Honeysuckle capped an amazing campaign when taking her unbeaten record to 12 in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.
Henry de Bromhead’s remarkable mare followed up her victory at Cheltenham with another convincing display in the hands of Rachael Blackmore.
Asked to go and win the race after jumping the second-last flight, Honeysuckle soon put daylight between herself and her rivals.
Her supporters had a slight scare coming to the last when the 4-7 favourite steadied going into it, giving Sharjah a chance to catch her.
However, she pulled away again on the run-in to score by two and a quarter lengths. Epatante was 10 lengths away in third in a repeat of the positions in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Honeysuckle was cut to 2-1 favourite from 11-4 to defend her Champion Hurdle crown at Cheltenham next spring with Paddy Power.
“It’s 100 per cent relief – I nearly threw it away at the last,” said Blackmore.
“She was feeling the season a little bit I think, but she’s just phenomenal.
“I wasn’t as comfortable throughout the race on her today, but still she just delivers.
“Real stars get jockeys out of trouble. I did sleep last night – sleeping is never a bother.”
Blackmore and De Bromhead have endured a disappointing week by their own high standards, with Honeysuckle a first success at this year’s Festival.
Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo had to miss his intended run on Wednesday due to a minor issue while star novice hurdler Bob Olinger was ruled out of his Punchestown engagement at a late stage due to coughing.
De Bromhead said: “We weren’t having an amazing week, but she always gets us out of trouble. She’s amazing. I’m just delighted for Kenny (Alexander, owner), Peter (Molony) and everyone involved.
“She was brilliant and Rachael was brilliant on her.
“She’s like a lot of those really good horses, she has such a will to win and Rachael is so good on her.
“She’s done that before at the last, but thankfully Rachael had it all under control. It’s been an amazing season and that’s a great way to finish it off.”
Molony, who is Alexander’s racing manager, admitted there is a “temptation” to switch to chasing with Honeysuckle, who was a point to point winner before embarking on her career under rules.
He said: “We have to sit down and have a chat about it (plans for next season).
“The safe option would be to go back over hurdles and it’d be wonderful if we could win another Champion Hurdle in Cheltenham and another Irish Champion Hurdle – that would be wonderful.
“There is a temptation there (to go over fences). She’s a wonderful jumper – she looks like a chasing mare. The temptation is there – how exciting would it be, but we’ll have a chat.
“I know she does (jump fences), I’ve seen her do it (schooling on Sunday mornings). We’ll see.”
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Rachael Blackmore was lost for words after steering Honeysuckle to an historic victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Unlike many of her weighing-room colleagues, the 31-year-old was not bred to be a jockey, being the daughter of a dairy farmer and a secondary school teacher.
However, she is the perfect advertisement of where sheer hard work and perseverance can get you – rising from little-known amateur to becoming one of the most respected members of her profession on either side of the Irish Sea in the space of six years.
Unbeaten in 10 previous starts and a brilliant winner of last year’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle was all the rage to ensure Blackmore became the first female jockey to claim victory in the sport’s most iconic hurdle race.
Her legion of fans will have been shouting her on at home too, as the 11-10 favourite kicked clear into the straight and powered up the hill to beat old rival Sharjah by six and a half lengths.
“For me, this was never even a dream – it is so far from what I ever thought could happen in my life,” said an emotional Blackmore.
“Being in Cheltenham and riding a winner of a Champion Hurdle is so far removed from what I dreamt could be possible.
“Maybe there’s a lesson in that for everyone out there.”
In typically modest fashion, Blackmore was keen to heap praise on her willing partner and De Bromhead and his team, rather than taking due credit herself.
“I’m so thankful to be a part of her (Honeysuckle) – it’s all about her,” she said.
“You can’t do it without getting on the right horses, and I’ve been extremely lucky in that sense, getting a link-up with a yard like Henry de Bromhead’s.
“That is a massive part of every jockey’s career – being in the right place at the right time and getting linked up with the right yard.”
Blackmore recalled visiting the hugely popular three-time Champion Hurdle hero Istabraq as a schoolgirl.
“We went to see Istabraq on a school tour,” she said.
“I’m from Tipperary, so it was local.
“I never envisaged back then, when I went to see him, that I’d be riding the winner of a Champion Hurdle – it’s incredible.
“When every person becomes a jockey they dream about riding at Cheltenham and all these things, but riding a winner like this – I’m sorry for repeating myself – is just unbelievable.”
Blackmore has always been reticent to discuss her achievements as a ‘female jockey’.
This victory provides just more evidence, as if it were needed, that she is more than a match for her male counterparts.
She said: “There’s no deal about it any more, I don’t think. It’s not that I don’t talk about it, I just think if you want to be a jockey you can be a jockey – drive on.”
The biggest shame, of course, is that Blackmore and Honeysuckle were not welcomed back into the hallowed winner’s enclosure to the usual raucous fanfare.
