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Dublin: 6 °C Tuesday 31 March, 2020
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Johnny Ward: Sunshine, gales and Honeysuckle's reign on day one of the Dublin Racing Festival

The queen still reigns, but after answering every call in the big race she nearly left as many questions as answers.

Rachel Blackmore and Honeysuckle on their way to victory today.
Rachel Blackmore and Honeysuckle on their way to victory today.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THERE WAS RAIN, a gale, sunshine and pretty much everything else on day one of the Dublin Racing Festival – including Honeysuckle.

In the end, the queen still reigns, but after answering every call in the big race she nearly left as many questions as answers. Henry de Bromhead reckoned she jumped well in the main, yet she left the judges divided after beating long-shot Darver Star in the PCI Irish Champion Hurdle under Rachael Blackmore.

With Klassical Dream not running and Sharjah flopping, this took some but not much winning, but the attitude of Honeysuckle to rally after being headed after the last by stablemate Petit Mouchoir was not lost on the crowd, who roared her into the winners’ circle.

It was a day of Grade 1 doubles for de Bromhead and Blackmore, who know that days like this do not come around too often.

“It’s amazing, my confidence is sky-high,” said Blackmore, 30. “She has the heart of a lion, she just battled all the way. She’s amazing and still unbeaten.”

After a somewhat inconclusive success, it is unsure now whether she will go for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham or the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham next month, in which she may take on Benie Des Dieux.

“I thought she jumped well, maybe at the last she was was big and lonely, but I am delighted. You dream of days like this,” de Bromhead said.

Darver Star, who at one stage was struggling to win a maiden hurdle, now heads for the Champion Hurdle for Gavin Cromwell, who had the winner last year in the ill-fated Espoir D’allen.

It is not that Honeysuckle was not impressive in ways, but she can hardly jump like this and win a Champion Hurdle. She is pleading for a fence.

It had all started with a victory to fight the chill. Paul Nolan had flirted with leaving training, having lost so many owners as the recession bit, but he was back in the big time as Latest Exhibition took the first Grade 1, the staying novice hurdle.

Owner/breeder Jim Mernagh, as loyal to Nolan as he is to Wexford, honours the Model County in his silks. He could have sold Latest Exhibition for huge mone after he won at Navan, with Nolan likely to lose his stable star.

Instead, Mernagh syndicated the gelding to other owners in the yard, Nolan thus kept him; and by extension, Bryan Cooper retained the ride.

If Nolan had been in the wilderness, Cooper had been nearly forgotten. Having gone the guts of three years without a winner at the top level, Cooper – who has had shocking injuries in a relatively short career – reminded us here of how good he can be.

Cooper, said Nolan, is “a Grade 1 jockey,” and the trainer was quick to hail the rider, even if the main hero of the piece were probably Mernagh, who eschewed riches for a dream.

“I’m delighted for the lads at home, my brother James and for the owners; it was brilliant that they were able to hold on to him. But for them he wouldn’t be with me. I take my hat off to them and they are why we are here today.

“It was probably the worst pressure day yet. You were hoping the form of the last day had worked out.

“This guy in fairness to him, he races behind the bridle a little bit but he digs down deep. He done it there today on ground that’s the quickest he’s ran on.”

Chacun Pour Soi’s victory over Min in the Dublin Chase screamed class. Though Paul Townend had a choice between this Willie Mullins-trained and Rich Ricci-owned pair, it hardly seemed a difficult one, yet punters were uneasy about the favourite and keen on the chance of Min pre-race.

In the race itself, there was little to doubt the superiority of the up and coming Chacun Pour Soi, who now looks the one to beat in the Queen Mother, even if Defi Du Seuil remains the bookmakers’ favourite.

“I thought Min was the horse to beat but Paul, I guess, went with the up and coming horse,” Mullins said. “I remember bringing him here to do a gallop with senior horses before and he was doing things that a horse very rarely does. I knew we might have something a bit different.

a-view-of-runners-in-the-matheson-handicap-steeplechase A view of the runners in the Matheson Hanicap Steeplechase. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It’s all systems go for Cheltenham but winning today is what matters at the moment. He really came on from his run the last day and Paul said he would just go on with things after three out, he was travelling so well.”

Cooper, once the main rider for Michael O’Leary, has to fight for scraps nowadays, except when riding for Nolan. “It’s great to ride this winner for Paul as he’s stuck by me when things have been very quiet over the past few years.”

The state of the ground was a constant companion of the racecourse chat. Eddie O’Leary, brother of Michael, said there was “good to firm” in it in places and, whilst acknowledging that Leopardstown may have been unlucky, he essentially said it was not good enough.

Like Honeysuckle, her stablemate Notebook won, but again it was hard to say if he enhanced his Cheltenham claims to any great extent. However, he again jumped superbly to get the better of Easy Game in a gripping ERSG Arkle Novice Chase.

Blackmore said: “He’s such a pleasure to ride. He attacks his fences, but he’s well able to shorten as well. He’s class. It felt like I was in front too soon, but he was ahead at the right place anyway.”

Last Sunday, Charles Byrnes was in the news for the wrong reasons due to a perceived non-trier. His reputation precedes him to an extent but how does this man not have more horses?

The Limerick trainer landed an incredible hat-trick in the Ladbrokes Hurdle as Thosedaysaregone got up late to score under Kevin Brouder at 7/1, having been 20s earlier.

“Dromlease Express won the race 16 years ago, ridden by Johnny Allen who is now champion jockey in Australia, and Off You Go won it the previous two years. They are all two-and-a-half-mile horses and that’s what you need for the race.”

Byrnes does not have the ammunition of Willie Mullins, whose Appreciate It looked a bit special in the bumper, but if he had he would know what to do with it. Appreciate It relishes this nice ground.

Twelve months ago, no less than 22 horses were scratched due to the ground. Today, a great day’s racing was lessened somewhat by the ground-related withdrawals of, among others, Fakir D’oudaries and A Plus Tard.

Presenting Percy’s owner Philip Reynolds was closely monitoring conditions last evening. Watering had commenced.

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