By Martyn Herman
CHELTENHAM, England (Reuters) - Rachael Blackmore became the first woman jockey to win the Champion Hurdle when she guided Honeysuckle to victory in the opening feature race of the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday.
The 31-year-old Irish rider was untroubled as the 11-10 favourite streaked clear to win by six lengths. It was unbeaten Honeysuckle's 11th successive victory.
"Absolutely incredible," Blackmore said. "I'm speechless to be honest. I can't believe we just won the Champion Hurdle.
"It's unbelievable for everyone in the yard. She's so straightforward to ride. It's very easy to do things when you know you've a big engine underneath you."
The usual Cheltenham roar from the grandstands was missing as Blackmore crossed the line, however, as this year's four-day jump racing festival, which usually attracts around 250 fans, is taking place behind closed doors because of the pandemic.
Blackmore has enjoyed success at Cheltenham before when she rode a winner in 2019 but the Champion Hurdle is the biggest victory of her career to date and could be the first part of a remarkable double as she rides the highly-fancied A Plus Tard in Friday's Gold Cup.
Trainer Henry de Bromhead said: "It is stuff you dream of. (Honeysuckle) is an amazing mare and what a partnership she and Rachael have. Rachael was amazing, I thought she was so cool throughout the race.
"Rachael is as good as any of them -- male, female, she is as good as any of the guys. I'm ecstatic with the result but I'm delighted for them (Rachael and Honeysuckle)."
The opening race saw Irish trainer Willie Mullins celebrate his 73rd Cheltenham Festival winner as Appreciate It, ridden by Paul Townend, romped to victory in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
"It was more than a perfect start. I couldn't believe that he won so easily," Mullins said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)