“It’s a shame the crowds aren’t here, because the people are what make Cheltenham what it is,” she added.
“But it was nice that the people that are here gave us a cheer when we got back in.
“It still feels very special, but it’s not the normal Cheltenham of old. Hopefully we’ll see the crowds back here next year.”
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With the 2020 Cheltenham Festival beginning just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to take hold, the four-day meeting was the last major sporting event to survive before the country was forced into lockdown and all public gatherings were cancelled.
Twelve months later the world is still not fully recovered and all sporting fixtures must take place behind closed doors, with the Festival no exception.
With no crowds to witness the lifting of the tapes in the very first race of the meeting, there will be no Cheltenham roar, nor will there be the famed reception that awaits winning horses when they return to the parade ring.
The Cheltenham Festival is as much about the top-flight racing as it is about the off-course atmosphere, however, and still promises to be of its usual calibre, despite the empty grandstands.
The first day is headlined by the Unibet Champion Hurdle, where last season’s heroine Epatante is poised to face the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle – on whom Rachael Blackmore could make history – and a resurgent Goshen.
The Sporting Life Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase looks at the mercy of Shishkin, although Allmankind will not go down without a fight.
Let battle commence…
Appreciate It – right from the start
It is a rare thing these days for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle not to kick-off proceedings with a Willie Mullins hotpot and this year is no exception, with Appreciate It having been a warm order since a terrific performance in Grade One company over Christmas. Ballyadam got closer to him at the Dublin Racing Festival, but while Appreciate It promises to be better over further – and fences – in time, all the evidence suggests there is little point in ignoring the obvious.
All eyes on Shishkin
Top of the bill is Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, who has built a flawless record over fences since triumphing in the Supreme at the Festival last season. The Mullins-trained Energumene was his chief rival following a highly-impressive display when taking the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown by 10 lengths, but was withdrawn on Friday after a suffering an injury. Dan Skelton’s Allmankind wears his heart on his sleeve in front, so the Henderson hotpot will still have to be as advertised to get the job done.
Honeysuckle in full bloom ahead of Champion showdown
Epatante bids to defend her crown in the feature race on the opening afternoon, after a three-length success 12 months ago. There is a question or two, however, after the Henderson runner disappointed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She also faces strong opposition from Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle, who has yet to suffer a single defeat in 10 starts under rules and was a 10-length winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle. If she can get her head in front it will see Blackmore become the first woman to ride a Champion Hurdle winner. Gary Moore’s Goshen, who was agonisingly denied victory in the Triumph Hurdle last year when unshipping Jamie Moore at the final hurdle, looked to have bounced back to his brilliant best when easily winning the Kingwell Hurdle and has very much rejoined the reckoning off the back of that performance.
Concertista centre stage in Mares’ Hurdle
The Henderson, Mullins and Skelton yards will face off once again in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Mullins’ Concertista was a 12-length winner at the Festival last season and has since enjoyed two further big-race successes, stepping up in trip on both occasions to prove her ability over two and a half miles. Henderson’s Coral Cup winner Dame De Compagnie reverts to hurdles after unseating Nico de Boinville in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, while Skelton’s Roksana is back down in distance – having dipped her toe in the staying division waters before defeating Jessica Harrington’s Magic Of Light in the Warfield Hurdle at Ascot.
Paul Nicholls made a surprise late decision to reroute his unbeaten novice Next Destination from a prospective clash with Monkfish on Wednesday to the Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase, which closes the card on day one. In the absence here of Royale Pagaille – who will sport the famous colours of Monkfish’s owners in Friday’s Gold Cup – it may prove a wise move. But Galvin will have his supporters too, following a run of four successive victories over fences. Now with Ian Ferguson after moving from Gordon Elliott, he also has strong Festival form in the book.
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Honeysuckle bids to dethrone Epatante in a mouthwatering clash for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The market for the feature event on day one of the Festival is dominated by the two top-class mares, with Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle just about edging favouritism off the back of a scintillating display in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
That dominant victory saw the seven-year-old stretch her unbeaten record to double figures, leaving connections with a mixture of expectant nerves and excitement for her biggest assignment yet.
Peter Molony, racing manager for Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander, said: “She arrived in Cheltenham on Saturday night and travelled well, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
“I do get desperately nervous, but if you’re not pumped up for this you’re not going to get pumped up for anything.
“She’s an amazing mare, and we’re very lucky to be in this position, so we may as well enjoy it.”
Honeysuckle already has a Festival win on her CV, having outgunned Benie Des Dieux in an epic Mares’ Hurdle 12 months ago.
The daughter of Sulamani was made to pull out all the stops when successfully defending her crown in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse on her first start of the current campaign, but raised her game significantly when powering clear of her Irish Champion rivals.
“She was incredible in Leopardstown,” added Molony.
