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Champion Hurdle The eerie silence of Cheltenham cannot dilute Rachael Blackmore's golden moment

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Rachael Blackmore celebrates with the trophy after riding Honeysuckle to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 16, 2021. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)

Rachael Blackmore celebrates with the trophy after riding Honeysuckle to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 16, 2021. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)

Rachael Blackmore celebrates with the trophy after riding Honeysuckle to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 16, 2021. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)

The Cheltenham Festival began on Tuesday – but it was unlike any we had ever seen before.

While the action on the track lived up to expectations with Honeysuckle winning the Champion Hurdle, the red-hot bankers Appreciate It and Shishkin taking the first two races and even a popular grey hitting the target in Vintage Clouds, it was hard not to notice the eerie silence in the cavernous grandstands.

Prestbury Park is the perfect place to house a huge crowd, a natural amphitheatre of a place surrounded by the glorious Cleeve Hill. Everything about it screams prestige.

To be on course when Rachael Blackmore guided Honeysuckle to a dominant display in the feature was a true privilege, and the few who were there did their best to make as much noise as possible – but understandably with such limited numbers, in such a massive arena, it did not sound very loud.

It is such a shame for Blackmore, who should surely no longer be referred to as a ‘female jockey’, that she was denied the welcome in by the punters – and given she was backed into 11-10 favouritism, the acclaim would surely have been even more raucous than usual.

But as those involved in the industry keep insisting, we are lucky enough to be racing when other sectors are on their knees.

With the spectre of last year’s meeting even taking place as it did still looming large – and hot on the heels of the Gordon Elliott story – racing had some ground to make up in public perception.

The whole course was split into different areas, keeping the British and Irish competitors separated, and maintaining Covid protocols.

There is no doubt that, while those in the enviable position of working here each year may moan about having to fight through crowds to beat deadlines, with the punters absent, it became blatantly obvious what they bring to the occasion.

With no Guinness Village, all bars and food outlets firmly closed and just the odd worker walking around before racing, you could have been at any weekday meeting staged behind closed doors since racing returned in June.

However, once the action started, we were reminded of what a special place Cheltenham really is.

The first race, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, as is becoming the norm, went to a Willie Mullins-trained hotpot in Appreciate It.

With a much smaller field than usual, Paul Townend was always in command, and the 8-11 favourite simply bounded clear – winning by a yawning 24 lengths and forcing Mullins to concede he must be a bit better than even he imagined.

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 Runners and Riders make their way past an empty grandstand during the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) during Day One of the Cheltenham Festival 2021 at Cheltenham Racecourse. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Runners and Riders make their way past an empty grandstand during the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) during Day One of the Cheltenham Festival 2021 at Cheltenham Racecourse. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Runners and Riders make their way past an empty grandstand during the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) during Day One of the Cheltenham Festival 2021 at Cheltenham Racecourse. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

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“The way he finished the race today, he looks as good as any of our previous winners of the race – it was a Vautour-like performance,” said Mullins.

Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin had the unenviable moniker of being the home banker of the week in the Sporting Life Arkle – and while his trainer admitted that in having to rule Altior out of the meeting on Monday, he feared it might be one of ‘those’ weeks, there was never a moment of anxiety on the way around.

“We’d always hoped (to win like that), but you never expect,” said Henderson.

“It was strange – it will be all week without the crowds – but it doesn’t make it any easier watching them. Winners here are winners, though, and without the crowd they are still special.”

Shishkin is owned by Joe and Marie Donnelly, who have a small but select string at the meeting including the hat-trick-seeking Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, and they donated £10,000 of their prize-money to the charity WellChild, who have partnered with Cheltenham this year.

Vintage Clouds rolled back the years, with Sue Smith’s 11-year-old winning the Ultima Handicap Chase at the fifth attempt – and although he would have deserved his ovation too, it would not have matched Blackmore’s.

Always in the perfect position, Honeysuckle sprang clear off the home bend to win by six and a half lengths from Sharjah, who had to settle for second again.

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Honeysuckle ridden by Rachael Blackmore winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy during day one of the Cheltenham Festival. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)

Honeysuckle ridden by Rachael Blackmore winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy during day one of the Cheltenham Festival. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)

Honeysuckle ridden by Rachael Blackmore winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy during day one of the Cheltenham Festival. (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)

It is a result which will propel Blackmore outside the racing bubble into the wider sports world.

She said: “I’m speechless, to be honest – she’s just so incredible. I can’t believe we’ve won a Champion Hurdle. Kenny Alexander (owner) and Peter Molony (racing manager) are both at home with their families. It’s a pity they can’t be here today.”

That was the sentiment we all felt. While the racing was as incredible as ever, we were left hankering for absent friends.

There were also two winners that in other times would have added to Elliott’s tally.

Now in the care of the new boss of Cullentra House Denise Foster, Black Tears produced a telling late challenge in the Mares’ Hurdle, while Galvin won the National Hunt Chase for Ian Ferguson.

Jack Kennedy rode both – and regarding the absence of crowds, said: “To be honest, you’d only notice it walking out and walking back in.

“When you cross the line, it’s still the very same feeling when you ride a winner.

“It’s a shame there’s no one here, but it’s great that we’re able to keep going with it – and I’m delighted to get a couple of winners.”

While that sentiment probably rings true for most punters as well, it just somehow means more shouting one home on track – and there will be plenty counting down to the Cheltenham Festival 2022 already.

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