Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle are the queens of Cheltenham again, but this time they received the reception they deserved.
Their historic win in the 2021 Champion Hurdle was played out in front of empty grandstands. Without a crowd it felt like just another race in another race meeting, the magnitude of their performance diminished by the silence surrounding it.
This time there was a record first-day attendance of more than 69,000, not a mask in sight or any other trace of the virus which has dominated our lives for the last two years.
You could have got 9/1 on a clean sweep of Irish victories on the first day of Cheltenham, but national hubris and animals do not mix.
By the time the contenders went to post in the feature race of the first day of Cheltenham, it was already 3-0 to the British. The tone was set when Willie Mullins’ highly fancied Dysart Dynamo fell in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with four hurdles to jump and the joint favorite Constitution Hill romped away.
Cometh the hour, cometh the super mare. Honeysuckle made it 15 straight victories when she vaulted the last hurdle like it wasn’t there and stayed on powerfully to annihilate the field.
Owner Kenny Alexander and trainer Henry de Bromhead were enveloped by well-wishers as they watched from the parade ring. “I just wanted her (Blackmore) to get that Cheltenham roar,” the Bromhead said.
That roar could be heard from the bowels of the race track to the parade ring when the pair returned triumphant. Suddenly the Irish crowd, hitherto invisible – it’s not St Patrick’s Day yet – broke into full cheer singing the old football chant “Ole, Ole, Ole” and “we love you Rachael we do”.
Nine lads traveling over from Cork produced their Tricolor with a picture of Blackmore on the front. “An Irish Take Over”. The first day wasn’t quite that, but it could have been worse.
Jarlath Quinn from Warrenpoint wore a scarf in the sky blue and colors in honor of Blackmore. He was dancing with delight by the time the race finished. “That makes it worthwhile coming here. They are both fantastic,” he said.
Blackmore looked more relieved than delighted that all that expectation proved to be well founded. “Part of me was thinking I should have been more nervous before the race, but I have such confidence in her. She’s never let me down.”
Among those ready to embrace her in the parade ring were her parents Charles and Eimir. While her daughter was nervous, her mother wasn’t. “I’m dreadful, but I’m getting better at it. I managed to watch the whole race,” she said.
“I’m proud that Rachael has been able to give people a lift when things aren’t so good in Europe.”
Did she ever think her daughter would ascend to such heights? “The honest answer is no. This is dream stuff, it’s beyond the beyond. The year she had last year – I didn’t think it was possible to surpass it. I am very happy for her.”
There were echoes of previous Irish sporting triumphs in the presence of former Ireland football internationals Liam Brady and Kevin Moran at the first day. Brady turned up to support his friend Michael Masterson, the Mayo-born, but British-based builder whose horse Appreciate It was fancied to make a race of it for Honeysuckle, but finished outside the running.
.“I used to have horses, but I can’t afford them anymore,” Brady said wryly. “I’m not earning the money players earn now.”
The last race of the day, the renamed Ukraine Appeal National Hunt Chase, provided Willie Mullins’ first win of the festival with his son Patrick riding Stattler to victory.
For most of those present Cheltenham is an escape from the horrors of what they see unfolding in Ukraine, but for four of those who works in Mullins’ stables in Co Carlow it is all too real – they are Ukrainians.
“We are so lucky we are all here and our problems are first-world problems. Their problems are so huge and different so any relief that we can give them, even in a small way, has to be good,” Mullins said.
“It must be tough for them as they have friend and family at home going through a hugely hard time. If the worst happens to friends and family, we will help them through it.”