Tag Archive for: Irish Champion Hurdle

Mares’ Hurdle or retirement for Honeysuckle, but no Champion Hurdle

Honeysuckle could have her Cheltenham Festival swansong in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle – with owner Kenny Alexander steering away from the Unibet Champion Hurdle after the mare suffered a second career defeat at Leopardstown on Sunday.

The nine-year-old was eclipsed for the first time in 17 races when only third in the Hatton’s Grace in December and found herself having to be content with place honours again under Rachael Blackmore, as State Man galloped home a clear winner of the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.

While both trainer Henry de Bromhead and Alexander were satisfied with their superstar’s effort, they conceded the long-awaited clash with Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle now looks unlikely, with the Mares’ Hurdle prize Honeysuckle won in 2020 seemingly now the only option – although even that is not a given at this stage with retirement also in the mix.

Alexander said: “Age catches up with us all – one of the young pretenders has overtaken her and there’s one in England.

“Is she as good as she was? No, she’s not as good as she was. I wouldn’t overreact after her first run, she’s still very, very high class but she’s not quite as good as she was. She is nine now and she ran her heart out, she ran a blinder.

“We will definitely not be taking on Constitution Hill after that, because she is so brave and I would fear what would happen. We’re not running around for place money so it’s up to Henry, if he wants to chuck it now. I’ve always said ‘just get her out now, safe and sound’ and maybe the time has come.

“I know the horse is so brave and Rachael doesn’t muck about, we’d run to win and I’d dread anything happening to her now and I don’t think we can beat Constitution Hill – I’m not sure anything can.

“I thought she ran a blinder, but I’ll leave it to Henry and Rachael, whatever they say will go. I’d love to win another Mares’ and go out in a blaze of glory, but I don’t want anything to happen to her now.”

Honeysuckle, who had won the Irish Champion Hurdle three times previously, was applauded around the parade ring before the race and cheered all the way back to the unsaddling enclosure after the race.

Alexander admitted the reception meant a lot and was philosophical in defeat as the racing journey with his “horse of a lifetime” nears an end.

He said: “You do feel a bit of responsibility not to go to the well too many times, but I will leave it to Henry and Rachael. If they want to go for the Mares’ I’d love to win one more, but I’m not going to make any decision, I will leave it to them.

“We have won so many Grade Ones, she’s the horse of a lifetime – I’m not gutted, why would I be gutted? Gutted is when you get chinned in a bumper with something you spent a lot of money on, I feel gutted then, I don’t feel it today.

“She ran her heart out, got beat by a very good horse, a younger horse and I’m not gutted at all. It’s just a race, we go on.”

Honeysuckle is a dual Champion Hurdle winner
Honeysuckle is a dual Champion Hurdle winner (Nigel French/PA)

De Bromhead felt Honeysuckle had perhaps posted her best performance yet in the Leopardstown heat, even in defeat.

He told Racing TV: “I thought she ran really well, I’m delighted with the run and fair play to the winner. He won it well and that was it.

“I’d say she’s probably run to a higher standard (this year) possibly, I don’t know. The form people and all the gurus will work that out, but I thought she ran really well and we were happy with her.

“We know all about her, we don’t have to say anything about her courage and her attitude. She was brilliant all the way to the line.”

Honeysuckle got the better of Benie Des Dieux in an epic 2020 Mares' Hurdle (
Honeysuckle got the better of Benie Des Dieux in an epic 2020 Mares’ Hurdle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

While initially unsure of future plans, De Bromhead later indicated the Mares’ Hurdle could be the best assignment, although he underlined plans were far from definite.

Speaking to ITV Racing, he said: “I don’t think now is the time to be making any decisions. It’s not up to me, but I wouldn’t be running her in the Champion Hurdle, if we were to run again I’d run in the Mares’ Hurdle. I wouldn’t like to force it.”

Coral pushed Honeysuckle out to 8-1 for the Champion Hurdle, but go 7-2 about her for the Mares’ Hurdle.

State Man too strong for Honeysuckle in Irish Champion

State Man strode to a decisive victory over the gallant Honeysuckle in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

The 6-5 favourite after five successive victories over hurdles so far, the Willie Mullins-trained chestnut travelled at the head of the field throughout under Paul Townend.

