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Honeysuckle team favouring Champion Hurdle date

Connections of dual Irish Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle have intimated there is only “one option” for the mare at the Cheltenham Festival.

After Henry de Bromhead’s charge scrambled home from Darver Star 12 months ago, there were long debates over whether she should revert to her own sex at Cheltenham or take on the boys in the big one.

Connections eventually opted to tackle the top-class Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle, in which she maintained her unbeaten record.

After demolishing what looked a stronger field in the Irish Champion this year, though, she looks likely to run in the Unibet Champion Hurdle and is challenging another mare, last year’s winner Epatante, for favouritism.

“I couldn’t believe how confident Henry was during the week – he’s normally so cautious,” said Peter Molony, racing manager for owner Kenny Alexander.

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“She’s only seven and she’s still improving. We’d explained why she blew up in the Hatton’s Grace, she got very tired.

“She’s very versatile, you can put her anywhere in a race. She can quicken off a fast pace, quicken off a slow pace, she stays very well – she’s so uncomplicated. Other horses need things to go their way, but it all seems to come alike to her – she’s an absolute dream.

“We know she’s a strong stayer, so that’s another tick. Hopefully she gets there in one piece now. Henry has done an unbelievable job with her.

“I was interviewed on RTE after the race and I was going to drop a bombshell that she was going for the mares’ hurdle just for a laugh, but I thought better of it – there’s only one option now, I think.”

Rachael Blackmore has been on board for all 10 of Honeysuckle’s wins under Rules and she felt Saturday was a career-best display.

“She came out of her shell a little bit yesterday,” Blackmore told Racing TV’s Luck On Sunday.

“She’s never done anything wrong up to this point, so I was confident going into the race, but she really showed us what she was made of yesterday.

Henry De Bromhead gives Honeysuckle a well-earned drink
Henry De Bromhead gives Honeysuckle a well-earned drink (Niall Carson/PA)

“She’s always delivered. As a jockey you ask her for her more and she’s never not done that, but yesterday between the fourth and the third last she took the bit in her own mouth and went herself.

“That’s a magic feeling when you can sit against them, not disappoint them and let them go forward.

“She’s been very well trained and she was very good yesterday. I can’t pinpoint where the dramatic improvement came from, but she’s won every race we’ve asked her to, so we can’t fault her any other day.

“She felt incredible, she really did. The ground was a little slower than last year which was a help (to her jumping), but you’d have to be pleased in that department as well.

“You feel very special to have come across something like her in your career.”

Honeysuckle defends Irish Champion crown in style

The Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham looms large for Honeysuckle after securing back-to-back victories in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Henry de Bromhead’s superstar mare was made to pull out all the stops to beat the boys in the Grade One contest last season, before going on to claim the notable scalp of Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Having successfully defended her crown in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on her seasonal reappearance, Honeysuckle was all the rage to repeat the feat in the main event on the opening day of the Dublin Racing Festival – and could hardly have been more impressive under Rachael Blackmore.

After initially tracking the pacesetting pair of Petit Mouchoir and Saint Roi, the seven-year-old was allowed to stride to the front at the end of the back straight and it was obvious the chasing pack were struggling to close the gap.

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Such was her advantage, Blackmore was able to allow Honeysuckle to fiddle the final flight before pushing her out to score by 10 lengths, with Abacadabras a clear second ahead of Sharjah in third.

Connections of the winner – now unbeaten in 10 starts – retain the option of bidding for a second Mares’ Hurdle success in the Cotswolds next month, but she appears almost certain to bid for Champion Hurdle glory, with Betfair slashing her odds from 6-1 to 9-4 joint-favourite with Epatante.

De Bromhead said: “That was brilliant, she was brilliant. It was what we hoped she’d do and she did it.

“Rachael was brilliant on her and she’s just class.

Honeysuckle with trainer Henry De Bromhead after winning at Leopardstown
Honeysuckle with trainer Henry De Bromhead after winning at Leopardstown (Niall Carson/PA)

“It’s lovely the way she picked up, she’s not slow either, and you could see the speed of her there.

“She jumped great and she just let her fiddle the last.

“I’m very lucky to have Rachael and I’ve said it all before. She’s just brilliant to have on the team.”

Asked whether this victory confirmed the Champion Hurdle participation, the trainer added: “We’ll enjoy today. We’ve won a Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle, which is amazing.

“There is a lot of relief after that and I don’t feel as sick as I did 10 minutes ago!

“I’ll have to speak to Kenny (Alexander, owner) and Peter (Molony, owner’s racing manager), but you’d have to feel that we’d be leaning that way (Champion Hurdle).

“On ratings it would have been (her best performance). The Hatton’s Grace last season was pretty good as well. She’s put in a few real good performances, but that has to be up there.”

