Rachael Blackmore makes her mark with Honeysuckle as Barry Geraghty savours victory buzz aboard Epatante at the Cheltenham Festival
- Follow the 2020 Cheltenham Festival LIVE, with Sportsmail’s Kate McGreavy
- Honeysuckle won the Mares’ Hurdle after holding off Benie Des Dieux
- Rachel Blackmore’s horse took the inside line late on and didn’t look back
- Benie Des Dieux came second while Elfile finished third in day one’s fifth race
- Epatante stormed to victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham
The biggest cheer on the opening day of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival was reserved for Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after they fended off the challenge of favourite Benie Des Dieux to win the Grade One Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.
It was pressure-releasing win — her third at Cheltenham — for Blackmore who has been the focus of so much of the build up to the biggest jumps meeting of the season.
With some hot prospects in the next three days, the success got the 30-year-old up and running in her quest to be the first female to be the Festival’s leading rider.
Honeysuckle got the better of Benie Des Dieux in an titanic tussle for the Mares’ Hurdle
But the enduring image of day one was a jockey 36 wins in front of Blackmore in the Festival winners’ league repeatedly kissing the Champion Hurdle trophy after winning on the Nicky Henderson-trained 2-1 favourite Epatante.
There were plenty who thought that 40-year-old Barry Geraghty might call it a day after a body that had already taken as much punishment as a Tyson Fury opponent took another hit when he broke his leg at last year’s Grand National meeting.
Geraghty himself heard the rumours and says there was never any chance they would be right. He showed why yesterday after perfectly delivering Epatante to a three-length win from Sharjah.
It was just over four minutes of adrenalin buzz that Geraghty remains addicted to.
Honeysuckle quickened the better of the two and won by a half a length to Benie Des Dieux
The most successful Festival jockey still riding said: ‘Your seasons are judged on winners here. To get one on the board is brilliant and for it to be one of the feature races is better again.
‘These races don’t come easy and mean a lot. It doesn’t matter how many winners you have had in your career, you are on nought here today.
‘It’s been tough but it makes days like this all the sweeter. Age is just a number. Turn out the clichés if you like but 40 is the new 30. There’s no better buzz in the world than going to the last hurdle when the lights are green for go.’
Epatante was Geraghty’s fourth Champion Hurdle win. It was a remarkable eighth for Henderson and a ninth for owner JP McManus — including the last four — on his 69th birthday. Epatante, the fifth mare to win the Champion Hurdle, had to emerge from a coughing scare in the countdown to the meeting and received seven pounds from her gelding rivals. None of them looked likely to lay a glove on her despite Sharjah looming up approaching the last hurdle.
Henry de Bromhead’s horse took the inside line late on and never gave up her lead
In truth, Epatante looks a quality performer but she did not have to beat a very deep field.
Remarkably, as Henderson pointed out, she would probably have only been McManus’s third string at the start of the season before his 2019 Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen died last August and his dual winner Buveur D’Air suffered a season-ending injury in December.
Epatante herself had to bounce back from a poor run at last year’s Festival when hopes were sky-high, but she has shown that that effort was an aberration after adding yesterday’s big prize to an equally impressive success in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Henderson admitted Epatante’s Festival defeat last year had been a nagging worry. He said: ‘She is only little and I was worried in the (soft) ground, especially after last year, but she was always travelling well.’
The jockey Rachel Blackmore was thrilled with her victory on Day One at Cheltenham
Honeysuckle could have run in the Champion Hurdle after she won the Irish Champion last month, but Blackmore and trainer Henry De Bromhead were not thinking about what might-have-beens after their 9-4 shot held off odds-on favourite Benie Des Dieux by half a length.
The crucial moment came when Blackmore slipped through on the inside on the final bend to poach a decisive advantage which she and Kenny Alexander-owned Honeysuckle held on to.
It was a contentious move and Benie Des Dieux’s trainer Willie Mullins was not happy jockey Robbie Power had let Blackmore up the inside while riding the runner-up’s stablemate Stormy Ireland.
Favourite Epitante (17), ridden by Barry Geraghty, won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham
The day had started badly for Blackmore. She was brought down two out in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle when still going well on Captain Guinness and then finished sixth on favourite Notebook behind De Bromhead-trained 16-1 stablemate Put The Kettle On.
Blackmore, who is unbeaten on Honeysuckle in eight races, said: ‘To be involved with her is unbelievable. To be in the position I am in with the rides I have is every jockey’s dream. I am trying to make the most of it.’
There will be no Altior at this year’s Cheltenham Festival after Henderson’s dual Queen Mother Champion Chase winner lost his battle to be fit after going lame on Sunday.
A delighted Geraghty celebrates on board Epatante on day one of the Cheltenham Festival
But what Shiskin did to win the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle made it look like trainer Henderson and his stable jockey Nico De Boinville have a gelding waiting in the wings to inherit Altior’s mantle when he does finally exit the stage.
Little went right for De Boinville in the opening race but he still managed to haul in Abacadabras, who was cruising approaching the last hurdle, to win by a head.
Henderson also trained the third-placed Chantry House and fifth Allart but it was 6-1 shot Shishkin who left the lasting impression.
De Boinville said: ‘The horse fell in front of me and nearly knocked me over. Then it was a case of trying to pick up the pieces. Everything conspired against him and he still managed to find a way to win. That’s what champions do. It might be we have found another really good one.’
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