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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Morgan Treacy/INPHO Rachael Blackmore on board Honeysuckle at Fairyhouse.
# Review
Donn McClean: Honeysuckle to bounce back after falling short of unprecedented win
The Henry de Bromhead mare was chasing a fourth victory in the Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

EVERYTHING WAS AS you expected it would be for most of the race, the Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday, and Honeysuckle’s bid for an unprecedented fourth win in the race.

True, she got in a little tight to the fifth last flight, after which Rachael Blackmore had had a little look down, and the rider gave her mare a small squeeze on the run to the fourth last. But Honeysuckle flew that obstacle, and she moved effortlessly into third place, everything under control.

And when she moved up easily between Ashdale Bob and Darver Star as they rounded the home turn, and moved to the front on the run to the second last flight, and jumped that obstacle over a length clear of her closest pursuer, you expected that it was as you were. You expected that Henry de Bromhead’s remarkable mare would come clear of her rivals, as she had done in all of her 16 previous races over hurdles, and roll into the record books.

The fact that she didn’t was new. The fact that she didn’t come away from her rivals. On the contrary, Klassical Dream and Teahupoo challenged towards the near side and, before you had time to fully figure out what was happening, they were jumping the final flight and Honeysuckle was only third. She rallied on the far side, for a stride or two it looked like she might battle back, but she couldn’t bridge the gap. In the end, she crossed the winning line almost three lengths behind Teahupoo and Klassical Dream, and that was the first time that she had crossed any winning line anywhere any distance behind anyone.

Connections were characteristically magnanimous afterwards. “It just wasn’t to be,” said her owner Kenny Alexander. “It’s just disappointing that this day had to come,” said Rachael Blackmore.

“It was always going to happen some day,” said Henry de Bromhead. “We’ve had some go, and it’s not over either.”

While Honeysuckle has won three Hatton’s Grace Hurdles, strange to say that history tells you that two and a half miles on soft ground may not be ideal for her on her seasonal debut. The best performances of her career have been over two miles and, when she won the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle by eight lengths last year, the race was run on good ground. When she won it in 2019 on soft ground, she had had the benefit of a run already that season. And when she won it in 2020, on soft ground, on her seasonal debut, she only got home by a half a length from Ronald Pump.

Of course, it is not going to be easy for her to bounce back from defeat, her first defeat. She is eight now rising nine, and Hurricane Fly is the only nine-year-old to win the Champion Hurdle since 2003. Indeed, only three horses aged older than eight have won the Champion Hurdle since Sea Pigeon won it as an 11-year-old 41 years ago.

That said, Honeysuckle has confounded many a statistic in the past. She is joint second favourite for the Champion Hurdle now behind Constitution Hill in some lists, and that looks about right.

Given the attention afforded to Honeysuckle’s defeat, there is a danger that the performance that Teahupoo put up in winning the race will go under the radar, because he was very good.

Gordon Elliott’s horse was racing for the first time this season too, the first time since he finished last of six behind Honeysuckle in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle last April. The ground was good to yielding then but, on Sunday’s soft ground, Teahupoo is dynamite.

The Robcour gelding has raced on soft or heavy ground six times in his life, and he has won six times. He won the Grade 2 Limerick Hurdle last December, and he probably put up the best performance of his career before Sunday at Gowran Park last February, when he won the Red Mills Hurdle by 11 lengths from Darasso and Quilixios. Sunday’s performance was almost certainly a step up on that.

He was racing on Sunday over the longest distance over which he had ever raced, and that opens up more options. He is only five and, wherever the rest of the season takes him, he will be a contender for more top honours, especially when he can get back on soft ground.

It was a massive day for Gordon Elliott. As well as winning the feature race of the weekend, he also won the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase with Mighty Potter, who was, like Teahupoo, given a master class ride by Jack Kennedy. Gordon Elliott also won the Porterstown Chase with Punitive and the concluding bumper with Better Days Ahead to bring up a four-timer on the day, and it could have been five, with Irish Point going down down by just a head to Marine Nationale in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle.

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It was a fair tussle between the two novices, and a mistake at the final flight by Marine Nationale appeared to hand the initiative to Gordon Elliott’s horse. But there was an awful lot to like about the manner in which Barry Connell’s horse battled back for Michael O’Sullivan, and got back up to win by that head.

It was some performance by Marine Nationale, on ground that was probably softer than ideal for him, and by his trainer and his rider. Michael O’Sullivan is one of the finds of the season, a talented young rider with a cool head on his shoulders. He couldn’t claim his 5lb in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle on Sunday, but it didn’t matter, Barry Connell has complete faith in his rider, and Michael O’Sullivan repaid that faith once again on Sunday in riding his first Grade 1 winner.

Barry Connell has ridden winners at Cheltenham and he has owned many top class horses, Grade 1 winners Shinrock Paddy and Mount Benbulben and The Tullow Tank and Martello Tower. But it was only in July 2020 that he had his first runner as a trainer, and he is having a fantastic time of it this season. He has had 20 runners since the beginning of August, and eight of them have won. That’s a strike rate of 40%, and that is quite remarkable.

The trainer has been quietly saying that Marine Nationale was potentially the best horse that he has ever had, so it is fitting that the French Navy gelding provided him with his first Grade 1 winner as a trainer. Bookmakers cut Marine Nationale’s odds from 14/1 and 16/1 to no better than 10/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, and that still looks big.

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