Honeysuckle galloped in his slipstream until the closing stages, where she was unable to follow as State Man powered on off the bend and pulled away to cross the line four and three-quarter lengths ahead.

“Paul surprised me when he came into the parade ring and I asked him what he was going to do and he said he was going to make it,” said Mullins.

“He didn’t see much to make it in the race so I said ‘OK, do that’. It worked out, the horse is not used to being in front, but he jumped well enough in front and Paul thought he was a bit idle in front as well.

Paul Townend celebrates with State Man
Paul Townend celebrates with State Man (Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA)

“He did everything right and you couldn’t ask any more.”

When asked about the improvement in his jumping he added: “A lot of people forget that he won the County Hurdle and you don’t win that with sloppy jumping.

“In Punchestown it might have been a slow race and when it was slow he just took his time.

“When he has to be sharp he’s well able to jump very quickly. He jumped like a Champion Hurdler, I thought, all the way down the back.

“Paul asked some big questions and he came up every time. I was very happy.

“It’s nice to have a horse like him and fingers crossed that he stays right.”

Just behind Honeysuckle in third was the winner’s stablemate Vauban, and Mullins added: “I was very pleased with how Vauban finished off his race.

“He made a mistake at the first and he was a bit giddy before the race in the parade ring and didn’t like all that.

“He’s still learning and he’ll improve away. It might be next year before he’ll be the horse we think he is.”

Leopardstown crowd likely to be willing Honeysuckle on this weekend

There will surely be no popular winner at this year’s Dublin Racing Festival than Honeysuckle if she can raise the roof at Leopardstown for a fourth time in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.

Henry de Bromhead’s superstar mare might have claimed the Grade One contest in each of the past three years, as well as registering back-to-back wins in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, but for only the second time in her career the market makes her a marginal underdog.

The reason the betting is headed by the Willie Mullins-trained State Man, winner of the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown and Leopardstown’s Matheson Hurdle this winter, is because for the first time in 17-race career to date Honeysuckle tasted defeat when chasing a fourth Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse last month.

While disappointed to see her unbeaten record come to an end, connections of the nine-year-old are from despondent ahead of her return to action, with owner Kenny Alexander’s racing manager Peter Molony of the view that she is still the one to beat.

He said: “We’re excited and always a bit nervous when she runs. It’s no different this time really.

“We’re telling ourselves that now she’s been beaten it takes a bit of pressure off, but I’m not sure it actually does. I think it’s only the second time in her life that she hasn’t been favourite, the other time being when she beat Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle in Cheltenham three years ago.

“I think she’s still the one to beat. Willie’s two (State Man and Vauban) look very talented, exciting young horses coming up to challenge, but Honeysuckle is the reigning champion.

“There seems to be magnificent support behind her, which is great. People love nothing more than a champion who has been defeated and comes back and wins again, so let’s hope she can do it.”

Honeysuckle was beaten just under three lengths at Fairyhouse in early December, form which has been well advertised by the winner Teahupoo’s subsequent success in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park.

Molony feels there was an over-reaction to the defeat, adding: “Her last run in the Hatton’s Grace on ratings is right up there with any run she’s ever had in the race. As I’ve said before, if we hadn’t been defending an unbeaten record I think we would have left that day cock-a-hoop.

“On his preferred heavy ground I think Teahupoo is probably the best staying hurdler anywhere and by some distance – he’s a very good horse.

“Leopardstown probably suits us better. I know Henry has a suspicion she’s better left-handed than right-handed, so here we go – we’ll throw our hat into the ring again.”

Honeysuckle was all out when clinging on by half a length from Darver Star in the 2020 Irish Champion, but the last two years have been a cruise – winning by 10 and six and a half lengths respectively.

Henry de Bromhead hopes Honeysuckle can strike Leopardstown gold once more
Henry de Bromhead hopes Honeysuckle can strike Leopardstown gold once more (Brian Lawless/PA)

De Bromhead has clearly done a magnificent job keeping her at the top of her game for so long and insists he has seen no signs at home that she is on the decline.

“It’s incredible to think we’re trying to win it for the fourth time. She needed the line the first year, but she did it and that’s her – heart-on-the-sleeve stuff,” said the County Waterford handler.

