Watch a full replay of an enthralling Mares' Hurdle plus Lydia Hislop's post-race interviews
The Willie Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux claimed the Grade One prize in 2018 and looked sure to follow up 12 months ago until suffering a crashing fall at the final flight.
Having since won Grade Ones at Punchestown and Auteuil before making a foot-perfect comeback in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park, she was the 4-6 favourite to regain her crown, despite facing a serious rival in Henry de Bromhead’s 9-4 shot Honeysuckle.
Unbeaten in seven previous starts, including victory in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, the six-year-old travelled strongly for much of the way under Rachael Blackmore, but looked at the mercy of Benie Des Dieux in the hands of a motionless Paul Townend racing down the hill.
However, Honeysuckle quickened the better of the two rounding the home turn to steal the advantage, and try as she might, Benie Des Dieux could not get back on terms in the straight, with half a length separating the pair at the line.
De Bromhead, who also had the option of running Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle 40 minutes earlier, said: "I'm delighted with Honeysuckle - it was a superb performance to go and beat Benie Des Dieux.
"It was a very close [decision] in fairness and thankfully we came up with the right race between us. What a ride - my God, the way she got up the inside coming around the last turn. It was two amazing ladies together.
"Paul [Townend, aboard Benie Des Dieux] opted to go the other way and I think Rachael had to sit and suffer, to be fair. Suddenly, the gap appeared and she was gone. It's fantastic. She kind of threw herself at the last - Rachael wasn't sure and left it to Honey and she gave it a lash. She really toughed it out up the hill.
"The way she won her maiden hurdle, she looked nice. We let them try and develop in the track and see if they can work their way up, so you wouldn't be trying to find out too much at home. She always looked nice and was strongly recommended to us after she won her point-to-point.
"We will enjoy to today and see. It's amazing for her to do it. I didn't mind the ground for her, I was probably more concerned for Notebook, and the day she won in Fairyhouse at the start of the season was really testing ground."
Blackmore slipped through on the inside and appeared to get first run on the favourite. In typically modest fashion she played down the move, saying: "That was just the way it worked out."
She added: "This means so much. This mare is so special - Colman does an unbelievable job with her and Emma looks after at home as well. It's those people who you need on your side looking after a mare like this. They have done an unbelievable job with her. Henry has produced her in tip-top shape every day she has run. I am the lucky one who gets to steer her round.
"I was travelling well to the second-last and then became kind of forced in, but I knew that I had plenty of toe at the back of the last. It's a big week and I am delighted. You kind of realise early in the day that these winners are so hard to get, so I am so lucky to be riding all these horses.
"It's every jockey's dream to be in the position I'm in, and Cheltenham is what it is all about."
A nonplussed Mullins said: "I think there was a miscommunication turning for home; maybe Robbie [Power, riding the Mullins-trained Stormy Island] thought that one of our horses was behind him, rather than Honeysuckle. It looked like he just gave the winner a huge gap while Paul was going round the outside. Things happen. We won't want to watch that again!
"Our mare [Benie Des Dieux] ran well. Stormy probably didn't go fast enough to take the sting out of it; she needed to go much faster. There wasn't enough pace. I'm a little frustrated, but we've got sound horses and sound jockeys, and hopefully we'll get a turn at some stage. We've got some nice prize-money, we're just not hitting the bulls-eye."
Danny Mullins rode Elfile, also trained by Willie Mullins, into third place, half a length behind Benie Des Dieux, at odds of 16-1.
Danny said: "That was a solid run. We thought her form in Ireland was decent enough to be placed in this and she has confirmed that. A good run behind two very good mares."
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