“It’s well documented Henry didn’t have her fit enough for her first run of the season in the Hatton’s Grace – she blew up for the first time in her life in a race.
“Henry mentioned the other day that he thinks she’s still improving. If that is right, and we can get her there at the best of her ability on Tuesday, it will be very exciting.”
A huge part of the Honeysuckle story is jockey Rachael Blackmore, who bids to become the first female jockey in history to ride a Champion Hurdle winner.
Molony has nothing but praise for the rider, saying: “It sounds a funny thing to say, but it’s almost like people have forgotten she’s a woman at this stage – she can hold her own with any man.
“She’s so balanced, and horses run so well for her and jump so well for her, and she’s got a fantastic tactical brain.
“She’s got all the attributes – she’s fantastic.”
Honeysuckle produced many of her best performance over longer distances, so De Bromhead was thrilled to see her prove she can be just as effective over two miles last time out.
The Knockeen-based trainer, who also saddles Aspire Tower, said: “She looks very effective over anything really. All the judges say her last day was her best performance so far.
“Aspire Tower ran really well to finish second at Leopardstown at Christmas, and we decided to go straight to the Champion Hurdle.
“I’m very happy with him. He’s in great form, and we’ve put him away for Cheltenham.”
Epatante provided trainer Nicky Henderson with his eighth Champion Hurdle success last season – and owner JP McManus with his ninth.
She looked as good as ever on her seasonal reappearance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November, but returns to the Cotswolds with something to prove after suffering a shock defeat when bidding for back-to-back wins in Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Henderson said: “She as very impressive in the Fighting Fifth. She picked up Sceau Royal after the last and went past him with so much class.
“She wasn’t herself at Kempton – but fair play to Silver Streak, who was very good on the day. He set a proper test, and at no stage were we in a position to have a crack at him.
“I think we’re back in the right place now.”
The Evan Williams-trained Silver Streak is once again in opposition, having finished third and sixth in the last two Champion Hurdles, but the biggest threat to the two mares could be Gary Moore’s Goshen.
The five-year-old was set for a wide-margin win in the Triumph Hurdle at last year’s Festival before his agonising exit at the final obstacle.
He was then beaten twice on the Flat in the autumn, and finished stone last in Cheltenham’s International Hurdle in December, but bounced back with a wide-margin success in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on his latest outing.
Moore said: “He seems in good order. I’m very happy with him. He’s done everything right this morning (Monday), so it’s all systems go.
“There will be loads of pace. He doesn’t have to make the running. They can do that for him if they want. It’s down to Jamie (Moore).
“We’re 100 per cent ready to go.”
Willie Mullins runs last year’s runner-up Sharjah, as well as Saldier and intriguing French recruit James Du Berlais.
The former has 19 lengths to make up on Honeysuckle on their meeting in the Irish Champion, a race he also disappointed in last season before raising his game at Cheltenham.
Mullins said: “I don’t know what it is about the Irish Champion Hurdle with Sharjah – it maybe comes too soon for him after Christmas.
“The better the ground the better his chance, and if we can just adjust tactics this year it might make the difference.”
Of James Du Berlais, he added: “He had a very busy season in France last year, and was bought by Simon (Munir) and Isaac (Souede) as a novice chaser – but it’s a long time to wait, so we put him in training.
“I was happy to run him somewhere and I’m not going to run him in the Stayers’ Hurdle. I said ‘let’s run him in the Champion Hurdle and let him have a go there’, rather than do nothing the whole spring.”
Denise Foster’s Abacadabras and the Hughie Morrison-trained Not So Sleepy are the other hopefuls.
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Star mares Epatante and Honeysuckle are among a final field of 10 horses declared for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Nicky Henderson’s Epatante is the defending champion, having provided her trainer with a record eighth victory 12 months ago.
However, the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old will return to the Cotswolds on a recovery mission on Tuesday after suffering a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Contrastingly, the Henry de Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle will put her unbeaten record on the line under Rachael Blackmore – who is bidding to become the first female rider to claim Champion Hurdle glory.
Honeysuckle produced what is widely regarded as the best performance of her career to date when powering clear in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle and is the marginal favourite to follow up at Cheltenham, where she won the Mares’ Hurdle last season.
Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme, Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander said: “I’m pretty pumped up for it! I’d always be pumped up, because I think it’s the best week of the year, but particularly this year – and particularly for the big one on Tuesday.
“I’m very excited and really looking forward to it – and pretty confident.
“I’m lucky to have a horse as good as that (Honeysuckle) who is going into the Champion Hurdle as favourite. If you can’t enjoy this sort of occasion, you shouldn’t own horses, I don’t think.
“She’s never been beaten, and that obviously fills you with confidence. I think her last run was spectacular, although there were a few horses that didn’t quite run to form and will probably run materially better on Tuesday.
“Henry seems quite confident. He’s always very cautious, but he seems very confident in her.”
