Honeysuckle aiming to extend unbeaten record with fourth Hatton’s Grace victory

Dublin businessman Barry Connell aiming for Grade 1 Winter Festival double

Honeysuckle has a shot at burnishing her reputation even more on Sunday against seven opponents, none of which is Constitution Hill. Even so, talk of British racing’s new superstar won’t be far away from the Bar One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, the €120,000 highlight of Fairyhouse’s Winter Festival.

Rather like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, mention of one without the other has become all but impossible since Constitution Hill’s devastating display in Newcastle last weekend.

The pretender to the hurdling throne is odds-on for Cheltenham’s championship in March but now the reigning dual-champion has the chance to make a case for another title defence.

If jump racing’s newest rivalry is peculiar considering Honeysuckle and Constitution Hill have never actually clashed, it is familiar in the tendency of respective fans to boost one by knocking the other.


So, for the Constitution Hill camp, Honeysuckle has been the best of a poor bunch and has had an over-generous 7lb sex allowance to help her beat them up.

Throw in the fact that Honeysuckle has raced only four times, yet pulled off figures that already have him within touching distance of the greatest hurdlers of all time, and Honeysuckle has been painted in terms of what she isn’t rather than is.

That’s both a pity and a mistake since the Irish mare is a phenomenon.

Unbeaten in 16 career starts, Honeysuckle has accumulated a dozen Grade 1s, three of them at the Cheltenham Festival, with an unprecedented fourth Hatton’s Grace in her sights on Sunday.

Along the way she and Rachael Blackmore have become the sport’s “poster” combination, providing an unquantifiable but still perceptible boost to a sport that has endured some rough times during her reign.

The most important intangible asset of all, though, is something that can’t be summed up by a handicapper’s abacus – her will to win.

Constitution Hill’s paragon status might yet include that priceless quality too, but no one knows for sure yet. We do know that whatever the circumstances, up to now Honeysuckle has always found a way to come out on top.

Whether that’s intact as she begins her final season of racing is unknown. This will be her fifth and final campaign, after all, and she has packed a lot in already. But neither is there any sign of it declining. If eventually the eagerly anticipated clash of the titans does occur, that could prove pivotal.

“We don’t know how good Honeysuckle is because she only ever does just enough to win and we don’t really know what’s under the bonnet,” Peter Molony, racing manager to Honeysuckle’s owner, said on Friday. “Constitution Hill could be a superstar but Honeysuckle might still be good enough to beat him.”

Honeysuckle’s three previous Hatton’s Grace victories were achieved in various styles, from gambol to gritty. It gives her an opportunity to eclipse previous hat-trick winners Limestone Lad, Solerina and Apple’s Jade.

There is also a chance to extend her unbeaten record to 17, just two shy of Altior’s 19-race winning run, which represents the statistical standard over jumps.

A new rival on Sunday is Klassical Dream, the inconsistent but top-class stayer who runs over two and a half miles for the first time. His rating is just a little shy of Honeysuckle’s, albeit she has the substantial sex allowance too.

However, ante-post betting, which suggests Honeysuckle will start the shortest she’s ever done in this race, indicates how for the vast majority at least this contest revolves around a single horse.

And if she goes and does what’s widely expected, no doubt they will have barely pulled up before the name of a certain English-based horse crops up again.

Sunday is the first triple-Grade 1 card of the jumps campaign and the first significant test of the novice brigade.

Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Joseph O’Brien are represented in both the Royal Bond Hurdle and the Drinmore Chase. Mullins has half the hurdle runners and five of the 11 Drinmore field in what is a significant increase in intensity by the champion trainer.

A new ingredient in the big novice races, though, is owner-trainer Barry Connell.

The Dublin businessman runs Enniskerry in the chase but if there’s a potential superstar lurking in the Royal Bond field, it could be Connell’s Marie Nationale.

Unbeaten in three starts to date, Marine Nationale is rated by Connell as potentially the best he has been associated with. That includes The Tullow Tank, the last Royal Bond winner not trained by Mullins or Elliott, in 2013.

It represents a huge opportunity for jockey Michael O’Sullivan, the 22-year-old UCD graduate who was retained by Connell in September.

Ground conditions could be quicker than ideal for some of the Drinmore field but it shouldn’t be a problem to Three Stripe Life, the Grade 1 winning hurdler, who could hardly have been more impressive over fences at Naas.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column