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Dual Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle wasn’t favourite for the 2023 running even at this start of this season and she certainly isn’t now after Constitution Hill produced a stunning performance to win last weekend’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. He is now the 4/7 favourite in the ante-post betting, with Honeysuckle next best at 4/1.
Honeysuckle gets the opportunity to close that gap when she bids for a fourth successive win in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday, though the bar has been set so high by Constitution Hill that surely only a wide-margin victory would suffice.
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That won’t be an easy thing to achieve either, particularly if Klassical Dream lines up against her. Indeed, with a Timeform rating of 161, Klassical Dream is a better horse than anything Honeysuckle came up against last season and his style of racing suggests the drop back to two and a half miles won’t be against him.
It’s true that the 165-rated Honeysuckle would still appear to have a significant class edge over that rival, particularly with her sex allowance factored in, though it’s worth pointing out that she didn’t run to that level in any of her four starts last season.
Her superiority over her rivals was such that she didn’t need to reproduce her best form to extend her winning sequence under Rules to 16 races, but that is unlikely to be the case at Cheltenham in March and Sunday could be just the first big test of whether she’s still capable of matching her peak efforts as she embarks on her final season in training.
The Tingle Creek is the first Grade 1 two-mile chase of the National Hunt season and this year all eyes will be on Shishkin as he tries to get his career back on track in a race which also features the reigning champion Greaneteen and last season’s leading novice Edwardstone.
Shishkin himself was the outstanding novice chaser in training in 2020/21, showing top-class form in winning his first five starts over fences, and last season began in a similar vein as he made a smooth transition into open company with wins in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton and Clarence House Chase at Ascot.
The Clarence House was arguably the race of the season as Shishkin edged ahead of Energumene late on to maintain his unbeaten record over fences, not travelling so well as the runner-up from a fair way out but typically proving strong in the finish.
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That form identifies Shishkin (181) as Timeform’s highest-rated jumps horse in training, though his position at the head of the rankings is a bit more precarious after he hardly took part when last seen in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. He was pulled up after jumping just eight fences and was later found to be suffering from a rare bone condition.
Shishkin is reported to have made a full recovery in the interim, but Saturday’s race should provide the definitive answer as to whether he remains the force of old and a horse who can be a major player in the two-mile chasing ranks again this season.
Champ Kiely looks another Royal Bond ace for Mullins
The Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, one of two other Grade 1 races on Sunday’s card at Fairyhouse, has been dominated in recent years by Willie Mullins, who could saddle up to four runners this time round as he seeks a ninth success in the race since 2008.
The pick of them looks to be Champ Kiely, who is unbeaten in three starts under Rules and could hardly have been more impressive when making a successful hurdling debut at the Galway Festival in July. He travelled powerfully and jumped accurately, and, having led with a circuit to go, drew clear from the home turn to win hard held by 21 lengths.
Champ Kiely followed that with another imperious display in a Grade 3 novice event at Tipperary last time, again looking something out of the ordinary as he made all to land the spoils by four and a half lengths from Brazil, who advertised the strength of that form when going one place better in the Fishery Lane Hurdle at Naas on his next start.
That performance at Tipperary underlined that Champ Kiely has the speed to be effective at two miles and the form he showed comfortably sets the standard here on Timeform’s weight-adjusted ratings, while the small ‘p’ attached to his rating denotes that he is likely to go on improving.
He must be considered an exciting prospect and perhaps another Supreme contender for owner Margaret Masterson, whose blue and green diamond colours were carried to victory in that race by Appreciate It in 2021.
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