Alexander added: “She’s 9-4, so she’s got a 30 per cent chance of winning, (but) that does mean she’s got 70 per cent chance of losing!
“She’s favourite, and I think she should be, but it’s going to be a huge battle to win the race.
“Irrespective of what happens on Tuesday, she’s been a brilliant mare to own – and I’ve been very lucky to have her.
“I think it’s going to be a fantastic Festival – I can’t wait for it really.”
De Bromhead has a second string to his bow in Aspire Tower, while Willie Mullins runs last year’s runner-up Sharjah, as well as Saldier and intriguing French recruit James Du Berlais.
Denise Foster’s Abacadabras completes the Irish challenge.
The home team is headed by Gary Moore’s stable star Goshen, who agonisingly exited at the final flight when set for a wide-margin win in the Triumph Hurdle last year – and got his season back on track with victory in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton recently.
Epatante’s Christmas Hurdle conqueror Silver Streak (Evan Williams) and Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison) are the other hopefuls.
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Song For Someone will not contest Tuesday’s Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The six-year-old won both the Coral Hurdle at Ascot and Cheltenham’s International Hurdle before Christmas and was last seen chasing home Goshen in the Kingwell at Wincanton, finishing 22 lengths adrift.
Tom Symonds’ charge is a general 33-1 shot for the feature event on the first day of the Festival, but owners Sir Peter and Lady Gibbings have decided not to run.
Symonds issued a statement on Twitter on behalf of Lady Gibbings, which read: “Sir Peter is nearing the end of his life. Our wonderful horse, Song For Someone, has given him so much joy this season.
“Sir Peter is strongly of the opinion that the Champion Hurdle is not the correct race for the horse at this point in his career, and it is only right that we respect his view. Therefore, he will not be declared tomorrow.
“Tom Symonds has been incredibly understanding and supportive of our family’s decision during this difficult time.”
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Jimmy Frost’s “horse of a lifetime” Morley Street delivered his finest hour in the 1991 Champion Hurdle – and 30 years on, he could just be the portent for a remarkable long-range family double at the 2021 Festival.
Frost could not of course even begin to dream, after passing the line in front to the delight of favourite-backers a generation ago, that one day his daughter would sample the same adulation at Cheltenham.
Frodon has already provided Bryony Frost with one golden moment at the Festival, with their victory together in the 2019 Ryanair Chase.
This year, they are upping the ante as trainer Paul Nicholls sends them out to try to add the Gold Cup to a season’s haul which already includes a shock victory in the King George VI Chase.
Morley Street and Frodon are poles as well as many years apart.
Frost junior is poetry in motion on the dark-bay grinder who jumps brilliantly and never gives up – while dad Jimmy got by far the best tune out of the quirky chestnut, who could lead trainer Toby Balding’s best sprinters at home yet stayed well enough to win four Aintree Hurdles, but had to be held up as long as possible to ensure he did not stop in front.
Frost, who took over as the then dual bumper winner Morley Street’s jockey for his successful jumping debut, was victorious in 14 of their 23 races together – including his first two Aintree Hurdles and on back-to-back trips to America in the 1990 and 1991 editions of the lucrative Breeders’ Cup Chase.
Grand National glory also famously came Frost’s way, on Little Polveir, in the season he first rode Morley Street.
But it is a measure of how highly he rated his association with the brilliantly adaptable hurdler that he can simply say: “Morley Street was a horse of a lifetime.
“It’s amazing you ever get to meet a partner in life like that.
“You just can’t buy it. It’s just one of those wonderful things that happens, just comes out of the mist.
“All those things have got to come together – you could spend millions, and you can’t buy it.”
That same assessment, he agrees, applies equally to the hugely popular partnership Bryony has developed with Frodon.
But this tale, emphatically, begins with Morley Street – and the most important chapter was written at Cheltenham.
From the outset that day, Frost was abundantly aware that Morley Street was the likeliest winner – but there was plenty too which could go wrong as a joint-record 24 runners went to post.
“It was a big field, and my only concern was traffic,” he said.
“I knew he was the best horse in the race – he was favourite, and I’d raced against them all.
“So we were pretty confident, as long as our horse turned up on the day in good form, he could beat them all.”
Morley Street had the class to win with ease, but very much a mind of his own too – and as Frost jockeyed for position into the straight, there was a sudden snag.
“Coming down the hill to the second-last, I had Jinxy Jack right in front of me,” he said.
“The horses were spread across the field, and I was just in the second row – perfect, get a lead, plenty of horse.
“Jinxy Jack always stood up, but he couldn’t half miss a hurdle – and coming down to the second-last I was right in his slipstream, so I lost my bottle there a bit and thought ‘if he misses I’m right behind him and disaster zone is looming’.