Minella Indo heads five left in Irish Gold Cup

Minella Indo will bid to get his season back on track in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday.

Narrowly denied by Champ in a thrilling climax to the RSA Chase at Cheltenham last season, Henry de Bromhead’s charge was so impressive in winning his first two tarts of the current campaign he was clear favourite for the Savills Chase over the Irish Gold Cup course and distance.

The eight-year-old only made it as far as the eighth fence at the Christmas fixture before falling in a race won by his stablemate A Plus Tard – but with the latter heading straight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Minella Indo is well fancied to reaffirm his own claims for the blue riband.

Rachael Blackmore will be in the saddle once again, on a horse she has plenty of affection for.

She said: “Minella Indo has been fantastic to me. He gave me my first Grade One in the Albert Bartlett in Cheltenham, which was an incredible day.

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“We’re really looking forward to running him. It was unfortunate what happened to him in Leopardstown the last day, (but) he seems to have been very good since – I gave him a pop (over fences) last week and there seems to be no ill effects.

“It was just one of those things and we move on to the next day.”

Minella Indo will face a maximum of just four rivals in the feature event on day two of the Dublin Racing Festival – but still faces a far from straightforward task.

Willie Mullins, who has won the Irish Gold Cup on a record 10 occasions, is set to saddle both Kemboy and Melon, who finished second and third respectively behind A Plus Tard over the Christmas period.

Kemboy at Willie Mullins' yard on Monday morning
Kemboy at Willie Mullins’ yard on Monday morning (Morgan Treacy/INPHO/PA)

Delta Work provided trainer Gordon Elliott with his first Irish Gold Cup when denying Kemboy 12 months ago. He is set to defend his crown, having unseated his rider when bidding for back-to-back Savills Chase wins.

Delta Work’s stablemate The Storyteller completes the quintet.

The Mullins-trained Monkfish is the star attraction in the preceding Flogas Novice Chase, a race in which his stablemate Faugheen brought the house down with victory 12 months ago.

Monkfish is a red-hot favourite to follow suit, while Mullins could also saddle Asterion Forlonge and Janidil.

Elliott’s Andy Dufresne and Paul Nolan’s Latest Exhibition head the opposition.

With Triumph Hurdle favourite Zanahiyr taken out, Elliott looks set to rely on the unbeaten Quilixios in the first Grade One of the afternoon, the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle.

Mullins is poised to saddle new recruit French Aseel, who was mightily impressive at the track in December before changing hands.

Mullins’ Appreciate It, ante-post favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, heads 19 remaining contenders for the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle.

The champion trainer also has Ganapathi and Mr Coldstone as part of his eight-strong team.

All smiles as Eklat De Rire books Festival ticket

Eklat De Rire appears to have booked his ticket to the Cheltenham Festival following an impressive display in the Naas Racecourse Business Club Novice Chase.

A winner on his chasing debut at Punchestown last month, Henry de Bromhead’s charge faced a step up in class for what looked a competitive renewal of this Grade Three contest.

But the 11-4 chance was soon bowling along at the head of affairs in the hands of Rachael Blackmore – and some quick and accurate leaps kept the pressure on his rivals in behind.

Gordon Elliott’s pair of Escaria Ten and Pencilfulloflead attempted to close the gap from the home turn, but Eklat De Rire did not wilt – keeping up the gallop to beat the former by just under two lengths.

Eklat De Rire is entered in the National Hunt Chase and the Festival Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham, and his trainer said: “He was deadly and is improving all the time. I couldn’t have asked for any more.

“He handles an ease in the ground well. He’s a big heavy topped fella – and while we have never run him on it, I’d say he wouldn’t want the ground too good.

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“I’ll have to speak to the owners, but we said if today went well we would aim for the Festival Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.

“He stays well and he jumps well. He was impressive there and I’d say he deserves his chance after that.”

De Bromhead and Blackmore were completing a double on the card following the earlier success of Mr Incredible (11-8) in division two of the I.N.H. Stallion Owners EBF Maiden Hurdle.

De Bromhead added: “He’s a lovely big chasing prospect, still a big baby and very raw.

“Colin Bowe recommended him to us, and I’m delighted to have him.”

A return to Cheltenham is also on the cards for Billaway, who landed the concluding Naas Hunters Chase for the second year in succession.

The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old went on to finish second in the St James’s Place Hunters’ Chase at Prestbury Park last season – and despite not always convincing in the jumping department in this latest outing under the trainer’s son Patrick, he is the clear favourite to go one better in March.

Mullins senior said: “He did what he had to do in the end, but he just made hard work of it.

“Patrick said he wasn’t in love with that ground, so it was good to do what he did. He said he didn’t like jumping out of that ground.

