Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore bid to bounce back from defeat in Irish Champion Hurdle

Racing’s ‘poster’ combination face major threat from Mullins pair State Man and Vauban

Plenty of heads will get overruled by hearts when Irish racing’s ‘poster’ combination of Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore try to regain winning form at Leopardstown on Sunday.

If Blackmore’s groundbreaking achievements have come on the back of some exceptional horses, the single one she’s synonymous with is Honeysuckle.

Theirs has been a uniformly positive image for the sport generally and one thing guaranteed with them is popular engagement, as it will be again come 3.10 in the €200,000 Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.

It is far from the whole story, but part of that popularity was inevitably due to never getting beaten. Through 16 races, including twice in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, Honeysuckle’s record was pristine.


But even if the greatest champions can get beaten, the worry for her fan club this weekend is that Honeysuckle’s Hatton’s Grace defeat behind Teahupoo in December may have smacked of a great champion on the slide.

She has been on the go for five years since winning a point-to-point. She is the oldest of the half-dozen runners on Sunday, at an age when most mares have been retired to the breeding shed. A lacklustre display this time could see her end up there sooner rather than later.

Nevertheless, Honeysuckle has confounded assumptions so many times already that plenty will pin their hopes on her and Blackmore pulling off what would be a hugely emotional victory.

If she does it will be a fourth win in the race to equal Istabraq’s tally and more pertinently put her firmly back on the road to a potential Champion Hurdle hat-trick at Cheltenham next month.

The prospect of a clash with the young superstar Constitution Hill is an appealing one, albeit with slight trepidation given what the English horse looks capable of.

If it isn’t very romantic, it’s still the case that momentum is usually with horses on the up rather than those that have perhaps tipped down the other side.

It’s Honeysuckle’s bad fortune then that she is up against a pair of such prospects from Willie Mullins’s team.

Last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner Vauban chased home his stable companion State Man over Christmas and could easily narrow that gap with a first run of the season under his belt.

State Man, however, looked in control throughout that race and looks the main target Honeysuckle and Blackmore have to aim at.

Perhaps the ultimate rising star on this side of the Irish Sea is Facile Vega who puts his unbeaten record on the line in the Tattersall Novice Hurdle.

Last season’s outstanding bumper champion is two from two over flights and if he didn’t exactly knock the lights out with his display over Christmas, he remains a horse of vast potential.

The Mullins bandwagon could prove irresistible with Blue Lord at very short odds for the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase.

With the Champion Chase picture blown wide open at Cheltenham last week, Blue Lord can put himself to the forefront of the market with an impressive display. His stable companion Gentleman De Mee looks his biggest threat.

Earlier, Mighty Potter could be forgiven for feeling like Custer at the Little Bighorn in the big novice chase.

The Drinmore winner is surrounded by a handful of Mullins-trained opponents but will be ridden by Davy Russell for the first time in just the kind of scenario Gordon Elliott wanted the veteran rider’s experience for.

In a fascinating tactical scenario, it’s still the case that Mighty Potter’s credentials are hard to argue with.

Gaelic Warrior’s run off topweight in a handicap hurdle will contain its own Cheltenham festival clues.

The horse has generated substantial hype already in his career and this will be a major test of the substance behind it.

Any repeat of his tendency to jump right could be costly and if so Hey Johnny at the other end of the weights can profit.

Lily Du Berlais goes for a rare double in the Grade Two mares’ bumper having won the race last year at 40-1.

Stuart Crawford’s runner has to concede a penalty for that and also comes up against a pair of Mullins rivals with jockey arrangements suggesting Fun Fun Fun is the pick.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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