“We never dreamt she could do what she did after that. She looked great, but you couldn’t think she’d go on to do what she has. You have to pinch yourself when you have a horse like her.

“Unfortunately she came unstuck in the Hatton’s Grace, but I felt she still ran really well. Obviously it was disappointing to get beaten, but she’s done incredibly well in what she’s done.

“She seems really well in herself and we’re really looking forward to it. We’ll take on these new young guns and and see how we get on.”

The Mullins-trained pair of State Man and Vauban cross swords for the second time this season after being separated by little over four lengths when first and second in last month’s Matheson Hurdle.

That was Triumph Hurdle hero Vauban’s first appearance since scoring at Punchestown in the spring and Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, feels he could make more a race of it on Sunday.

He said: “Honeysuckle looks vulnerable for this first time after she was beaten for the very first time, but she’s still the one to beat and it wasn’t a bad run by any stretch of the imagination.

“Younger legs are hard to keep at bay, though, as Sharjah found out at Christmas.

“It’s going to be a fascinating race and obviously Vauban will improve from Christmas, he didn’t get a clear run once or twice that day and it was first time out so he can get closer to State Man and then it depends on Honeysuckle.

“It will be fascinating to watch. There’s a lot of people at home who are big fans of Vauban, but it’s tough for the five-year-olds and State Man has won two Grade Ones this season. It wouldn’t surprise us if Vauban won, though.”

Gordon Elliott saddles Pied Piper and Zanahiyr, both of whom need to bounce back from disappointing runs, while Tom Mullins’ Takarengo has a mountain to climb on ratings and completes the field.

Honeysuckle ready for Irish Champion Hurdle defence

Henry de Bromhead does not expect Honeysuckle to give up her crown lightly when she bids for fourth successive victory in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

The nine-year-old will return to Foxrock on something of a recovery mission on Sunday week, having suffered her first defeat in 17 career starts at Fairyhouse last month.

Honeysuckle looked likely to secure her fourth Hatton’s Grace Hurdle after travelling strongly into the home straight, but her effort petered out between the final two flights and she was eventually beaten just under three lengths into third place behind Teahupoo and Klassical Dream.

That eclipse immediately had those questioning whether the great mare was past her best, but De Bromhead insists there are no signs at home that her powers are on the wane.

Henry de Bromhead trains Honeysuckle
Henry de Bromhead trains Honeysuckle (Brian Lawless/PA)

“She seems great now, really good,” said the County Waterford handler.

“I thought she ran well at Fairyhouse, probably not up to her highest level, but I think for her first run back she ran really well.

“Two and a half (miles) on ground that got very soft in the end might have just been a stretch. She was beaten by a real soft ground specialist in Teahupoo and Klassical Dream is a high-class horse as well.

“She looked like she had it put to bed between the second-last and the last, and then they just came at her and that was it.

“We don’t see anything different here. Maybe that will arise on the track, I don’t know. Everyone is happy. She looks good.”

De Bromhead insists plans beyond the Dublin Racing Festival remain fluid, with a decision on whether Honeysuckle will take on the brilliant Constitution Hill and bid for a third victory in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham likely to be dependent on how she performs at Leopardstown.

The Mares’ Hurdle, which she won in 2020, has previously been raised by the trainer as a possible alternative, although Peter Molony – racing manager to owner Kenny Alexander – suggested in a recent interview it could be the Champion Hurdle or retirement.

De Bromhead added: “We’ll see how it goes but both options in Cheltenham are open. The Mares’ Hurdle is definitely an option and the Champion Hurdle is definitely an option.

“I think we see how the Irish Champion Hurdle goes and we’ll all sit down and going by Peter’s quotes, thrash it out together!

“I think the most important thing is we keep all our options open. I suppose my job is to find the race I’ve the best chance of winning.

“That may not be what we go with. At the moment, looking at Constitution Hill and he’s whatever price he is, 1-3. I’m not saying the Mares’ race would be an easy race, but you might have a better chance of winning that than you would a Champion, if all the players turn up.

“But we have to get through the Irish Champion Hurdle first and that’s a big test for us also. We’ve got plenty to do in between.”