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.