It has been 35 years since See You Then completed a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles.
His jockey, Steve Smith Eccles, will be an interested bystander at Cheltenham this week insisting Honeysuckle has the talent to not only repeat last year’s success under Rachael Blackmore, but become the first horse since Istabraq to win the two-mile championship three times.
“There is no other horse I would want to be on more than her over the four days,” said Smith Eccles.
“It looks an average year and it will take a hell of a good horse to knock her off her perch – and I don’t think there is one in there who is capable of doing it. Certainly not from what I have seen.”
Smith Eccles will be forever remembered as the partner of one of five horses to have landed a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles.
Bred to win a Group race on the Flat, See You Then was the fourth horse to win three consecutive Champion Hurdles (1985-87) after Hatton’s Grace (1949-51), Sir Ken (1952-54) and Persian War (1968-70), with Istabraq (1998-2000) subsequently joining that elite quintet.
Smith Eccles needed the hand of fate to get him the ride aboard See You Then, and earn trainer Nicky Henderson the first of his 70 Cheltenham Festival winners, which include eight Champion Hurdles.
He explained: “I was first jockey to Nicky Henderson, apart from one horse, See You Then, who was owned by an Italian count who owned Stype Wood Stud.
“For some reason, when they bought him from Ireland, he wanted John Francome to ride him. I wasn’t annoyed, as I had stacks of good horses to ride, but I was a little bit peeved.
“Anyway, Francome fell and got hung up on The Reject in the Arkle, the race before the Champion Hurdle. He wasn’t injured, but it shook him up a little bit.
“Bear in mind, See You Then was a 16-1 shot. I think, if he had been 5-4 favourite, he would have ridden it. He wasn’t physically injured, he just got a bit shook up.
“I just stepped into it within a matter of minutes, because I was Nicky’s first jockey and there was not point in looking for somebody else.”
Favourite Browne’s Gazette jinked at the start and gave the field 15 lengths before fading into sixth, but Smith Eccles remains adamant the result was not affected.
“It wouldn’t have mattered what he faced – he would have beaten anything that day,” he added.
While See You Then was hugely talented and the most straightforward character on a racecourse, he was anything but a gentleman at home.
Smith Eccles revealed: “I’d ridden him at home prior to the Champion Hurdle, but in the box he was a savage. He ripped the shirt off Nicky Henderson one night when he was showing him to some people. He was an absolute savage.
“That is why they had to geld him as a yearling. Bear in mind, his breeding was to win the Derby – he was that well-bred (his sire was 1967 Derby winner Royal Palace and his dam, Melodina, was a high-class juvenile).
“I wouldn’t go in the box with him. No way. The lad that looked after him, Glyn Foster, he deserved the Victoria Cross. Seriously.
“But the amazing thing was, when you rode him, he was like a pussy cat.
“He never put a foot wrong, he never whipped round, he didn’t jib, he didn’t do anything. He was absolutely brilliant when you were on board, but in the box? It would take a very brave man to go in there.
“Schooling, he never ever put a foot wrong. Actually, in all the races I rode him in, he never put a foot wrong.
“In the three Champion Hurdles, you’d be coming to a hurdle and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a little bit short here’ or ‘I’m a little bit long there’, and he would just check his stride himself, put a little short one in and every time he jumped it perfectly. He never made a mistake. That is gospel truth.”
See You Then’s Jekyll and Hyde demeanour made him a monster near his manger, yet a titan on the track. That was if Henderson could get him fit to run.
“He wasn’t easy to train because he had dodgy legs,” said Smith Eccles. “His front legs were like glass. It was amazing that when he did break down for good, he went wrong behind.
“Nicky Henderson was a genius to get that horse on a racecourse, never mind win three Champion Hurdles. He was obviously difficult to train as he only had two runs a year – one prep run, and then win the Champion Hurdle. Then you wouldn’t see him until the next year. That is why he got the nickname: See You When?
“He was bred to win the Derby and all he had to do was jump and he did that perfectly, and all I had to do was guide him round. If I’m honest, they were three of the easiest winners I have rode. No word of a lie.”
See You Then broke down in the Kingwell Hurdle in his prep for a fourth Champion in 1988, the first time he finished out of the frame in 15 races, having won 10 of them.
His last race was in the Scottish Champion Hurdle in 1990 when he finished ninth. See You Then enjoyed 21 years in retirement in Italy until his death at the age of 31.
His intermittent appearances cost him public affection and Smith Eccles believes that Honeysuckle is also not getting the credit she deserves.
“I think that 7lb mares’ allowance has something to do with it,” said the 66-year-old.
“That allowance is a hell of a lot. But she is unbeaten in 14 races and that says something in itself.
“She has won 10 Grade Ones, she won the race last year, she is entitled to be a 4-7 shot. It is going to be very hard to oppose her.
“It is a logical assumption to say she will win, but after what she has achieved, she has simply got to win.
“What is the point of looking for a 10-1 shot when that is the winner?”
Though he says he respects the likes of Appreciate It and Adagio, Smith Eccles feels the mare trained by his old boss might have a say.
“Epatante has won it before and also has that mares’ allowance, and it wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world to see Epatante give Honeysuckle a run for her money – if she is better than she was last year.
“Yet it all points to Honeysuckle, doesn’t it? She’d be the banker of the meeting for me, and for many, I expect. She’d be the one I would want to be on, anyway.
“Rachael Blackmore gets on with her so well. They are both big stars and this time next year she might be spoken about in the same breath as all those other treble winners like See You Then.
“The sport needs its stars and those two are certainly doing their bit! It is great to see.”