Fairytale endings in professional sports are rare. That’s not to say they don’t happen, but the narrative at the end of a final appearance of a long career when there is something to play for ends up typically focusing on what a special ending it could have been instead of one that actually took place.
Perhaps they don’t happen as often as we sporting romantics would like them to because of the intense pressure to deliver one final heart-stopping performance.
Sometimes, it’s simply too much of an ask and fans will have to make do with enjoying the memories of yesterday instead of celebrating the fact that spinetingling history has been made.
The reality is that for all of professional sports' inspiring attributes, they have as many that leave us feeling a sense of profound disappointment when things don’t go to plan - without the lows, there can never be highs.
However, every now and then, the world has to hold its breath and fight back tears when the stars align and a fairytale ending does unfold in front of our disbelieving eyes. On the 14th of March 2023, that happened at the Cheltenham Festival when Honeysuckle lined up for the Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle which would be the 19th and last race of this horse's decorated career.
The mountain that Honeysuckle had to climb
Despite having the trail-blazing Rachael Blackmore in the saddle on one of the biggest days on the calendar, the feeling was that the mare’s best days were behind her which is why the decision was made to stand her down from running in the Champion Hurdle on the same day.
In many respects, this was also done to avoid a showdown with one of the fastest horses on the planet, Constitution Hill.
You can understand the logic as Constitution Hill would go on to win the race and tellingly, at just 8/11 as of the 15th of March 2023, is also the favorite in the latest Betway sports horse racing markets to win the 2024 edition of the Champion Hurdle.
With this in mind, you can get a better understanding of why the decision was made not to go up against this generational talent but that isn't to say that Honeysuckle would be the favorite for the Mares' Hurdle.
In fact, owing to the strength and breed of the field that Honeysuckle would be running against during the Mares’ Hurdle, this race was primarily seen as a chance to say goodbye to the festival where she had won four times in her trophy-laden career.
Although the chances of winning weren’t completely remote at pre-race odds of 2/1, the feeling on the ground was that this was an elaborate farewell before retirement.
Henry de Bromhead and his personal mission to see Honeysuckle win
Interestingly, that feeling wasn’t quite shared by trainer Henry de Bromhead who hoped Honeysuckle would have one last hurrah in her. The Irish trainer is certainly one of the best in the business when it comes to preparing horses for the unique demands of National Hunt racing but his desire to see Honeysuckle get to the finishing post first came from an altogether different place this time.
Instead, De Bromhead had suffered unspeakable tragedy six months before the running of the Mares’ Hurdle after losing a family member in a horse racing accident. Honeysuckle was a horse that his entire family loved and had become extremely fond of as they got to know the mare during daily training.
For De Bromhead, Honeysuckle’s running of the Mares’ Hurdle was a chance to smile again.
As initially touched on, though, sport doesn’t always provide us with the fairytale outcome we want or, in this case, deserve after a life-changing few months.
Honeysuckle, however, is a horse with a courageous heart and, as improbable as this must sound to people outside of the industry, also seemingly possesses an understanding of human emotion.
This is why trainer De Bromhead had hoped that his remarkable horse could pull off the impossible as a fitting tribute.
Honeysuckle savors the sweet taste of success
It was a desire that looked to be within reach of happening as Honeysuckle kept pace with leader Love Envoi and never dropped further back than a length or two during the early stages of the race.
By the time the pair got to the final straight, Love Envoi began to accelerate up the hill and seemed to be about to enjoy a runaway win. It was at this stage that the commentator remarked 'Honeysuckle being asked to quicken’ as Blackmore instinctively understood that they were in danger of losing this race if decisive action wasn't taken immediately. Quicken the mare did as she gallantly pulled up alongside Love Envoi but following the final jump, landed awkwardly and lost a length to the leader. There would be no fairytale today.
But then, out of nowhere, the commentator would inform the watching world that Honeysuckle was ‘responding to the calls of Rachael Blackmore’ as they approached the line. In the final furlong, this brave and valiant horse, ridden by the indomitable Blackmore, would pass Love Envoi to win.
The come-from-behind victory would be Honeysuckle’s 17th career win over jumps in 19 starts and without a doubt, was the most meaningful. Yes, in the fading sunlight of southwest England, a spring miracle took place which will be spoken about for the rest of Cheltenham’s history.
Photo credit for the Main Grandstand at Cheltenham: © Copyright Jeff Buck and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons License.
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