There She Goes: Honeysuckle Leaves Cheltenham in Raptures

CHELTENHAM, UK–One champion crowned as another exits. But there was no quiet shuffling off, stage left, for Honeysuckle (GB) (Sulamani {Ire}), who was roared home, roared in, and roared out of the Cheltenham winner’s circle that provides no better setting for equine coronations. 

Just forty minutes earlier the new king of the hurdling division, Constitution Hill (GB), had delivered exactly the performance expected of him but one which can never be guaranteed in the hurly-burly of championship races at the Festival. Plenty of commentators are already suggesting that the son of Blue Bresil (Fr) is the greatest hurdler of all time after he has made just six spotless starts under Rules. Whether he is or isn’t is almost irrelevant. The horse who gave Nicky Henderson his record ninth win in the Unibet Champion Hurdle is the best there is right now by a long way: nine lengths, in fact, if we take his winning margin as a measure. And on any other day, in any other week, his superb round under Nico de Boinville would have been the stand-alone performance that gave all comers at Prestbury Park that special I-was-there moment. 

Who, after all, will forget that flamboyant, spring-heeled leap at the last, not because he needed to but just because he could? The image of that split second alone will linger on, serving as it did to underline the untapped reserves of Constitution Hill at the end of a race that had his rivals hard to the pump in fruitless pursuit. Then along came Honeysuckle.

“This is just a horse race and a bit of fun, it’s not real life,” said the great mare’s owner Kenny Alexander in the aftermath of the Close Brother Mares’ Hurdle, and his may have been the coolest head there, for all around him others were losing theirs. “We knew it would be Honeysuckle’s final race, and those who have adored her and Rachael Blackmore–because, let’s face it, this is a dream double act–will have shared the pain of her two defeats this season, even though her mighty record now stands at 19 for 17. Honeysuckle owed us nothing, but there was a score to be settled nonetheless. 

When the headstrong Love Envoi (Ire) (Westerner {GB}) looked as though she would have her freewheeling way all the way to the line, there was for a moment a feeling of resignation, that this would be okay, to see Honeysuckle finish second for the second time; an honourable swansong. But Honeysuckle herself, driven by Blackmore and responding all the way from the back of the last, had other ideas. 

“She’s tried to kill me for five years now,” said her trainer Henry de Bromhead, and you could see that feisty mare dig deep to give everything she had left to power up the hill for one glorious last hurrah. Four runs at the Cheltenham Festival: two Champion Hurdles, two Mares’ Hurdles. What a girl. 

With Blackmore still breathless after her own heroic effort, she immediately understood that this was about more than just winning a horse race. 

“We all wish a very special kid could be here today, but he’s watching down on us,” she said, with thoughts of Jack de Bromhead, the 13-year-old son of Honeysuckle’s trainer and his wife Heather, who lost his life last September in a pony racing accident. He is officially commemorated at Cheltenham on Thursday with the running of the Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in which his father will field five of the 21 runners. 

For the de Bromhead stable, Honeysuckle’s work is done, but she will remain very much within the Alexander fold. The owner-breeder, who some years ago bought New Hall Stud in Ayrshire from the Thom family, has, with the help of Peter Molony, set about establishing an elite band of National Hunt broodmares. Now that colony has its queen, who will head to Scotland eventually once she is safely in foal. Molony confirmed in the winner’s enclosure, lump in throat as he spoke, that Honeysuckle would return to Ireland to his Rathmore Stud initially, and that she is already booked for a first tryst with Coolmore’s Walk In The Park (Ire).

Alexander added, “She’s retired now and I’ve had an absolute blast owning her. I’m lost for words to be honest, the celebration was out of control. If you can’t lose it a bit after winning a race like that though, you probably shouldn’t own racehorses.

“It just shows you how great the sport is when she’s getting a cheer like that. They don’t love me, that’s for sure. They may love Rachael, and even Henry a bit, but they really love that horse.”

As one industry stalwart put it as Honeysuckle took a final lap of honour of the Cheltenham parade ring: “What an hour of magic.”

At times, it is easy to get ground down by some of racing’s woes, from major issues to petty bureaucracies. But on days like Tuesday, when the winter sun finally showed its face after weeks of brutal weather, as if to say, “Go on then, have your fun”, the fun never felt so good. From Marine Nationale (Fr) (French Navy {Ire}) in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and two victories on the day for his engaging young jockey Michael O’Sullivan, to a dust-up in the last between another three of the best amateurs in the game, it was a day to remember exactly why we love this great sport. A day that belonged, equally, to Constitution Hill and Honeysuckle. 



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