“He’ll head now for Cheltenham.”

Paul Townend matched jockeys’ title rival Blackmore in notching two winners, with the success of Mullins’ Bachasson (11-8) in the Limestone Lad Hurdle preceded by victory aboard Dermot Weld’s 11-4 favourite Coltor in the Naas Maiden Hurdle.

“He stuck it out well in fairness to him,” he said of the latter.

“He’d the experience of two runs, which was a big help.

“He’ll probably appreciate a bit of nicer ground, but he handled that as well as you’d expect him to.”

Mouse Morris and Phillip Enright combined to win the first division of the maiden hurdle with Limestone Rock (3-1), before Pat Fahy’s Stormy Judge obliged at 11-2 in the Tipper Road Novice Handicap Chase under Danny Mullins.

Bob Olinger bags Grade One glory at Naas

Bob Olinger continued his progression with an emphatic victory in the Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle.

The point-to-point and bumper winner made a highly promising start to his hurdling career when runner-up to last season’s Champion Bumper hero Ferny Hollow at Gowran Park in November, before landing cramped odds at Navan last month.

Stepping up to the highest level for a Grade One contest rescheduled following the abandonment of racing last Sunday, Bob Olinger was the 6-4 favourite in the hands of Rachael Blackmore, and ultimately won with plenty in hand.

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Gabyanko cut out the running for much of the two-and-a-half-mile journey, with the keen-going Blue Lord his nearest pursuer, ahead of Bob Olinger in third.

Blue Lord looked to be travelling best early in the home straight, but had no answer when Henry de Bromhead’s Bob Olinger found another gear between the final two flights and he ended up pulling six and a half lengths clear at the line.

Coral were suitably impressed, making the winner their 4-1 favourite (from 8-1) for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Blackmore said: “He’s always shown us a lot at home and I think today was the stamp of the kind of horse he is for the future. I’m delighted with him.

“I wanted to ride a straightforward enough race on him. He’s a simple horse to ride in that sense and I was happy most of the way.

“He jumped better today in the latter half of the race. The jump is there if you really ask him.

“He quickened up well and he seems to tick a lot of boxes.”

The leading rider believes Bob Olinger could be an even better horse once he has his attentions switched to the larger obstacles, adding: “I don’t think he’s a real, sharp Champion Hurdle horse in the making. Two and a half (miles) is ideal, but I wouldn’t rule out two either.

“For the future he’s probably going to be one for longer trips. He’s won a point-to-point and looks one for fences in the future.

“I’m delighted for Brian Acheson and Robcour (owners) who are very supportive of the game and to get a Grade One winner is brilliant.”

Minella Escape impresses with Tramore triumph

Minella Escape looks sure to go on to bigger and better things after making it third time lucky over hurdles at Tramore.

A £100,000 recruit from the Irish point-to-point field, Henry de Bromhead’s charge fell at the final flight when odds-on for his hurdling bow at Punchestown in September, before filling the runner-up spot at Navan a month ago.

With the Willie Mullins-trained French recruit Gorki D’airy all the rage as the 5-4 favourite, Minella Escape was second best in the market for the Goodbye 2020 Hello 2021 Maiden Hurdle at 2-1, but proved seven lengths too strong under Rachael Blackmore.

De Bromhead said: “He was a little bit unlucky the first day. He was off for a bit before Navan and I wonder did that just catch him out.

“I’m delighted to get a winner here. He is a lovely horse, he won his point-to-point well and the way he jumped there, you’d be looking forward to a fence with him in time.”

Despite Gorki D’airy’s defeat, Mullins still enjoyed a double on the card, with the victory of dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo preceded by a winning debut over obstacles for Mr Coldstone in the David Flynn Construction Maiden Hurdle.

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The 8-1 shot did not race beyond seven furlongs in three outings on the Flat for Johnny Murtagh two years ago, but proved he has the stamina for jumping with a near three-length verdict on his return from a lengthy absence under Paul Townend.

“That was a nice performance. Paul said he jumped well and he took a good blow, so he thinks he will improve again. We will just go up in grade with him now,” said Mullins.

“I’m very happy to see him coming off three runs on the Flat over less than seven furlongs to be able to settle back into jump racing. I thought that might be a big ask for him on his first run over hurdles, but he did it well and Paul was very happy with him.

“He looks a nice, strong type and he will probably be a nice dual-purpose horse.”

Shakeytry justified 7-2 favouritism in the Core Bullion Traders Handicap Hurdle for trainer Edward O’Grady and jockey Phillip Enright.

Shakeytry in action at Tramore
Shakeytry in action at Tramore (PA)

O’Grady said: “It was his first run in a long time at Cork the last day and it was natural for him to come on for that. It wasn’t a particularly strong race today and it all seemed to work out well.