“The most likely hurdle for him to make a mistake at is the second-last, coming off the hill. So I pulled out to get away from him, and I absolutely winged the hurdle and landed in front.”
That was not where he wanted to be, but thankfully the class edge still told with a length-and-a-half win from future Stayers’ Hurdle hero Nomadic Way, for an appreciative and largely richer crowd – and a relieved jockey.
Frost had known for more than two years that Morley Street must not hit the front too soon – and he and Balding were at pains to keep that nugget of information from their rivals.
He added: “We learned fairly early on, the first race I ever rode on him was at Sandown, and he should have gone away and won by 10 lengths.
“But he jumped the last and just said ‘I’ve done enough now’.
“It was always a very carefully guarded secret that he pulled himself up in front – because I thought once the other jockeys start to know that, it would make us more vulnerable.
“We kept it a good secret for a long time.”
Morley Street’s 1990/91 campaign was remarkable, and a phenomenon of training, as he won seven times in nine races over exactly six months – either side of the Atlantic, on the Flat, over hurdles and fences.
He began by beating 1989 St Leger winner Michelozzo at Goodwood in October, travelled to New York’s Belmont Park for his first Breeders’ Cup two weeks later, bagged Grade Two hurdles at Ascot and Newbury, made a successful debut over British fences at Worcester, returned to timber for his Champion Hurdle – and then beat Nomadic Way again at Aintree in April.
He could handle extremes of ground conditions as well as show his trademark turn of foot over a variety of trips.
Frost added: “Toby had some good five- and six-furlong horses at the time – and when he wanted to sharpen him up, we’d do a bit of work with them, and I could lead them. That’s why he was pretty impossible to beat – because he had the stamina, stayed two and a half easy and had the speed of a five-furlong horse.”
“He wasn’t the best jumper in the world – that let him down a little bit. He was just a bit flat.”
That did not stop him on memorably successful American trips – to the cosmopolitan environs of Belmont Park and a year later Fair Hill in the southern State of Maryland. The prize was landed both times, but the experiences were contrasting.
Frost’s biggest problem in New York came, with victory secured, when he was locked in a vast complex round the weighing room – “in jail basically”, until Balding and others rustled up cash to pay his valet after he was belatedly informed of the attentive employee’s entitlement to 10 per cent of his race winnings.
At Fair Hill, with its beautiful rolling countryside and temporary infrastructure reminiscent of the backdrop to amateur days in his native Devon, he had to give himself an urgent pep talk down at the start: “‘Eh Frosty, wake up, this looks like a point-to-point, but you’re racing for big money here’.”
Morley Street gave him few concerns on either occasion – negotiating most of the small US fences adequately apart from “missing one badly down the back” in New York.
He recovered quickly as class told and duly “got there too soon again” – superior to the extent that Frost could afford to coast alongside runner-up Summer Colony and inform top American jockey – and future Hall of Fame trainer – Jonathan Sheppard that he was fighting a losing cause.
“The lad was riding his head off. So I shouted again, and he looked round, and I said ‘This is what you call a racehorse!’. He was still on the bridle.”
Switching to the present, and understandably Frost is not about to tempt fate by musing on the possibility of Bryony and Frodon beating the very best again, as they did at Kempton on Boxing Day.
“You can’t even allow yourself to consider it – you just have to get on with your day job,” he said.
“If it happens it happens. There’s certainly nothing you can do to make it happen, any more than you do to just win a 0-100 handicap round Taunton.”
Unlike some, though, he is sure of one thing – that Frodon, already twice a winner over just short of the Gold Cup course and distance, can stay the trip.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in his stamina,” he said.
“I don’t see why people would doubt it.”
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Defending champion Epatante and fellow mare Honeysuckle are among 14 left in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham next week.
Nicky Henderson’s Epatante will need to put a below-par effort at Kempton behind her if she is to join a relatively long list of multiple champion hurdlers.
Having looked better than ever when winning the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, she had no answer to the enterprisingly-ridden Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
The pair will meet again, with Evan Williams hoping his grey gets his favoured good ground once more, while Henderson reports his runner to be in fine form at home.
He told TalkSport: “Both (Champion Chase hope) Altior and Epatante did their last pieces of work this morning, and it went remarkably well.
“Our horses probably weren’t quite on song at Christmas. It was, for her, very disappointing in the Christmas Hurdle because she was so impressive in it last year, as she was in the Fighting Fifth first time out this year.
“Everything seems to be back on song. They both had their last serious piece of work – and we were all very, very happy.
Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle remains unbeaten in her career and also has a previous Festival win to her credit – having got the better of Benie Des Dieux in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle 12 months ago.
This time she is in against the boys – but it is nothing she has not faced before, given she has won the Irish Champion Hurdle for the last two seasons.
De Bromhead also has a more than useful second string to his bow in the form of Aspire Tower – while his recent Red Mills Hurdle winner Jason The Militant may also line up.
