With the Cheltenham Festival less than two weeks away, there are plenty of intriguing stories doing the rounds as trainers and jockeys make their final preparations. Al Boum Photo’s historic tilt at a Gold Cup hat-trick is, of course, a big talking point, as is the incredible strength of the yard of his trainer, Willie Mullins. Other stories aren’t so good: Davy Russell missing the festival with a neck injury; the poor form of the Tizzard yard.
But one story that might even eclipse that of Al Boum Photo is that of Rachael Blackmore in the Champion Hurdle. She will saddle Honeysuckle, the unbeaten mare and ante-post favourite for the feature race on Day 1. We won’t dwell too much on female jockeys not getting chances down the years. But it’s enough to say that Blackmore, with the backing of Irish trainer Henry de Bromhead, has kicked down the door and took a deserved seat at the top table. She is one of the best jumps jockeys around. Little more needs to be said.
Honeysuckle aims to emulate Annie Power
However, the headlines are sure to follow if she can win the Champion Hurdle. And, there is a nice sense of symmetry with Honeysuckle being a mare going against the male horses. Yes, Annie Power won the Champion Hurdle as a mare in 2016, and they do get a 7lb allowance, but if you look at Cheltenham Festival results, we know it’s rare. Annie Power was the fourth mare to win the Champion Hurdle, and Honeysuckle aims to become the fifth. Blackmore would, of course, become the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle.
But what we like about this, in terms of a story, is not that Honeysuckle is a mare, but that horse’s performances have acted as a signpost for Blackmore’s blossoming career. The pair have teamed up for ten consecutive victories since first riding together in a maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse back in 2018. The Mares’ Hurdle performance in 2020, where Blackmore and Honeysuckle out-thought and out-fought Benie Des Dieux and Paul Townend, was tremendous – perhaps the best clash of the 2020 festival.
Epatante will be no pushover
The task in 2021 is to face Epatante, the 2020 winner, and that’s obviously going to be tough. The lead up to the 2021 festival has been characterised by a lack of tantalising match-ups between horses – look at the mess in the betting markets behind Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, or the lack of challengers for Chacun Pour Soi in the Champion Chase, for proof. But this clash of two superstars in the Champion Hurdle is exactly what the festival needs.
Almost every major bookmaker has Honeysuckle ahead of Epatante in the ante-post betting, albeit not by much. The former is available at a best price of 3/1, with last year’s winner best-priced at 7/2. But this feels like a toss-up. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the 7lb allowance given to mares will be questioned should Honeysuckle win. Some have called for it to be scrapped, and you can see the debate being raised again if Honeysuckle maintains that unbeaten record.
It’s hard to think of a more intriguing clash at this year’s festival. Perhaps Thyme Hill and Paisley Park, or Energumene and Shishkin, will have better battles in the Stayers Hurdle and the Arkle. But on paper, the Champion Hurdle looks like the race that could deliver all the headlines. For Blackmore, it’s a chance for history. For the rest of us, it’s box-office viewing.
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