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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 23 January, 2020

The Champion Hurdle is a blurred picture for now, but it's an intriguing one

It will gradually come into focus as the season rolls along, writes Donn McClean.

Buveur D’Air and Davy Russell.
Buveur D’Air and Davy Russell.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THE CHAMPIONS HURDLE picture is a little out of focus for now.

First Klassical Dream gets beaten in the Morgiana Hurdle, then Buveur D’Air gets beaten in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, and Buveur D’Air never gets beaten in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle.

We know now that there was mitigation, that Buveur D’Air came home with a piece of wood lodged in his hoof, and that he had to have it surgically removed. Regrettably, it looks like he’ll be out for a little while.

Then Willie Mullins ruled Saldier out of Christmas competition. He said that the Soldier Hollow gelding just didn’t come out of his Morgiana Hurdle win as well as he hoped he would, that he just wasn’t 100% happy with him, so he’s skipping Christmas. Hopefully he will be back soon, hopefully for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival in February.

Laurina and Fakir D’Oudairies and Samcro and Melon have all gone chasing.

We’re missing Espoir D’Allen lots, that’s for sure.

There are others though, there are young horses on the up. Pentland Hills was impressive in winning the Triumph Hurdle last March, and he followed up by winning the Anniversary Hurdle at Aintree. Nicky Henderson’s horse reportedly remains on track to make his seasonal debut in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham on 14 December.

Fusil Raffles won the Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle at Punchestown in April, and he won the Elite Hurdle on his debut this term, albeit not overly impressively, while Coeur Sublime was impressive in winning the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal on his seasonal return.

Those three are all four-year-olds though, they will only be five in March. It’s not that a five-year-old can’t win the Champion Hurdle – Espoir D’Allen was five last March, and he was one of the most impressive Champion Hurdle winners in years – but the statistics tell you that it isn’t easy for them. Espoir D’Allen was just the second five-year-old to win the Champion Hurdle since See You Then won the first of his three in 1985.

You can understand, then, why the respective performances of Envoi Allen and Honeysuckle at Fairyhouse on Sunday have spawned Champion Hurdle talk.

Honeysuckle was very good in winning the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Rachael Blackmore kept it simple, she rode the Sulamani mare like she was the best horse in the race, and she duly won like she was the best horse in the race by some way. She came clear of her rivals from the second last flight, and she danced up the run-in.

Of course, the Mares’ Hurdle is the obvious Cheltenham Festival target for Henry de Bromhead’s mare. The Mares’ Hurdle is run over two and a half miles, the distance over which Honeysuckle has excelled in her last three runs. And the Mares’ Hurdle, by definition, is restricted to mares. It’s made for Honeysuckle.

Owner Kenny Alexander’s representative Peter Molony said on Monday that she was 95% certain to go for the Mares’ Hurdle. That means though that there is a 5% chance that she will go for the Champion Hurdle. It means that it is at least under consideration.

It appears that the plan now is to skip Christmas with Honeysuckle, give her a little break and bring her back in the spring for one run before Cheltenham. That run could be in the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park, or it could be in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

It would be great to see her in the Irish Champion Hurdle, see how she would fare against some of the best two-mile hurdlers in the country. And she would be fully deserving of a shot at it. She is now rated 158, and she would be in receipt of the 7lb mares’ allowance from the geldings.

It would be another step into the unknown, she would be stepping up in grade again, and she would be stepping back down in trip to two miles, and she would be racing left-handed under Rules for the first time in her life. But she has never been beaten, we still don’t know how good she is. And if she did happen to win the Irish Champion Hurdle, the lure of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham would be strong.

rachael-blackmore-on-honeysuckle-on-her-way-to-winning-the-race Rachael Blackmore on Honeysuckle at Fairyhouse last weekend. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Like Honeysuckle, Envoi Allen has never been beaten and the similarities between them do not end there: both progressive and seriously talented five-year-olds, both one for one in point-to-points, both six for six under Rules. There are differences though. Four of Envoi Allen’s wins were in bumpers, and he is still a novice over hurdles.

In terms of the Cheltenham Festival, then, it is the novice hurdles that are on his radar. The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over two miles or the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs. From his racing record, the shorter race looks like the obvious one. He has never gone beyond two miles on the racecourse, and his point-to-point win was over two and a half miles, not over three.

Yet, he races like a horse who can go beyond two miles. His trainer Gordon Elliott spoke both before and after the Royal Bond Hurdle on Sunday about the possibility of stepping him up in trip, and rider Davy Russell appeared to be intent on forcing a good pace in Sunday’s race.

But he travelled for Davy Russell and he quickened. In seeing off his stable companion Abacadabras, he got from the final flight to the winning line in a time that was around a second faster than the time that the fastest of the winners of the other three hurdle races on the day took to cover the same ground.

It may be that he will be at his best over further, or it may be that he is just a special horse who can go any distance. It is interesting that Gordon Elliott has given him an entry in the Grade 1 December Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, in open competition, as well as in the Grade 1 Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle.

There is also Epatante, who looked very good in winning the Gerry Feilden Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday. Like Honeysuckle and Envoi Allen, JP McManus’ mare has other potential targets, but she wouldn’t have to improve an awful lot more to get into a position from which she could legitimately stake a Champion Hurdle claim.

It is a blurred picture for now, but it is an intriguing picture, and it will gradually come into focus as the season rolls along.

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About the author:

Donn McClean

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