Gary Moore’s Goshen would be a popular winner after what happened in the Triumph Hurdle last year, with that race at his mercy. He put himself right back in the picture with a stunning display at Wincanton recently.
Last year’s runner-up Sharjah is set to be back again for Willie Mullins but will have to do without the assistance of regular rider Patrick Mullins because of the current ban on amateur jockeys in Britain.
Mullins also has an interesting contender in James Du Berlais, who has been brought over from France essentially to go novice chasing next year. But given his lofty rating, Mullins is due to let him take his chance in this along the way. Saldier could also run for the same team.
Denise Foster, in her role as stand-in for Gordon Elliott while he serves his six-month ban, has Abacadabras and Petit Mouchoir still in the reckoning.
Not So Sleepy, For Pleasure and Song For Someone complete those still engaged.
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Silver Streak is primed for the Unibet Champion Hurdle – and will be a “different animal” if granted his favoured good ground on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.
Evan Williams has no doubt his admirable grey will do himself proud again, whatever the conditions on Tuesday.
But the Glamorgan trainer knows too that if the rain stays away, Silver Streak’s chances of doubling his Grade One tally – following his victory from title-holder Epatante in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle – will be vastly increased.
Williams intended throughout to keep the hugely consistent eight-year-old fresh through the mid-winter months, and reports him in fine shape for the challenge ahead.
He said: “He’s grand – we were always going to go straight to the Champion after the Christmas Hurdle, so everything is good.
“He just had a bit of a freshen-up, tipped away quietly, and we just built him up then for a crack at the Champion.”
A very wet January and early February would hardly have played to Silver Streak’s strengths in any prep races and although some more rain is forecast this week, the recent dry spell has left the Cheltenham ground bordering on good in places.
Williams added: “The thing with Silver Streak, if you run him on heavy ground he’ll try hard for you, if you run him on soft ground he’ll try hard for you – but if you run him on good to soft ground, or faster, he becomes a different animal.
“I can’t overemphasise that to people – on good to soft ground, the horse gets a lot of help off the going. On heavy ground, he just runs his heart out for you.
“But the ground is the difference between winning a Grade One and not winning for Silver Streak.”
Williams has already seen proof of that, after a change to front-running tactics also paid off with his near seven-length superiority over a below-par Epatante at Christmas.
“At Kempton, it was our ground and we got lucky with the opposition, and we won a Grade One,” he said.
“He will only reach those heights when the conditions underfoot are to that specification.”
Williams is less concerned how the Champion Hurdle is run because he is confident Silver Streak can adapt to whatever his rivals choose to do.
“You ride the race according to what’s in front of you at the time,” he added.
“Kempton was Kempton, and Cheltenham will be Cheltenham.
“I’m not in any way, shape or form worried about having to make the running or having to not make the running.
“All I’m worried about is the other runners against us in a Champion Hurdle.”
While Silver Streak took his two-month break, the prolific Honeysuckle and a back-to-form Goshen were prominent among those who have enhanced their credentials and Williams was impressed.
“I’m a horse racing fan, and I enjoy watching any quality horse,” he said.
“To see Honeysuckle win was brilliant, and I was particularly pleased with Goshen.
“I’m a fan of the horse, but I’m an even bigger fan of the connections.
“It was a joy (in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle). We had a runner in the race (Esprit Du Large) and I’ve never been so happy to be blown off the park!”
He can be confident that will not happen with Silver Streak – third and sixth in the last two Champion Hurdles – but is reassured too that the pressure is off in any case after his Kempton win.
“I like to see good horses, and it’s a joy to be even talking about our horse in the same breath as those ones,” added Williams.
“I’m in a very lucky position – our Grade One is in the bag. All I want to do is go to Cheltenham, have a bit of luck in running and win, lose or draw, as long as that horse comes back in one piece and it’s a good race, I’m just delighted to take part.”
https://www.geegeez.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/2.57283962-scaled.jpg12802560Geegeez Newshttps://www.geegeez.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/geegeez_banner_new_300x100.pngGeegeez News2021-03-09 09:55:572021-03-09 09:55:57Silver primed to bid for Champion Hurdle gold
Nicky Henderson has raised the possibility of Altior being fitted with headgear for the first time to aid his bid for a third victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
The 11-year-old is unbeaten in four previous appearances at the Festival, having won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Arkle Trophy and back-to-back runnings of the Champion Chase.
Despite his excellent record at the showpiece meeting, Altior will return to the Cotswolds as an underdog next month, having missed last year’s Festival through injury and endured a far from straightforward campaign so far this term.
However, speaking on a Zoom call to discuss his Festival squad on Thursday, Henderson was in optimistic mood when assessing Altior’s chances of regaining his Champion Chase crown – and admitted he is considering the application of cheekpieces in three weeks’ time.
“He is great – he couldn’t be better. I’m very, very happy,” said the Seven Barrows handler.