“He has very rarely been out of the first four and that is his third win today. The boys in the yard have done a great job with him because he hasn’t got great legs. They deserve great credit.

“Maybe we will go for another hurdle with him now before he goes back over fences.”

Days after his last-gasp victory aboard A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, jockey Darragh O’Keeffe was once again seen to good effect as he steered Andrew McNamara’s Lessofdnegativity to a narrow victory in the Tramore Medical Clinic Handicap Hurdle.

Robbie McNamara, representing his father, said: “He’s had a little wind operation since his last run. We just rode him a bit different today and gave him more of a chance early. Darragh took his time and gave him a brilliant ride – he is worth his weight in gold.

“He (Lessofdnegativity) is a half-brother to Joe Farrell, who won the Scottish National. He has a good, staying Irish pedigree and chasing will be his game.”

John McConnell’s Itsalonglongroad (7-2) landed the VS Direct No Limits Marketing Rated Novice Chase under 5lb claimer Simon Torrens.

The concluding Tom Carroll Memorial Handicap Chase went to Whoyakodding (14-1), trained by Garrett Ahern and ridden by James O’Sullivan.

Limerick double for De Bromhead and Blackmore

Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore combined to claim two winners on the belated final day of the Christmas Racing Festival at Limerick.

The six-race card was saved and swiftly re-scheduled to a midweek slot, following Sunday’s abandonment because of a waterlogged track.

Proceedings got under way with the ‘David Fitzgerald – Take It Easee’ Maiden Hurdle, which saw French import Kalkas open his Irish account at the second attempt.

Third on his only start in his homeland a year ago, Kalkas subsequently changed hands for £210,000, but was comprehensively beaten on his debut for De Bromhead at Navan earlier this month.

However, dropping back in distance, the 2-1 shot raised his game in the hands of Blackmore – ploughing through the mud to beat 11-10 favourite Rajsalad by two and a half lengths.

“He is a beautiful horse to ride. Derek O’Connor rode him the last day, and it was his idea to maybe step him back to two miles – he was spot on,” said Blackmore.

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“It was tough going out there, but he did it nicely.”

De Bromhead and Blackmore doubled up with Atlantic Fairy, who was even more impressive in the Roches Feeds Mares Maiden Hurdle.

Placed at Clonmel and Cork on her first couple of appearances over hurdles, the daughter of Jeremy was the 6-4 favourite to make it third time lucky – and came home 20 lengths clear of Nelly’s Money.

Blackmore added: “She was second in a point-to-point for Michael Byrne and she is owned by my sponsor Mark Phelan (of PCI Insurance), so it is great to ride a winner in his colours.

“Obviously her run the last day behind Master McShee got a form boost in Leopardstown, and she is nice – so hopefully there will be a lot more fun to be had with her.”

The Johnny Levins-trained Wishmoor was an 11-4 winner of the Goggin Buckley Veterans Handicap Chase under Ricky Doyle.

Levins, who is better known as a Flat trainer, said: “I thoroughly enjoy training this fellow. I was keen to get a few jumpers, and the plan is to get a few more so we can be busy during the winter as well.

“To be honest I didn’t watch one jump, I was looking at the ground – I get very nervous with the Flat, never mind the jumps!

“I’m delighted.”

Staker Wallace rewarded odds-on backers in the Earl Of Harrington Memorial Maiden Hunters Chase.

Fourth in the Foxhunter Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, Enda Bolger’s charge had since been beaten in successive point-to-points this winter.

But ridden by leading amateur Barry O’Neill, the JP McManus-owned gelding made no mistake back under Rules as he eased to a near two-length verdict over Super Citizen.

“We’ll follow the hunter chases around with him, but they are very hot and if I have to stay away from the better horses – at the back of my head, I think he could win a Ladies Cup at Punchestown,” said Bolger.

Moonlight Glory (5-2) won the Convermax Handicap Hurdle for trainer Eoin McCarthy and 7lb claimer Gearoid Brouder, before father and son Charles and Philip Byrnes teamed up to land the bumper with 7-2 chance Blazing Khal.

Blackmore relishing King George chance with Monalee

Rachael Blackmore is confident Monalee can make his presence felt in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton.

The leading rider will cross the Irish Sea to compete in the Boxing Day showpiece for the first time aboard Henry de Bromhead’s charge, who is a general 8-1 shot to become the first Irish-trained winner since Kicking King in 2005.

Beaten less than two lengths into fourth place in last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, Monalee was third behind multiple Grade One winners Presenting Percy and Kemboy on his reappearance in a Listed event at Thurles last month.

And Blackmore expects him to strip much fitter on Saturday.

