Honeysuckle will face a maximum of five rivals when she bids for back-to-back victories in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.
Henry de Bromhead’s charge was a narrow winner of the feature event on the opening day of the Dublin Racing Festival last season, before going on to claim the notable scalp of Benie Des Dieux in an epic clash for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The seven-year-old made a winning reappearance when successfully defending her crown in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse in November and is the hot favourite to stretch her unbeaten record to 10 on Saturday in the hands of Rachael Blackmore.
“She seems well at home and was good in the Hatton’s Grace. There is no Grade One out there that is easy to win and she seems to have produced the goods every day, so I can’t fault her,” said the jockey.
“She’s definitely captured my imagination, anyway. She’s been fantastic to me and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Honeysuckle’s biggest threat appears to be the Willie Mullins-trained Sharjah, who disappointed in last year’s renewal but was last seen winning his third Matheson Hurdle over the course and distance.
Sharjah’s stablemates Saint Roi and Saldier, who were fourth and sixth behind him over Christmas, are set to be in opposition once more, while the field is completed by Gordon Elliott’s pair of Petit Mouchoir an Abacadabras, who were third and fifth in the same race.
Mullins appears to hold all the aces in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase, with last year’s one-two Chacun Pour Soi and Min set to renew rivalry.
The Closutton maestro could also saddle Tornado Flyer, with Castlegrace Paddy (Pat Fahy), Fakir D’Oudairies (Joseph O’Brien), Notebook (De Bromhead) and Sizing Pottsie (Jessica Harrington) the other hopefuls.
Mullins has won the Patrick Ward And Company Solicitors Irish Arkle Novice Chase with Un De Sceaux (2015), Douvan (2016) and Footpad (2018) in recent years, and houses a leading contender this year in Energumene.
The Tony Bloom-owned gelding could be joined stable companions Blackbow, Franco De Port and Unexcepted, while Gavin Cromwell’s Darver Star and Paul Nolan’s stable star Latest Exhibition also feature.
The first of four Grade Ones on the card is the Nathaniel Lacy And Partners Solicitors 50k Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff’ Novice Hurdle, in which Mullins again possesses a strong hand, with Gaillard Du Mesnil and Stattler leading a seven-strong entry.
Also among the 17 contenders are the Harrington-trained Ashdale Bob, Emmet Mullins’ Cape Gentleman and Gentlemansgame from the Mouse Morris yard.
Elliott’s Sir Gerhard is a warm order for the concluding Goffs Future Stars I.N.H. Flat Race.
Elliott has also confirmed Chemical Energy, while Mullins has a trio in Kilcruit, Ramillies and Whatdeawant.
The fixture list on both sides of the Irish Sea has been badly affected by cold and wet weather in recent weeks, but Leopardstown’s clerk of the course Lorcan Wyer does not envisage any problems for the weekend.
He said: “We had 34 millimetres of rain over the weekend and 16 millimetres overnight, which has left the going on the hurdle and bumper track as heavy and the chase track is soft.
“The forecast for the week is a little unsettled and turning cooler at the weekend. There is some rain around, but I think the bulk of the rain is behind us and it will be showery during the week.
“It’s meant to get cooler at the weekend, but we don’t believe it’s going to get so low that it’s going to be a problem.”