“I think his whole demeanour is in a better place than it was.
“It hasn’t been easy – nothing in life is easy. Having been invincible, luck hasn’t gone his way with ground and things like that.”
When asked if his stable star could be declared with headgear when aiming to become only the second horse to win a third Champion Chase, after Badsworth Boy in the 1980s, Henderson added: “It will be considered and it’s something we have discussed.
“We have eliminated the Ryanair, so we might now try to sharpen him up a little bit over two miles.”
Altior has raced just once so far this season, having missed the Tingle Creek beforehand and the rearranged Game Spirit Chase since.
The High Chaparral gelding was laboured in suffering just his second career defeat in 22 starts over obstacles when runner-up to Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, but Henderson feels he is in much better shape now than he was before the turn of the year.
He said: “He raced very lazily and lacked his normal sharpness and accuracy at Kempton over Christmas. It was a pity Newbury had to go back a week as it took us off our step a little bit and we decided that we were going to tackle this a different way.
“Having missed the Game Spirit, Altior has since had a big gallop, jumping fences. He went off with Mister Fisher, who hasn’t run for a bit as well, and they were in good form and it all went very well.”
Former stable companion Sprinter Sacre sparked one of the most emotional scenes in recent Cheltenham Festival history when regaining his Champion Chase crown five years ago, and his trainer would love to see Altior follow suit.
He added: “One has to remember he is 11 now and he’s on 11-year-old legs.
“Sprinter winning his second Champion Chase was a miracle, and I don’t think you can hope for two miracles.
“It would be very special if Altior could do it, because he’s been a fantastic horse to have had.”
Henderson also issued upbeat reports on the well-being of his Unibet Champion Hurdle contenders, Epatante and Buveur D’Air.
Epatante is the defending champion, but needs to raise her game after suffering a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, while Buveur D’Air is out to wrestle back his crown, having struck Champion Hurdle gold in 2017 and 2018.
Henderson said: “They’re both past winners of the Champion Hurdle. They’ve both got little bits of work to do, but touch wood, they seem in good form.
“Epatante was very good in the Fighting Fifth (at Newcastle) and Christmas just didn’t go her way. We have a few things we hope we’ve ironed out, as obviously she is better than that.
“If we’ve got her back to where she was in the Fighting Fifth, then she’s got as good a chance as any.”
Buveur D’Air was a beaten odds-on favourite on his return from well over a year off the track at Haydock last month, but Henderson feels it would be dangerous to dismiss his chances at Cheltenham.
He added: “I actually think Buveur D’Air has been forgotten. He’s out with the washing at the moment (in the betting), whereas Epatante is sharing the favourite line with Honeysuckle and Goshen now as well. It’s going to be very competitive.”
Of Goshen, who returned to his best at Wincanton at the weekend, Henderson said: “I’ve got to say I really do commend the Gary Moore team for getting Goshen back, because at the Triumph Hurdle last year he looked to be certainly one of our biggest threats this year, and then it looked as if he wasn’t on the radar at all.
“They’ve done a brilliant job to get him back and he looks a very potent threat, so we’ll see what we can do about that.”
The yard’s other big hope on the opening day of the Festival is Shishkin, who puts his unbeaten record over fences on the line in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle hero is a hot favourite to double his Festival tally, but Henderson acknowledges his task is far from straightforward, with Irish Arkle winner Energumene rated a potent threat.
He said: “It’s amazing how this race has changed. Three or four weeks ago Shishkin was odds-on and everyone was saying it would be boring, but all of a sudden Willie (Mullins) has come along with his two-mile novice (Energumene) and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick.
“There’s a real fight on now and I think people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week.
“He’s got a couple of bits of work to do and will have another school.
“Everything is fairly well on course at the moment.”
When going through some of his other Festival contenders, Henderson appeared particularly sweet on the chances of the aforementioned Mister Fisher in the Ryanair Chase, adding: “I’d like to think he’s got a very good shout.
“He went away with Altior earlier this week and his jumping has been very good.
“He won the Peterborough Chase, which was moved from Huntingdon to Cheltenham, and put up a first-class performance.
“He would very much like good ground. If he gets some decent ground, I think he’ll be very competitive.”
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Last year’s heroine Epatante and dual winner Buveur D’Air are among 27 entries for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Buveur D’Air claimed the two-mile hurdling crown in both 2017 and 2018 for trainer Nicky Henderson and owner JP McManus, before falling at the third flight when bidding for the hat-trick two years ago.
He was unable to run in last year’s renewal because injury, but Henderson and McManus found a super-sub in Epatante, who provided the Seven Barrows handler with a record eighth victory in the race and McManus his ninth.
Epatante remains the clear favourite for this year’s Champion Hurdle, despite suffering a shock defeat to admirable grey Silver Streak when defending her crown in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Buveur D’Air has not been seen in competitive action since suffering a freak hoof injury in the the 2019 Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, but is reported to be closing in on a comeback.