“It’s very exciting. Everyone is very happy with Monalee at home and I’m really looking forward to it,” she said.

“The King George is a race that rolls off the tongue. It’s great to be heading over and it would be even better if we could go and win.

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“If you look at back at his run behind Delta Work in Leopardstown (when second in last year’s Savills Chase) and his run in the Gold Cup, both of those put him bang there.

“He always seems to take his first run, which we’re hoping he did in Thurles.”

Minella Indo following a dominant display at Navan
Minella Indo following a dominant display at Navan (Gary Carson/PA)

Two days after the King George, Blackmore is set to don the same colours of owner Barry Maloney aboard Minella Indo, who is the hot favourite for the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

The seven-year-old faces a rise in class against the likes of Presenting Percy, Kemboy and Delta Work, but has been hugely impressive in winning his two starts so far this term.

Blackmore added: “We couldn’t have asked him to do any more in Wexford or Navan.

“This is another step up, but we’re really looking forward to him.”

There could, however, be a potential stumbling block to Monalee and other Irish runners appearing at Kempton after the Irish Government announced on Sunday evening it would impose a 48-hour ban on travel from Britain to Ireland.

The country’s Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said that ferries will continue to operate for freight.

Kempton Park will host its big Christmas meeting on December 26 and 27
Kempton Park will host its big Christmas meeting on December 26 and 27 (David Davies/PA)

He said: “We need haulage coming in to keep our shelves full but other passengers will be restricted.

“I talked to the UK minister this morning and have been talking throughout the day with the Taoiseach (Micheal Martin) and the Tanaiste (Leo Varadkar), the health minister, foreign affairs minister and others involved.

“We have to do this because the UK Government themselves has put in place very strict restrictions on movements.

“This new strain of coronavirus, which they have identified, seems to have a much higher transmission rate.

“On a precautionary basis it’s right for us to follow up on the Dutch, Belgium, Italian and other governments will do the same.

“Any passengers who are in transit will have to set up mechanism to repatriate them in a safe way, but general travel between here and Britain is going to be restricted and we are going to review that at Cabinet to see if there will be any further changes.”

Bob Olinger could take Grade One test on the back of Navan success

Henry de Bromhead will consider testing the water at the highest level with Bob Olinger on his next start after the exciting prospect outclassed his rivals at Navan.

Impressive in winning his point-to-point and in a Gowran Park bumper last season, the five-year-old made a most encouraging start to his hurdling career when giving Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow a run for his money at Gowran last month.

On the strength of that form, the five-year-old was the 1-8 favourite to go one better in the Mervyn Gray Construction Maiden Hurdle and the result was never in doubt.

Sent straight to the lead by Rachael Blackmore, Bob Olinger passed the post with 14 lengths in hand – teeing him up for a potential tilt at the Grade One Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle on January 10.

De Bromhead said: “I’m delighted with that. Obviously it’s nerve-racking when there is that kind of expectation.

“He jumped well. Rachael said ideally she would have loved a lead or a bit of company, but it’s job done.

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“I’ve entered him in Naas in the two-and-a-half-mile race. We’ll see how he is, there are a few options there.

“He has a lot of pace and could drop back to two miles at Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, or there is also the two-mile-six-furlong race there. I’d say he is very adaptable.”

Joseph O’Brien’s Fils D’oudairies (7-1) ran out an authoritative winner of the NavanRacecourse.ie Rated Novice Chase, with Donagh Meyler the winning rider.

O’Brien’s assistant, Brendan Powell, said: “It was a nice performance and a beautiful ride.

“He travelled like a dream the whole way around and loved the ground.

“I think he’s a horse with a big future if everything goes right for him.”

Stoughan Cross was a 40-1 winner of the Happy Christmas And New Year To All Our Members Handicap Chase for trainer Tom Gibney and jockey Darragh O’Keeffe, while Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy landed the Irish Stallion Owners EBF Maiden Hurdle with 15-8 shot Percy Warner.

“He did it very well. He probably wants a bit further, but he’s not slow either,” said Kennedy.

“It wasn’t a bad race and he’s a lovely horse.”

Jukebox Jive denied King Alex a four-timer in the 40,000 euro BetVictor Gamble Responsibly Tara Handicap Hurdle.

Owned and trained by Barry Connell, King Alex was the 100-30 favourite to add to his previous wins this season at Ballinrobe, Navan and Fairyhouse, but Gavin Cromwell’s 11-1 shot Jukebox Jive powered 13 lengths clear on the run-in under 5lb claimer Conor McNamara.

Cromwell’s assistant, Feidhlim Cunningham, said: “That was a great win. He loves that ground – he won a November Handicap on bottomless ground.

“He’s just not straightforward. We targeted this race and the ground came up ideal.

