Cheltenham Ones To Watch: Honeysuckle and Blackmore

If you include her facile 4-y-old mares’ maiden point-to-point win back in April 2018 – when she had non-other than Annie Mc 15L back in second – Honeysuckle is unbeaten in fourteen starts and is 4/9 to maintain her unblemished record with Paddy Power in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on the first Sunday in February.

She has been trained by the admirable Henry De Bromhead and ridden by the excellent Rachel Blackmore in all thirteen of her career successes under rules. She was bought by point-to-point trainer Mark O’Hare as a store horse for E9,500 back in June 2017 and sold at Goffs’ horse-in-training sales for E110,000 four days after her stunning win between the flags at Dromahane.

She has raced in the colours of the former GVC Holdings – which includes Ladbrokes Coral, chief executive officer (CEO) Kenny Alexander since she joined De Bromhead and has won her fourteen races by an aggregate of over 90 lengths.

She was a brilliant 6L winner of the Champion Hurdle last March although it must be said it was not a vintage renewal of the great race although the runner up Sharjah is a multiple Grade 1 winner and the third Epatante had won the corresponding race in 2020.

She looked better than ever when landing the Hatton’s Grace by a long looking eight lengths at Leopardstown on her reappearance back in November and Peter Malony, racing manager to Alexander gave an upbeat update recently on the condition of the champion:

“She was very impressive at Fairyhouse. To look at her physically, she’s heavier, bigger and stronger this season. She’s really filled out into her frame.

“I think she had always been a bit of a frame and if anything, she looks to be towards her peak now. She’s matured properly.”

It has not all been plain sailing for the mare, however, and in 2020 she won all three of her Grade 1 contests by half-a-length showing guts and determination as well as her class. Indeed, there are many who feel it was Blackmore’s brilliant tactical ride in the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival two years ago that was the difference between winning and losing.

I would not hear of defeat for the Willie Mullins’ trained Benie Des Dieux (4/6 fav) on the day, but Blackmore nipped up the inside of Stormy Island – a stablemate of the runner up – on the final bend while Paul Townend was forced to cover ground and race four wide on the odds market leader. He was unable to peg back the advantage that Blackmore gained by the manoeuvre although he was gaining all the way to the line.

Honeysuckle had 1/2L in hand at the finish in a race she was sent off at odds of 9/4. This is the only time under rules she has not been made favourite although she was a 7/1 shot in her maiden point success!

The mare was 11/10 when she landed the Champion Hurdle in 2021 and is currently 8/11 with William Hill or 4/6 with Bet365 Non Runner No Bet and Best Odds Guaranteed as she bids to follow up last year’s success.

Honeysuckle has little to fear from Sharjah and his stablemate Appreciate It may now be the chief threat to the mare next month. The 24L Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner of 2021 has not seen the track since March and connections have aborted a chase campaign to stay over hurdles.

He is likely to take Honeysuckle on in the Irish Champion Hurdle but his winning time in last year’s Supreme Novice – on the same day remember – was a couple of seconds slower than Honeysuckle’s and she will be better off at the weights come March. Appreciate It will need to have improved to trouble the champion and we have no evidence that is the case although his return to the track is eagerly awaited.

The incomparable Frankel raced fourteen times on the flat in his unbeaten career and Honeysuckle will equal his record under rules if she wins at Leopardstown next month. If successful she could make it fifteen in the Champion Hurdle. There will be some who argue that a 7lbs sex allowance is too much for the mares’, but that debate is for another day.

Honeysuckle’s last eight wins have all come at Grade 1 level. She is a true champion.