Champion Hurdle Bid Beckons for Magnificent Mare Honeysuckle

After making it a perfect ten wins under Rules, all roads lead back to the Cheltenham Festival for the Henry De Bromhead trained mare Honeysuckle. The only question is what championship race will she run in this year?

Her connections, owner Kenny Alexander, racing manager Peter Molony and De Bromhead, had the same debate last season. Should it be the Champion Hurdle or running against horses of her own sex over further in the race registered as the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle?

Honeysuckle stayed against the girls come Cheltenham last term but, having retained her Irish Champion Hurdle crown during the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, bookmakers cut her into favourite for the English equivalent. Her regular partner, Rachael Blackmore, breaking new ground for women in National Hunt horse racing with multiple Grade 1 successes, described the mare as “the sharpest she’s ever been”.

The way in which Honeysuckle went about winning back-to-back Irish Champion Hurdle races could not be more different. Last year, she scrambled home after a bad jump at the last and was made to pull out all the stops by Darver Star.

Some 12 months on, Honeysuckle simply destroyed the best opposition the Emerald Isle could muster, including Leopardstown course and distance specialist Sharjah, winning by 10 lengths. It’s true that the two-mile hurdle division isn’t that strong on either side of the Irish Sea, but this was a career best according to those who know the mare best.

Blackmore revelled in how much Honeysuckle had come on from retaining her Hatton’s Grace crown at happy hunting ground Fairyhouse, where a number of her career highlights have played out. The drop back in trip was something they were reluctant to do last season, but there can be no doubts about the suitability of it.

Regardless of which race Honeysuckle runs in at Cheltenham, she is sure to be among Champions Day tips and predictions because of her unbeaten record. Including an Irish point-to-point win, she has raced 11 times without tasting defeat.

 

De Bromhead conceded in the aftermath of a sixth Grade 1 win: “You would have to feel that we would be leaning towards the Champion Hurdle after what she did out there”. This year looks a golden opportunity for the stable to win that race.

Previous favourite and last year’s Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante comes into her defence after losing at Kempton over Christmas to Silver Streak, so it’s a retrieval mission for trainer Nicky Henderson at Cheltenham. He believes a slight problem with her back has been corrected, but looks vulnerable on that basis.

Using Sharjah as a form marker between the two mares, Honeysuckle could well have the beating of Epatante based on the winning distances. There aren’t many potential improvers among the Champion Hurdle contenders either, so the race could well be at her mercy.

Consecutive Cheltenham Festival victories very much look on the cards for Honeysuckle. After picking up many fans with her exploits and developing a fearsome reputation, she’s in pole position to confirm herself as the best hurdler in training throughout the British Isles.

Long Run

Long Run Originally trained in France, by Guillaume Macaire, Long Run began his racing career in Britain on Boxing Day, 2009, when cruising to victory in the Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton Park. Owned by Robert Waley-Cohen, ridden exclusively in Britain and Ireland by his son, Sam, and trained by Nicky Henderson, Long Run would return to Kempton to win the King George VI Chase twice. Nevertheless, as far as the Cheltenham Festival is concerned, Long Run will always be best remembered as the winner of a vintage renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

 

Fresh from an emphatic, 12-length victory over stable companion Riverside Theatre in his first King George VI Chase – delayed until the New Year after the showpiece Christmas meeting was abandoned due to frost – Long Run was sent off 7/2 favourite for the ‘Blue Riband’ event. His rivals included Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander – collectively, the winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the previous four years running – but it was the ‘young pretender’, the six-year-old Long Run, who took the accolades, and first place.

 

Imperial Commander weakened quickly after a blunder at the fourth last fence and, fleetingly, it appeared that the ‘old guard’ of Kauto Star and Denman – both 11-year-olds and veterans of six consecutive Cheltenham Festivals apiece – might once again dominate the finish. However, despite jumping less than fluently on occasions, Long Run headed Denman on the run to the final fence and stayed on strongly up the hill to win by 7 lengths, with a weakening Kauto Star a further 4 lengths behind in third place.

 

Long Run contested the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice more, finishing third, when favourite, behind Synchronised in 2012 and occupying the same position behind stable companion, and favourite, Bobs Worth in 2013. Even so, his scintillating victory in 2011, completed in course record time, is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.

Sir Anthony McCoy

Sir Anthony McCoy Sir Anthony Peter ‘A.P.’ McCoy retired from race riding in April, 2015, having ridden 4,348 winners in Britain and Ireland and won the British National Hunt Jockeys’ Championship 20 years running. At the so-called ‘Olympics of horse racing’, the Cheltenham Festival, McCoy rode 31 winners, making him the third most successful jockey in the history of the March showpiece meeting, behind Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty.

 

His first Festival winner, Kibreet in the Grand Annual Chase in 1996, was trained by Philip Hobbs, but most of his early winners – including Make A Stand, winner of the Champion Hurdle in 1997 – were trained by Martin Pipe. Indeed, in 1997, McCoy also rode Or Royal to win the Arkle Challenge Trophy and Mr. Mulligan, trained by Noel Chance, to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and become leading jockey at the Festival for the first time, with three winners.

 

In 1998, McCoy won the Leading Jockey Award, again, with five winners. He won the Arkle Challenge Trophy again, on Champleve, the Pertemps Final on Unsinkable Boxer, the Cathcart Challenge Cup on Cyfor Malta and the County Hurdle on Blowing Wind, all trained by Pipe, and the Grand Annual Chase on Edredon Bleu, trained by Henrietta Knight. Thereafter, McCoy rode at least one Cheltenham Festival winner in every year bar two, 2001 and 2005, of his career, finally signing off with Uxizandre, owned by J.P. McManus and trained by Alan King, in the Ryanair Chase in 2015.

 

In terms of the main ‘championship’ races, McCoy won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Mr. Mulligan and Synchronised, trained by Jonjo O’Neill, in 2012, the Champion Hurdle three times, on Make A Stand, Brave Inca, trained by Colm Murphy, in 2006 and Binocular, trained by Nicky Henderson, in 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, McCoy never won the Stayers’ Hurdle.