“We’ve no immediate plan for him. He wants bottomless ground and we’ll find something again on similar going.”

Honeysuckle sights set on Hatton’s Grace double

Honeysuckle is reported to be in good heart as she bids for back-to-back wins in the Baroneracing.com Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

Trained by Henry de Bromhead, the mare has yet to taste defeat in a point-to-point and eight races under Rules.

She won the Irish Champion Hurdle over two miles last season before coming out on top in a great battle with Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.

“We’re looking forward to it, she seems in good form and Henry seems happy with her, so let’s hope she’s got plenty of sparkle left,” said Peter Molony, racing manager for owner Kenny Alexander.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates winning her first Grade One in Ireland after last year's Hatton's Grace
Rachael Blackmore celebrates winning her first Grade One in Ireland after last year’s Hatton’s Grace (PA Wire)

“So far two and a half miles has looked her ideal trip – it’s certainly her strongest form anyway. She won a Hatton’s Grace and the Mares’ Hurdle over it last year, but she’s fine over a strongly-run two miles as well.

“I’d imagine, all going well, she’d go on from here to the Irish Champion again and then we’ll make up our minds where we go (which race at Cheltenham) after that.”

Rachael Blackmore will once again team up with the star mare.

Stayers’ Hurdle runner-up Ronald Pump is Honeysuckle’s main challenger on official ratings after he chased home Lisnagar Oscar in March.

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Matthew Smith’s stable star fell at the last in the Lismullen Hurdle won by Sire De Berlais on his return when not completely finished with.

Ronald Pump (right) only found Lisnagar Oscar too good at Cheltenham in March
Ronald Pump (right) only found Lisnagar Oscar too good at Cheltenham in March (Tim Goode/PA)

“He was fine after it, which was the main thing,” said Smith.

“He’s very good over three miles, but there’s nothing for him until Christmas, he’s not a slow horse either.

“It’s the first time he hasn’t worn ear plugs for a long time, he’s not as excitable as he once was and hopefully they might make him a bit sharper as well.

“Honeysuckle is a very smart mare, we know that, but if our lad is in the form he was at Cheltenham, he’d have a chance.

“We’re building towards going back in March. There’s a race for him at Leopardstown over Christmas and they are great races to win, but they are also stepping stones to Cheltenham as we know that suits him.

“For now it will be hurdles all the way – there’s not much point going back chasing as he’s a very good staying hurdler and there aren’t too many.”

Gordon Elliott fields two of the seven runners with Jack Kennedy on Fury Road and Mark Walsh on Cracking Smart.

Fury Road was only beaten a neck by Monkfish in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham and won on his return in a Grade Two at Punchestown.

“Fury Road came out of his recent win at Punchestown in great shape,” Elliott told Betfair.

Fury Road (right) ran a blinder in the Albert Bartlett
Fury Road (right) ran a blinder in the Albert Bartlett (Simon Cooper/PA)

“He is very well in himself and it will be interesting to see how he gets on here as I think the trip might be a little on the sharp side for him, but he is a horse with a high cruising speed and I don’t think he needs a stamina test to be seen at his best.

“He’s got a bit of work to do to get involved, but I think he could show up well.”

Cracking Smart won the Boyne Hurdle last season, but on all known form looks up against it in this company.

“Cracking Smart is quite an idle horse and over the last couple of seasons I’ve noticed that he’s not really at his best until the spring time, so he is best watched for the time being I would say,” added Elliott.

“He would have needed his comeback in the Lismullen Hurdle when he was well beaten when falling and he has come forward for that run, but in reality he has it all to do here.”

The two Elliott runners are owned by Gigginstown House Stud, who are also represented by Noel Meade’s Beacon Edge who steps up in class after impressing twice already this season.

Willie Mullins runs Bacardys and the veteran Supasundae represents Jessica Harrington.

Minella Indo obliges with minimum of fuss at Navan

Minella Indo further enhanced his Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials with a near-faultless display at Navan.

Reeled in late on by Nicky Henderson’s Champ in last season’s RSA Chase at Cheltenham, Henry de Bromhead’s charge made a foot-perfect start to the current campaign in a Grade Three contest at Wexford last month.

Faced with just three rivals in the Grade Two BetVictor Make Your Best Bet Chase, Minella Indo was a prohibitively-priced 2-11 favourite in the hands of Rachael Blackmore, and his supporters will have had few concerns.

Brahma Bull made much of the running under David Mullins and was still travelling strongly as he rounded the home turn and moved to the stands rail.

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Blackmore positioned her mount on the far side of the track and he picked up well between the final two fences to grab the lead before pulling seven and a half lengths clear on the run-in.

