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Champion Hurdle Focus For Honeysuckle

Champion Hurdle Focus For Honeysuckle

With the addition of a fourth day at the Festival and the various new races, plans for a number of the leading contenders are often up in the air until after the five day declarations stage.

With that in mind it was refreshing to hear Peter Molony, who purchased Honeysuckle (8/1 for the Champion Hurdle) on behalf of Kenny Alexander, recently  all but rule out the Mares Hurdle for the superstar mare with her Cheltenham Festival option being the Champion Hurdle, a race she has won for the last two years.

 While it may sound an odd thing to say of a mare who’s suffered just one defeat in eighteen career starts, including a point-to-point on debut it’s possible that she was underrated by many early on in her career given she’d registered five Grade 1 victories in her first eight starts under Rules.

Honeysuckle Cheltenham Target

The emergence of Constitution Hill (1/3 for Cheltenham) has no doubt put a spanner in the works of horses who would ordinarily be considered leading Champion Hurdle contenders with Honeysuckle and fellow mare Epatante (20/1), herself a previous Champion Hurdle winner the most obvious in this regard.

Epatante, runner-up in last years Champion Hurdle and third in the race 12 months earlier was the winner of the Cheltenham feature in 2020 and with the crack mare having been well beaten by Constitution Hill twice this term and while connections forgot to enter the mare for the two-mile-four-furlong event it’s no surprise to see connections leaning towards the Mares Hurdle with Nicky Henderson’s mare likely to be supplemented for the race down the line.

There was little sign that Honeysuckle had deteriorated last season given the daughter of Sulamani won her four Grade 1’s by a combined total of 21 lengths and while it was disappointing to see her beaten on seasonal debut at Fairyhouse in the Hatton’s Grace assuming she was likely to improve for the run it wasn’t too disappointing an effort from a mare who was about to turn nine.

With a Cheltenham target all but finalised the interesting thing now is what sort of an effort in her next start, presumably the Irish Champion Hurdle at next months Dublin Racing Festival is required for the mare to be kept in training for Cheltenham rather than be retired.

Irish Champion Hurdle

Outside of Constitution Hill Willie Mullins looks to hold the strongest hand in the Champion Hurdle with both State Man (4/1) and Vauban (9/1), first and second in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown over Christmas both expected to represent the Closutton handler in March.

Prior to that both are expected to head for a clash with Honeysuckle at the previously mentioned Dublin Racing Festival next month.

State Man has arguably been the more impressive of the two winning all five starts in Ireland since falling in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown in December 2021.

Those victories including two Grade 1 triumphs this time around with the then four-year-old Vauban finishing runner-up when the pair met at Leopardstown last month. 

While the two Mullins horses are open to improvement it would take a brave man or woman to write off Honeysuckle on the back of one slightly below par performance by her standards.

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Is Constitution Hill vulnerable? 

Connections of Honeysuckle may seek solace in post-Christmas Hurdle comments from Constitution Hill’s trainer Nicky Henderson with regards to his preferred Champion Hurdle trial, the now defunct Agfa Hurdle at Sandown and wanting to avoid Haydock leaves few options for the superstar youngster with the Leopardstown race the most obvious prep for the Champion Hurdle.

Reading between the lines and given the manner of his victories and Henderson mentioning that the five week gap between Cheltenham and Aintree this year is a positive for Constitution Hill there seems every chance that Constitution Hill will head straight to Cheltenham without a prep run, presumably with connections thinking he’ll improve for the effort.

Looking at the above scenarios there seems a possibility that we get the big clash earlier than expected at Leopardstown with a possible rematch at Cheltenham though the two mile Grade 2 Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park later in February could be another option for Honeysuckle or one of the Mullins’ contenders.

A quick look at the Champion Hurdle market sees the likes of Mares Hurdle candidates Love Envoi (40/1), Echoes In Rain (50/1) and Sir Gerhard (33/1), unraced this season all quoted in the ante-post market and a single figure field looks likely with the likes of Bob Olinger (40/1), who hasn’t raced in a two mile hurdle since suffering a defeat at Gowran Park on jumping debut in November 2020 also featuring in the market.

Mares Hurdle

While there’s still a chance to supplement Honeysuckle a run in this race would appear highly unlikely.

Last years winner Marie’s Rock (5/2 for this years contest) impressed on her return when taking the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle over an extended two-and-a-half-miles at Cheltenham at the start of the month.

She looks a worthy favourite at this stage with the UK appearing to hold a strong hand with second favourite Love Envoi (4/1) having impressed when winning in Listed company at Sandown subsequently. 

There’s been money in recent days for Echoes In Rain (10/1 from 12/1) who placed second behind Honeysuckle in a Grade 1 at Punchestown in April last year and who finished fifth in this race twelve months ago while Telmesomethinggirl (14/1 from 20/1) who runs in the Honeysuckle colours of Kenny Alexander and who won over fences at Naas recently is another who has shortened in the market for the race in recent days. 

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