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Dublin: 3 °C Sunday 16 February, 2020
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Honeysuckle growing stronger with De Bromhead set to dominate Dublin festival

Donn McClean lamented the mare’s absence from Cheltenham, but expects to see it shine again next week.

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle on their way to a win in Fairyhouse last month.
Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle on their way to a win in Fairyhouse last month.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THERE ARE EIGHT Grade 1 races at next week’s Dublin Racing Festival, and Henry de Bromhead has the ante post favourite or second favourite in four of them.

Honeysuckle is box office. Honeysuckle has been box office for a little while. She has raced seven times and she has won seven times. One point-to-point and six races over hurdles. She has never been beaten.

And every time she has raced, she has stepped up on what has gone before. From her maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse in November 2018, to a listed mares’ hurdle at Thurles, to the Grade 3 Solerina Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Fairyhouse. Injury ruled her out of the Cheltenham Festival last year, and she was a big absentee from the de Bromhead team there. It wasn’t quite Barcelona without Messi, and her absence was mitigated somewhat by victories for A Plus Tard and Minella Indo, but her non-attendance was noted. Then she went to Fairyhouse in April and, under Rachael Blackmore as usual, won the Grade 1 mares’ novice hurdle there.

That was a first Grade 1 win for Kenny Alexander’s mare, and her win in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December was her first Grade 1 win in open competition. That was another career-best performance, and it promised even more.

She will have to step forward again if she is going to win the PCI Irish Champion Hurdle a week from Saturday. She will be dropping back down in trip to two miles for the first time in over a year, and she will be racing left-handed for the first time under Rules.

Remarkably, five of her six wins over hurdles have been at Fairyhouse, and all six have been on right-handed tracks. But she is good and she could be getting better. Truth is, we don’t know how good she can be.

We don’t know how good Aspire Tower can be either. An 86-rated horse on the flat, when he raced for Richard Hannon and Steve Gollings, he has cut loose since he joined de Bromhead and started jumping hurdles. He was free and keen on his hurdling debut at Punchestown in November, but he came clear of his rivals fairly readily, in a race that has worked out well since.

henry-de-bromhead-with-aspire-tower-after-winning Henry de Bromhead with Aspire Tower. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

He wasn’t quite as keen at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival where, again, he made just about all the running and came away from his rivals from the top of the home straight. He is an exciting juvenile hurdler and he deserves to be a short priced favourite for the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle.

Notebook is not quite as short for the ERSG Arkle Novice Chase, but he also deserves to be on top of the ante post market. The Gigginstown House horse was a good novice hurdler last season, but he has improved dramatically this season over two miles and over fences.

Impressive in winning his first two chases, he was over-looked a little in the Grade 1 Racing Post Chase at Leoparstown over Christmas as Fakir D’Oudairies and Laurina commanded the attention. But Notebook was very good that day. He tracked the leader Djingle from flagfall, jumped to the front over the second last fence, and kept on well over the last and up the run-in to repel Fakir D’Oudairies’ challenge.

tom-hamilton-and-fakir-doudairies Tom Hamilton and Fakir D'oudairies pictured at the launch of the Dublin Racing Festival in Joseph O'Brien's yard. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It looks like Fakir D’Oudairies is set to renew rivalry next Saturday, and it could be a deep race, with Cash Back and Bapaume and Melon all holding entries too, but Notebook is three for three over fences, and he sets the standard.

A Plus Tard is not favourite for the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase, the ante post market has him just behind Chacun Pour Soi, despite the fact that he beat that rival in the Paddy’s Reward Club Chase at the Christmas Festival.

In fairness to Willie Mullins’ horse, that was his seasonal debut, he hadn’t run since he had been seriously impressive in landing the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase at the 2019 Punchestown Festival, beating the Arkle winner and the JLT Chase winner and the Ryanair Gold Cup winner.

The extended two-mile trip at Christmas was probably short of A Plus Tard’s optimum, but the ground and the pace and the track brought his stamina into play, and he stayed on strongly for Rachael Blackmore to come away from his rival up the hill.

The Cheveley Park Stud horse is a talented and progressive individual whose form going left-handed is far superior to his form going right. A wide-margin winner of the Close Brothers Chase at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, even though he will be competing again over a trip that is probably shorter than ideal next Saturday, he is proven over the course and distance and he shouldn’t be under-estimated.

Nor should Chris’s Dream. He is down the pecking order a little in the ante post market for the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup, a market that is dominated by Kemboy and Delta Work, but he was so impressive in winning the Troytown Chase at Navan last time, he is deserving of a shot at it.

The Mahler gelding was a high-class staying novice chaser last term, he beat Champagne Classic and Any Second Now in the Grade 2 Ten Up Chase at Navan last February, and the performance that he put up in winning the Troytown last time was probably a career-best.

So the Troytown is a handicap chase, but it is a high-class handicap chase, and Chris’s Dream travelled like the most likely winner of the race from a long way out. The handicapper raised him by a stone for that victory to a mark of 160, and that puts him onto the coat-tails of the top staying chasers. He is probably going to have to improve again if he is going to win an Irish Gold Cup, but he has raced just six times over fences, so he has the potential to progress. And Leopardstown should suit him well, as long as the ground is soft. A flat, galloping track, a good jumping test with a stiff finish.

It looks like Minella Indo and Captain Guinness are going to skip the Dublin Racing Festival – both have run recently – but Henry de Bromhead will still have a team going to Leopardstown that has strength and depth. Ask him what would constitute a successful weekend though, and he will tell you: one winner. Ever the realist. Any more than one, and we’re into bonus territory.

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Donn McClean

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