De Bromhead said: “I’m delighted with that. He did everything good, it was a lovely race for him and I’m glad we’ve got it behind us now.

“You couldn’t have asked him to do it any better. He jumped really well and did everything he had to do.

“I would imagine we’ll aim towards the Savills Chase at Christmas, I think that will be our next one.

“He’s had two nice races for second-season novices and now we have to go against the big lads and see how we fare there.”

Asked if he had the potential to be even better than stablemate Monalee, who was fourth in the Gold Cup last season in the same colours, De Bromhead said: “It would be great if he is because Monalee is rated 171, so if he is I’ll be very happy!

Minella Indo is already a proven performer at Cheltenham
Minella Indo is already a proven performer at Cheltenham (Julian Herbert/PA)

“He’s probably achieved a little bit more in each division because he won his Albert Bartlett and Monalee was second, I don’t know if it might have been a lesser race.

“He was only just chinned in an RSA and Monalee was well beaten – I don’t know, it’s unfair on Monalee, but we can’t fault what he’s doing at the moment.

“It’s nice to have a possible Gold Cup contender like him, but all along last year we thought Monalee had a great chance and thankfully he ran like he did.

“It’s great and the more of these types you can have the better. We’ll see how it all unfolds between now and then.

“At the moment we’re thinking Monalee for the King George, but if they end up having to run against each other they have to run against each other.

“Ideally you’d prefer not to, with the same owners.”

Coral cut Minella Indo to 7-1 from 8-1 for the Gold Cup, making him their joint-second favourite with last season’s runner-up Santini and just behind dual winner Al Boum Photo, who is the 6-1 favourite. Betfair stayed unchanged at 8-1.

Notebook puts down Champion Chase marker at Naas

Notebook bounced back to winning form in the Grade Two Poplar Square Chase at Naas.

Henry de Bromhead’s charge was a dual Grade One winner last term, but he had disappointed when sent off the 5-2 favourite for the Arkle on his final start of last term, finishing a well-beaten sixth.

He looked to face a stern test on his return with Fakir D’oudairies and Cash Back, who chased him home in his two top-level victories, once again in opposition.

Notebook was a comfortable winner
Notebook was a comfortable winner (Alan Magee/PA)

However, 11-10 favourite Cash Back sprinted to the first fence and crashed out, leaving outsider Djingle to set a strong gallop as Rachael Blackmore allowed Notebook (7-2) to get into his own rhythm at the back of the field.

Notebook and Fakir D’oudairies asserted their authority with two to jump, but Blackmore’s mount shaded the lead with a fine leap at the penultimate obstacle and strode away after the last to record a 12-length victory.

De Bromhead said: “He was a little bit rusty over the first few, but then jumped really well and stayed at it really well. It’s good to see him back to form.

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“I’d say he’ll go to Leopardstown at Christmas. He loves it around there and has won two Grade Ones there.

“Rachael said he took a blow at the fourth-last and hopefully he’ll come on for it. I’m delighted with him.”

Paddy Power and Betfair quoted Notebook at 20-1 from 33-1 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Call My Lyreen following his Grade Two success
Call My Lyreen following his Grade Two success (Alan Magee/PA)

Call Me Lyreen extended his winning run to three in the Old Persian At Glenview Stud Fishery Lane Hurdle – bringing up trainer Gordon Elliott’s 100th win of the season in the process.

Despite already registering victories at Tramore and Sligo, Call Me Lyreen was an 11-2 shot under Jack Kennedy with Gars En Noir the 11-10 market leader for Willie Mullins on his Irish debut.

The market leader was in the front rank throughout, but was beginning to toil at the top of the straight as Call My Lyreen moved through to challenge along with Wolf Prince.

That pair had it between them after jumping the penultimate flight, but Call Me Lyreen kept finding for pressure on the run to the line, eventually prevailing by a length and three-quarters.

Elliott, who was speaking away from the track, said: “He’s a lovely horse and is stepping forward all the time. We weren’t sure about the ground, but he coped with it well.

“He’ll have a little break and go for one of the novice hurdles at the Dublin Racing Festival.

“Keith (Donoghue) deserves a lot of credit as he’s done a lot of work with this horse at home.”

Kennedy added: “We went a good gallop the whole way. He was a bit behind the bridle, but turning into the straight he came alive and I probably got there a bit soon on him.

“He’s a nice horse and hopefully he can keep improving. The ground was a question mark, but he handled it well.”

Betfair make Call Me Lyreen a 25-1 chance for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Tower too good for Abacadabras in WKD heat

Aspire Tower proved too strong for fellow Cheltenham Festival runner-up Abacadabras in the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal.

The Gordon Elliott-trained Abacadabras was the 8-15 favourite for the Grade Two feature – making his first competitive appearance since being beaten a head by Shishkin in a thrilling renewal of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in March.

