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HONEYSUCKLE is the leading Irish hope for the Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival for Henry de Bromhead and Kenny Alexander. She heads back to Prestbury Park for a second straight year having once again used the Hatton’s Grace and Irish Champion hurdles as stepping-stones towards Cheltenham. The manner of her latest victory at Leopardstown should have silenced the doubters, with the hope of improving on her Mares’ Hurdle success from last year.
The task won’t be easy against defending champion Epatante, who is trained and owned by two gentlemen with remarkable records in this race. Nicky Henderson has trained the Champion Hurdle winner a record eight times, four of them for JP McManus, who has lifted the trophy nine times since 1998. Henderson is bound to have his mare back on song following defeat to Silver Streak at Christmas, and ultimately this could come down to speed and stamina depending on the ground.
Nicky Henderson first won the Champion Hurdle with See You Then in 1985 and only two other five-year-olds have managed success since, with Katchit claiming victory in 2008 and Espoir D’Allen two years ago in 2019.
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ASPIRE TOWER is another Irish hope and funnily enough also trained by Henry de Bromhead, with this five-year-old skipping the Dublin Racing Festival after his second-place finish to Sharjah in the Matheson Hurdle. The history of this race might side against his overall chance of victory, but he looks an each-way player having previously managed to run well fresh.
SHARJAH was beaten by Honeysuckle for a second time in the Irish equivalent but remains in contention having finished second to Epatante last year. Willie Mullins recently suggested that perhaps February is simply not the month for Sharjah to perform at his best, and it could be remiss to discount him entirely.
ABACADABRAS ran much better in the Irish Champion and is clearly another visitor in the each-way bracket for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown Stud.
SAINT ROI, SALDIER, CONCERTISTA and JAMES DU BERLAIS remain among the acceptors for the Closutton team. Saint Roi was beaten fair and square by Sharjah and Honeysuckle in recent starts, while Saldier disappointed again in the Irish Champion and looks set for a run in the County Hurdle. Concertista has been impressive this season and will surely head for the Mares’ Hurdle without Honeysuckle defending her crown. James Du Berlais is also owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede and could take his chance despite not yet running for team Mullins since joining from Robert Collet.
Henry de Bromhead might decide to race the consistent JASON THE MILITANT with the seven-year-old not seen on the racetrack since finishing third in the Morgiana Hurdle last November.
In summary, the mares’ allowance should prove the difference in the battle of the sexes, with ground conditions playing a factor between Epatante and Honeysuckle. A good ground Champion Hurdle would likely suit the speedy Epatante much better, with the stamina of HONEYSUCKLE coming to the fore with underfoot conditions. The weather in the middle of March will play a part, but the difference between success and failure could be decided by which one of these two talented mares makes fewer if any mistakes.
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