Donn's Articles » Honeysuckle


Honeysuckle got in a little tight to the second last flight, but she was quickly back on the bridle and coasting along up on the outside of Love Envoi.  In behind, her rivals started to come off the bridle.  Echoes In Rain moved towards the outside but quickly came under a ride, Queen’s Brook moved up on Honeysuckle’s right but couldn’t get closer.  Epatante was well back, Marie’s Rock was beaten.  And you thought, this could actually happen.

Quickly it became apparent that Honeysuckle’s only two dangers lay in front of her: Love Envoi and the final flight.  The former jumped the latter well and stole a half a length, but we know all about Honeysuckle’s heart, about that fire in her belly.  We had seen it so many times, including at Leopardstown on her previous run in the Irish Champion Hurdle, when she dug deep to see off the challenge of Vauban for the runner-up spot behind State Man.

This was different though, this was bigger.  Up Cheltenham’s hill, and the duel this time was for the winner’s podium.  Rachael Blackmore asked her mare for one final effort, climb Cheltenham’s hill one last time, the hill that she had scaled three times before, in two Champion Hurdles and in one Mares’ Hurdle, and reached the summit in front on each occasion.

Honeysuckle responded, as you knew she would, and the crowd roared her on.  Henry de Bromhead’s remarkable mare grabbed the ground, grabbed the hill and grabbed her rival 100 yards from the winning line, and the noise reached a crescendo as she surged forward and hit the line a length and a half in front of her rival.

What followed was extraordinary.  The scenes, the emotion.  

It was last September that Jack de Bromhead suffered that terrible, tragic accident, when Henry and Heather de Bromhead’s lives were changed utterly.  Jack loved Honeysuckle, and that was a massive part of Tuesday’s scenes.

“We all wish a very special kid could be here today,” said Rachael Blackmore just after she had pulled up.  “But he’s watching down on us.”

It was at the Punchestown Festival in April 2018 that Honeysuckle and her owner Kenny Alexander were first introduced.  There were 18 horses in the sale that was on after racing, but Henry de Bromhead only wanted to talk about one of them.  The trainer talked the (prospective) owner through the mare’s pedigree, told him about her potential, showed him a video of her point-to-point win.  She wasn’t cheap but, buoyed by the trainer’s enthusiasm, Kenny Alexander went to €110,000 to secure her.

“The best hundred grand I ever spent!” the owner would say later.

Unbeaten in her first three runs as a novice hurdler, Honeysuckle would have been a short price for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, but a setback meant that she had to miss that engagement.  Instead, she side-stepped Cheltenham and went to Fairyhouse, where she won the Grade 1 EBF Mares Novice Championship Final.  That was four from four.

She was four for four the following season too, her first Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and her first Irish Champion Hurdle in the bag before she went to Cheltenham, and had that duel with Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle, which she ultimately won by a half a length, thereby providing her owner with a long-since coveted first Cheltenham Festival winner.

Honeysuckle went four for four in 2020/21 too, another Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and another Irish Champion Hurdle, before she went to Cheltenham, with the doors closed behind her – even her owner couldn’t get in – and won the Champion Hurdle.  Then she returned to Punchestown and won her first Punchestown Champion Hurdle.

And she trod the same path in 2021/22 – if it ain’t broke – another Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, three in a row, another Irish Champion Hurdle, three in a row, and another Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, with the doors wide open this time.  The full-bodied reception that the crowds gave her had to be doubled to make up for the previous year when the cheering, such as it was, echoed around the grandstands and the winner’s enclosure.

That was 16 wins on the spin, 17 if you include her point-to-point, and that was incredible.  It was testament to her ability of course, her attitude, her tenacity, her robustness of body and of mind, her pace, her stamina.  But it was also down to Henry de Bromhead and his team, to plan her campaign, to have her at concert pitch for all those wins, all those Grade 1 races.

And in Rachael Blackmore, Honeysuckle had the perfect partner throughout her racing career.  She ran 19 times, and Rachael was on board on all 19 occasions.  She rode her with simplicity, with maximum efficiency.  That’s Rachael Blackmore for you.  Ruthless efficiency.

The pressure was a constant, the pressure that a weight of expectation brings.  In her 19 races, Honeysuckle was sent off as favourite or joint favourite 17 times, and in the two races in which she wasn’t favourite, the 2020 Mares’ Hurdle and the 2023 Irish Champion Hurdle, she was clear second favourite.  

She was sent off at odds-on 13 times.  More likely to win than to lose, according to the market, in 13 or her 19 races.  It’s pressure that you want though, Rachael told us.  You want to be in that position, going into a big race with a big chance.  And it was pressure under which the pair of them thrived.

The pressure was there on Tuesday all right, the pressure of expectation, joint favourite this time, but also the pressure that the will of the people brings.  There is something about a vanquished hero, a vanquished heroine, bidding for restorative victory once again in the immediate aftermath of defeat.  That was Honeysuckle on Tuesday.

Add that to the emotion, the occasion, and the fact that it was her final race.  That, after Tuesday’s race, however it panned out, we would not get to see her race again. 

Sport does not always provide the result that you want, horse racing doesn’t always deliver the final chapter that you crave.  On Tuesday, under the gaze of the masses, on Cheltenham’s hallowed turf and up that famous hill one final time, Honeysuckle delivered.

© Sporting Life, 20th March 2023