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.