Henderson is responsible for six entries in all – with his team also including Buzz, Call Me Lord, Marie’s Rock and Verdana Blue.
Willie Mullins has five contenders, headed by last year’s runner-up Sharjah, who recently won his third Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Saint Roi, Saldier, Concertista and new French recruit James Du Berlais complete the Closutton quintet.
Tom Symonds is still undecided as to whether to run his stable star Song For Someone in the Champion Hurdle or wait for the Grand National meeting at Aintree.
The six-year-old has won his last three starts at Grade Two level – completing his hat-trick with a narrow victory over the aforementioned Silver Streak in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last month.
Symonds said: “Song For Someone is in great form, and the plan would be to either run in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham or the Aintree Hurdle. We have entered him in the Champion Hurdle and we will make a decision nearer the time.
“I am absolutely thrilled with him at home. He is very well and seems to have come out of the International in great form.
“There are three races we are currently weighing up, with one of them acting as his prep before one of the big spring festivals. He could go to Haydock for The New One Unibet Hurdle a week on Saturday, the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown Park or the Kingwell at Wincanton.
“I think the weather will play a big part as to what race he actually runs in, and I am not really leaning to any of them at the moment. We will enter him in the three races as they come along and then decide where to go.
“The Champion Hurdle is firmly in the picture, and it would be great to have a runner in a championship race like that.”
Henry de Bromhead has entered unbeaten mare Honeysuckle, Aspire Tower and Jason The Militant – while other hopefuls include Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras and the Gary Moore-trained Goshen.
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Evan Williams will keep Silver Streak fresh and direct the Grade One-winning grey straight to the Unibet Champion Hurdle next.
Having landed his first top-level victory on Boxing Day with the surprise scalp of the reigning champion Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle – adopting front-running tactics for the first time – Silver Streak has become a genuine Cheltenham contender.
However, Williams acknowledges his chance depends almost entirely on the ground – with none of his eight career wins achieved on anything worse than good to soft.
“He deserved it, he tries every time and is very hard on himself,” said Williams, who explained he and jockey Adam Wedge decided on their change of tactics at Kempton after a long discussion.
“We talked and talked, and kept going through the race,” he said.
“The epitome of a fool is someone who keeps doing the same thing and expects a different result.
“We just thought we had to try something different – and thankfully it all worked out.
“It will be straight to the Champion Hurdle now, and we’ll hope for a dry spring – because he is a different horse on that ground.”
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A third victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle is the ultimate aim for Buveur D’Air, who returned to the care of trainer Nicky Henderson on Friday.
Winner of the Cheltenham Festival feature in 2017 and 2018, Buveur D’Air fell at the third flight when attempting a hat-trick in 2019 – and after the nine-year-old bounced back with victory in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle later that spring, hopes were high he could regain his crown.
However, he suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Cornerstone Lad on his return to action in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle last November and it later transpired a piece of wood had punctured his hoof after he clattered a hurdle during the race, with the injury requiring surgery which ruled him out for the rest of the campaign.
Buveur D’Air returned to owner JP McManus’ Martinstown Stud for a recovery period, but Henderson is thrilled to have him back at Seven Barrows now, although he will not rush the gelding into action.
He told his Unibet blog: “We were delighted to welcome Buveur D’Air back to Seven Barrows on Friday morning and the team at Martinstown have done a tremendous job because he looks absolutely fantastic and it’s lovely to see his familiar face looking out over the stable door again.
“He’s been doing plenty of trotting on the grass at JP’s place, where they made him a special shoe to help through this current stage and the head lads in Ireland have kept us well up to date with his progress by sending pictures and videos throughout his time there, but he looks fabulous and is now ready to step up his training to the next level.
“We certainly won’t be rushing him and it will be a very steady process, but Hannah (Ryan, pupil assistant) knows him better than any of us, so we’ll take it step by step and gradually build him back up towards attempting to win a third Unibet Champion Hurdle.”
While Buveur D’Air was sidelined, Henderson and McManus still claimed the Champion Hurdle with Epatante and the trainer is eager to keep the pair apart in their Festival preps.
He added: “I must admit I haven’t told him (Buveur D’Air) about Epatante yet, because when he disappeared from the scene nobody had even heard of her, she hadn’t even won the Christmas Hurdle.
“But I imagine the plan for her would be up to Newcastle for the Fighting Fifth followed by Kempton on Boxing Day, whereas Buveur D’Air is obviously much further behind than the rest of the squad and will take a lot more time, so won’t be out in the early part of the season and, barring mishap, we’d be look at races like the Unibet International at Cheltenham and then we’ll probably be getting headaches trying to keep them both apart, but it’s a nice problem to have – albeit all a long way away and we will take each day as it comes.”
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