The buzz is certainly in the air for the 2021 Cheltenham Festival. We were lucky that the 2020 Festival took place, and once again we can count our lucky stars that – from Tuesday – we’re being gifted four days of racing excellence from the likes of Al Boum Photo, Honeysuckle and Native River. Even those with a passing interest in racing are well aware of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the significance of winning this prestigious race – or any other at the Cheltenham Festival.
And of course there’s the battle between the nations in the form of the Prestbury Cup. In anticipation of the event, Richard Hoiles hosts his very own Betway horse racing quiz version of the cup, with West Ham footballers Mark Noble and Jesse Lingard (Team UK) and Michail Antonio and Darren Randolph (Team Ireland) . With a little help from Betway ambassador Katie Walsh too, let’s see how much the boys know about racing.
Inaugurated, as the Coral Golden Hurdle Final, in 1974, the Pertemps Network Final is a Listed handicap hurdle run over 2 miles, 7 furlongs and 213 yards on the New Course at Cheltenham. The race has been sponsored by the Pertemps Network Group since 2002 and is open to horses aged five years and upwards, who have qualified by finishing in the first half a dozen in one of a series of qualifying races run throughout Britain, Ireland and France since the start of the current season. The Pertemps Network Final is currently scheduled as the second race on day three of the Cheltenham Festival, a.k.a. ‘St. Patrick’s Day’, in March.
Worth £100,000 in prize money, £56,270 of which goes to the winner, the Pertemps Network Final is a typically competitive Cheltenham Festival handicap, which invariably attracts a maximum field of 24 runners. Unsurprisingly, favourites have a modest record in the race, with just two – namely Fingal Bay in 2014 and Sire Du Berlais in 2019 – winning in the last ten years. The other winners in that period were returned as starting prices of 20/1, 14/1, 25/1, 9/1, 14/1, 11/1, 6/1 and 10/1, so it is not difficult to see why the Pertemps Network Final is often a fascinating, if devilishly difficult, betting heat.
The remarkable Willie Wumpkins, who won the race three years running in 1979, 1980 and 1981, as an 11-, 12- and 13-year-old, is the most successful horse in the history of the Pertemps Network. Jonjo O’Neill, with four wins, remains the most successful trainer, although Gordon Elliott has won the last three renewals, courtesy of Delta Work in 2018 and Sire Du Berlais in both 2019 and 2020.
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.