Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle celebrate after the Leopardstown Champion Hurdle. Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Donn McClean: Honeysuckle and Blackmore are a formidable force, unbeaten, unbeatable

Donn McClean takes a look at the contenders for the Champion Hurdle, three weeks out from the Cheltenham festival.

ANY CONVERSATION about the 2022 Unibet Champion Hurdle could be a very short conversation. It could legitimately start and end with one horse: Honeysuckle. One word.

Honeysuckle has never been beaten, so we still don’t really know for sure how deeply her talent runs. She won her only point-to-point for County Down handler Gerry Cosgrave in April 2018, after which she was bought by Kenny Alexander at the Goffs Horses-in-Training Sale at Punchestown for €110,000. The best hundred grand I ever spent, said the owner shortly afterwards.

Almost four years later, and still Honeysuckle hasn’t tasted defeat. Expertly handled and campaigned by her trainer Henry de Bromhead, she has run 14 times over hurdles and she has won 14 times. Ten Grade 1 races, including three Irish Champion Hurdles, three Hatton’s Grace Hurdles and a Punchestown Champion Hurdle. In March 2020, she went to Cheltenham and won the Mares’ Hurdle, and in March 2021 she went back there and put up the best performance of her career thus far in winning the Champion Hurdle.

She has been ridden to all 14 victories by Rachael Blackmore, and that just adds to the Honeysuckle story. Together they are a formidable force, unbeaten, unbeatable.

The analysts were not unanimous in their praise of her latest act, when she won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last month. And it is true, she didn’t pull away and win by 10 lengths, like she did in the same race last year. But that’s harsh. It’s a tough barometer when you have never been beaten, measured by the flawless standard you set. She travelled like the most likely winner the whole way, and she showed that race-winning burst of acceleration around the home turn. She put six lengths between herself and her pursuers in about 25 strides between the crown of the home turn and the top of the home straight. She was entitled to get tired and lonely up the run-in.

rachel-blackmore-and-henry-de-bromhead-celebrate-winning Rachael Blackmore and Henry de Bromhead after the 2021 Champion Hurdle win at Cheltenham. Dan Abraham / INPHO Dan Abraham / INPHO / INPHO

Sent off the 1/5 favourite that day, she never traded at any higher than 1.27 in-running, just over 1/4. There was never a point in the race at which you thought she wouldn’t win. She will probably come forward again from that run, we know that she loves Cheltenham, where she is two for two, and all types of ground come alike to her, so it doesn’t really matter what the elements do between now and Champion Hurdle day. She is rock solid. And, as a bonus, she receives a 7lb allowance from the geldings. All things being equal, she sets a sky-high standard again that her rivals have to reach.

Appreciate It is her most intriguing rival, no question. Willie Mullins’ horse hasn’t raced in public since he won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last year, an hour and 45 minutes before Honeysuckle won the Champion Hurdle.

In landing the Festival curtain-raiser last season, Appreciate It took his record over hurdles to four from four, emphatically, coming home 24 lengths clear of his closest pursuer. The winning distance wouldn’t have been quite as far as that if his stable companion Blue Lord had not come down at the final flight, but it still would have been far. And he was only 1.7secs slower, as a novice, than Honeysuckle was in winning the Champion Hurdle over the same course and distance later on the day.

The intention was for Appreciate It to jump fences this season, but a slight setback meant that his seasonal debut had to be delayed, with the result that connections decided to postpone the start of his chasing career, retain his novice status until next season, and have a crack at the Champion Hurdle. He would have been a big player in the Arkle picture for sure if he had gone over fences, and he is a loss from that race. But his inclusion in the Champion Hurdle adds another dimension to the hurdlers’ picture.

The Jeremy gelding hasn’t run yet this season, and that is obviously significant. It is a big ask, to go and win the Champion Hurdle on your seasonal debut. In his favour is the fact that he is trained by Willie Mullins, who has previous in this regard. The champion trainer produced Penhill to win the Stayers’ Hurdle in 2018, which was a massive achievement given that Tony Bloom’s horse hadn’t run since the Punchestown Festival the previous year. And he used to produce Quevega to win the Mares’ Hurdle on her seasonal debut just about every year. It was an annual event. Five of Quevega’s six Mares’ Hurdle wins were gained on the back of a break of at least 296 days.

Quevega didn’t have a superstar like Honeysuckle standing in her path mind you, and it will be some training performance by Willie Mullins if Appreciate It can lower the Honeysuckle colours.

paul-townend-and-willie-mullins-after-winning-the-chanelle-pharma-novice-hurdle-with-appreciate-it Paul Townend and Willie Mullins after winning with Appreciate It last year. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

There are other aspirants to the 2022 hurdlers’ crown. Epatante was champion in 2020, she beat Sharjah by three lengths that day, the same Sharjah that Honeysuckle beat by six and a half last year, when Epatante herself could only finish third, three lengths further back.

Nicky Henderson’s mare scraped a dead-heat with Not So Sleepy in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle on her seasonal return at Newcastle in November, but she was better in winning the Christmas Hurdle again at Kempton in December, and her trainer reports her to be in good form in the lead up to her bid to regain her crown. But Hurricane Fly is the only horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1973 and 1975 to regain the Champion Hurdle crown after losing it, and Epatante is probably going to have to be even better than she was in 2020 if she is going to beat Honeysuckle.

Teahupoo is more of an unknown quantity. Gordon Elliott’s horse didn’t go to Cheltenham last year as a juvenile. Instead, after winning twice at Fairyhouse early in the year, he went back to the Meath track for the Grade 2 juveniles’ hurdle at the Irish Grand National meeting in April, and finished second to the Fred Winter Hurdle winner and subsequent Grade 1 winner Jeff Kidder.

The Robcour gelding has progressed nicely this season. He beat Quilixios at Naas and he beat Quilixios again at Limerick, and he stepped forward once more last time in winning the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park. He quickened up impressively for Robbie Power from the second last flight that day on the heavy ground, coming home by 11 lengths and the same from Darasso and Quilixios.

He is going to have to improve again if he is going to latch onto Honeysuckle’s coat-tails, but there is every chance that he will. His trainer and his rider both say that he will be even better on better ground, and he is a young horse, just a five-year-old, with all the potential for progression that goes with his youth, who put up a career-best performance last time. He goes to Cheltenham on a nice upward trajectory, and he could run a big race.

Zanahiyr and Adagio are also five-year-olds who could improve, and Tommy’s Oscar has made giant strides this season, winning his last four races and earning his place in the Champion Hurdle line-up. But Honeysuckle is the star, and the crowds will be there to see her this year. That’s different to last year. You know that Cheltenham’s winner’s enclosure will rock for her and for Rachael Blackmore if she does extend her unbeaten record to 15 and add another Champion Hurdle to her remarkable CV.


Comedian Michael Fry is our special guest on this week’s episode of The Front Row, in partnership with Guinness. Joining host Seán Burke, Eimear Considine and Murray Kinsella, he chats about his family’s rugby background and his short-lived playing days, before using his musical ear to rank the anthems of each Guinness Six Nations team. Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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