss. She has not let being a Grand National winner change her life, preferring instead to refocus and avoid any distractions.
‘You kind of still do pinch yourself,’ she admitted.
Even when Blackmore was recuperating from breaking her ankle and suffering a hip injury in a fall last summer, she refused to succumb to distractions and poured all her energy into getting back in the saddle as soon as possible.
‘You can kind of reflect but at the same time I was focused on getting better and back racing,’ she said. ‘You are always looking forward. I did get to enjoy winning the Grand National, but I feel like you will properly get to reflect when you are finished.’
That does not mean the events of last year, and especially that remarkable Grand National win, are not still vivid in her memory.
The whirlwind of the previous month was about to turn into a tornado of interest in Blackmore at Aintree, although it was not until she was going down for the following race that the magnitude of what she had achieved hit home.
Honeysuckle’s win was the first in a series of groundbreaking achievements for Blackmore
‘After the National you have people coming at you from every angle,’ Blackmore added. ‘But I remember cantering down to the start of the race that followed it.
‘It was probably the first time when I was on my own and I remember thinking, “I’ve just won the Grand National”. It was a bit of a moment.’
Blackmore will be hoping for a few more moments over the next four days.
She has a string of big rides, including some of her 2021 winning mounts — the hugely impressive Bob Olinger, Tellmesomethinggirl and possibly Quilixios — plus her 2021 Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up A Plus Tard.
The pressure will be on to bag another hatful of winners for the jockey who has proved to be one of the most tactically aware operators in the weighing room.
She knows last year’s feats will be hard to emulate but is relishing the challenge, this time with members of her family on hand to support.
‘My sister asked me for tickets for Thursday and Friday, and when I asked how many she said 10 for each! She’s coming over with a battalion,’ said Blackmore.
‘To me Cheltenham is No 1. I want to be riding winners there. I don’t set goals but it’s very important to me.
‘It’s a cliche but it is the Olympics of our sport.
Blackmore’s Grand National win last year cemented her place in the history books
‘Race by race there is one happy jockey, one happy owner and one happy trainer and everyone else is disappointed and that all happens again about half an hour later.
‘The lack of a crowd last year was obviously noticeable but it was still special because everyone put in a really big effort to cheer in a winner, even if they weren’t connected to it.
‘There have been weeks of people talking about different horses with different opinions on what will happen, but it’s jump racing and we all know anything can happen.’
It will be a shock if Honeysuckle, the 8-13 favourite, does not produce a performance that will see her and Blackmore crowned the queens of Cheltenham again.
‘It is hard to not look forward to riding Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle,’ the jockey added.
‘Henry has a fantastic team of horses going over but she is the stand-out and hopefully she can get the week off to a good start.’