Henry de Bromhead’s Aspire Tower, last seen finishing behind Burning Victory in the Triumph Hurdle, was in receipt of 6lb from the market leader and was a 3-1 chance in the hands of Rachael Blackmore.

Sent straight to the lead, Aspire Tower jumped well in the main and was followed into the home straight by his stablemate Jason The Militant and Abacadabras, with the trio well clear of the remainder.

Abacadabras looked to be travelling best between the final two flights, but Aspire Tower refused to bend and was going away again at the finish – coming home with four and a half lengths in hand over Abacadabras, who pipped Jason The Militant to second.

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Paddy Power cut Aspire Tower to 14-1 from 50-1 for the Champion Hurdle next March, with Abacadabras pushed out to 8-1 from 5-1.

Aspire Tower soars at Down Royal
Aspire Tower soars at Down Royal (Brian Lawless/PA)

De Bromhead said: “I’m delighted with that. He was so good at Leopardstown at Christmas last year and I just felt after that his form didn’t look as good. He’s a big four-year-old who had just come off the Flat and maybe everything caught up with him a little bit as the season went on.

“We gave him a really good break and it’s fantastic that he has come back like that.

“Rachael was brilliant on him, he is tough out and he did it the hard way on his first run since March.”

“I’m delighted with Jason (The Militant) as well, he ran really well and Paul (Townend) thought he would come on from that.”

When asked if he will be training Aspire Tower as a Champion Hurdle horse, the trainer added: “I think he is entitled to certainly step up again. I’ll speak to the lads and see what everyone wants to do.

“I would imagine we would look at Christmas and see what is going on there.”

Abacadabras could head for the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown
Abacadabras could head for the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown (PA)

Elliott said of Abacadabras: “You are always disappointed when you don’t win. Jack (Kennedy) said he had a bit of a blow after the second last. He was riding like he was going to win cantering and just blew up.

“I was disappointed, but Jack said not to be too disappointed and that he had a blow and he is going to come on from that.

“Take nothing away from the winner, he looked very good on the day no matter what we did.

“We’ll see how he is and look at the Morgiana Hurdle in Punchestown.”

Minella Indo makes winning return at Wexford

Minella Indo made a foot-perfect start to a campaign connections hope will culminate with a tilt at Cheltenham Gold Cup glory in the M.W. Hickey Memorial Chase at Wexford.

Henry de Bromhead’s charge won twice at Grade One level over hurdles, including victory in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in 2019, and came close to doubling his tally at the showpiece meeting when mowed down late by Champ in last season’s RSA Chase.

While dropped to Grade Three level for his reappearance, Minella Indo’s task was not straightforward, with Gordon Elliott’s Kim Muir winner Milan Native holding a race-fitness advantage following a recent narrow verdict at Galway.

The big two went at it from flag-fall, with both horses jumping soundly throughout the two-mile-seven-furlong contest.

Minella Indo’s superior class began to tell before the home turn, with the 8-13 favourite safely negotiating the remaining obstacle and passing the post 25 lengths clear in the hands of Rachael Blackmore.

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Paddy Power reacted by trimming the winner to 10-1 from 12-1 for the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup next March.

De Bromhead: “I’m delighted with that – he jumped brilliant and Rachael was brilliant on him.

“He looked sharp for his first run. We got him in a bit earlier and maybe that made the difference.

“Coming away from the RSA, you’d be hoping he’d turn into a Gold Cup horse, but we’ll see and we’ll take it one race at time.

“It’s very likely he’ll go for the race at Navan now next month (Grade Two BetVictor Make Your Best Bet Chase).

“We were giving Milan Native weight and I really feared him with a run under his belt. I couldn’t be happier with our lad.”

Andy Dufresne looked the part on his chasing debut
Andy Dufresne looked the part on his chasing debut (Donal Murphy/PA)

Andy Dufresne justified odds-on favouritism in the Garry Flood Landscaping Beginners Chase.

A £330,000 purchase by owner JP McManus, the six-year-old won a Grade Two over hurdles last season and was a 1-2 shot for his debut over regulation fences under Mark Walsh.

The Gordon Elliott-trained six-year-old jumped well on the whole on his way to a seven-and-a-half-length success – and could step up to Grade One level for the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse on his next start.

“It was a good performance and very straightforward. He got close to the fourth last both times, but apart from that, he was very good,” said Elliott.

“Speaking to Mark, he said we could step him up in trip, so I’d imagine he’ll step up to two and a half miles the next day. I’ll talk to his owners, but I’d imagine he’ll go for something like the Drinmore.

“It looked like he was going better at the line than he was two out, so I’d say a step up in trip will suit him.”