The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival rarely fails to deliver, but by any standards, the 2023 edition produced a day to live long in the memory. The feature contest of the Champion Hurdle saw Constitution Hill conclusively rubber stamp his status as one of the greatest hurdlers, at least of his generation, and possibly in the history of the sport.
It was going to take some result to top that breathtaking display. Whilst Honeysuckle wasn’t anywhere near Constitution Hill in terms of raw ability, when it came to sheer emotion and a fairy-tale ending, the victory of the Henry De Bromhead star in the Mares’ Hurdle put everything else in the shade. What a day and what a horse!
A fourth Cheltenham success was certainly a fitting final act in the career of one of modern racing’s greatest mares, with Honeysuckle now set to gallop off into the sunset of a well-earned retirement. When all was said and done, the mare finished with 17 wins from 19 career starts, including a remarkable 13 Grade 1 successes. Highlights abound in that catalogue of excellence, but here we pick out our top 5 displays of one of the most popular horses of the 21st century.
2020 Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle
The six-year-old Honeysuckle arrived at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival on the crest of a wave, with a perfect record of seven wins from seven starts, including a pair of Grade 1 triumphs at Fairyhouse. Good as those victories were, this race represented the acid test, with the hugely talented Benie Des Dieux lying in wait amongst the opposition. The betting favoured the Mullins star, with Benie Des Deiux being sent off at odds of just 4/6. Honeysuckle, however, wasn’t about to give up her unbeaten record without a fight.
Third travelling off the final bend, Rachael Blackmore expertly stole a march on the field when sneaking up the inside rail to move two lengths clear headed into the final fence. Benie Des Dieux came wide and laid down a formidable challenge, but Honeysuckle simply was not for passing, displaying grit and determination to go with her undoubted class, to come home ½l clear at the line.
2023 Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle
Honeysuckle’s Cheltenham Festival career began in the Mares’ Hurdle, and fittingly that was also where it ended. Tasting defeat for the first time in her career on her opening two starts of the 2022/23 season, it became clear that the now nine-year-old wasn’t quite the force of old, with connections opting to tackle this race rather than attempting to defend her Champion Hurdle crown against Constitution Hill. That decision was criticised by many at the time, but there were few complaints after the race, as Honeysuckle produced one of the magnificent meeting’s truly magical moments.
Lying up with the pace from the off, Blackmore tracked the trailblazing Love Envoi all the way before laying down her challenge in the straight. The Harry Fry runner proved a tough foe, but it was Honeysuckle who had the extra gear when she needed it to come home 1½l to the good. Coming on the back of a year when Henry De Bromhead tragically lost his 13-year-old son Jack in a riding accident, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the end of this one.
2021 Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle
At her best, Honeysuckle was simply imperious. In terms of completely outclassing the opposition, one of her finest performances came when demolishing the field in one of the biggest events of the 2021 Irish jumping season. Second favourite Sharjah was a horse with four Grade 1 successes to his name, whilst the up-and-coming Abracadabras was also a top-level winner and had been good enough to go down by just a head to Shiskin in the 2020 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Solid as those rivals looked on paper, they couldn’t get anywhere near a rampant Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle on the day. Looking to be travelling well within herself throughout, this brilliant horse moved up to challenge four from home, and the writing looked to be on the wall for her rivals. Injecting a level of pace which the others couldn’t come close to matching, the star mare was six lengths clear at the last, and an easy 10 lengths in front as she crossed the line in effortless fashion.
2022 Champion Hurdle
No matter how talented they are, the careers of 2m hurdlers tend to be defined by one race and one race only – the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. It takes a special horse to win it once, but those who manage to do so on multiple occasions truly earn their place in racing folklore. The cat was well and truly out of the bag regarding Honeysuckle’s ability headed into the 2022 edition of the race – to the extent that the reigning champion was sent off at odds of just 8/11 to defend her crown.
Whilst clearly the best horse on paper, there were those who doubted whether she could repeat her heroics of 2021 as an eight-year-old, particularly with a number of viable challengers amongst the opposition. Chief amongst the competition were Appreciate It, who had won the 2021 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle by a ridiculous 24 lengths, and the 2020 winner of the race, the sensational Epatante.
Whilst not quite so brilliant as in 2021, Honeysuckle was still much too good on the day, sweeping to the front after the second last. She then pinged the final flight and never looking like getting caught on her way to a 3½l verdict over the gallant Epatante.
2021 Champion Hurdle
From a raft of potential contenders, it is Honeysuckle’s first Champion Hurdle in 2021 which gets our vote as her greatest-ever display. Despite all that had gone before – which at this stage of her career equated to 10 wins from as many starts – until a horse goes and does it in the biggest 2m hurdle race of the year, they can’t truly claim to belong amongst the greats. Following this result however, any remaining doubters had been well and truly silenced, as Honeysuckle didn’t just win the race but proved to be in a different league to the opposition.
Aspire Tower and Silver Streak combined to ensure a fierce gallop, with many in the strung-out field beginning to struggle as they headed into the final bend. Not so Honeysuckle. Looming large on the outside at the second last, she cruised into the lead and put lengths between herself and the field in the blink of an eye. Over six lengths clear of perennial rival Sharjah at the line, with defending champion Epatante back in third, this was the race which confirmed the mare’s status as the queen of the division.