The clash of the outstanding mares Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle shapes up as the 2020 Cheltenham Festival’s day one highlight.
Weeks of uncertainty about where both would end up at the festival have disappeared leaving a mouth-watering head-to-head in prospect in the Close Bros Mares’ Hurdle.
After much broader uncertainty about coronavirus scuppering National Hunt racing’s showpiece event, figuring out which of the Irish stars will emerge on top is a reassuringly straightforward and familiar dilemma.
Benie Des Dieux has been described by Willie Mullins in terms of superiority to other star mares he has trained such as Annie Power and Quevega.
The only time she has been beaten in nine starts for the champion trainer was when falling at the last with this race at her mercy a year ago.
And if she’s the established order, then Honeysuckle is the emerging power, unbeaten in seven starts and getting better. The prospect of Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore passing the post first is one to savour even for an event that hardly needs help selling itself.
It could be a clash for the ages up the famous hill so the irony is that in trying to secure their charges the best chance of winning this week both camps may ultimately have given themselves the hardest task of all.
Mullins flirted with the Stayers as an option for ‘Benie’. Her rout in last summer’s French Champion Hurdle suggests she’s tailor-made for Thursday’s highlight even if it would have meant taking on the defending champ Paisley Park.
Those who figured Honeysuckle would be a prime player in a sub-par Champion Hurdle had their convictions reinforced when she landed the Irish version at Leopardstown last month. On that occasion a final-flight error meant she ultimately scrambled to a defeat of Darver Star and Petit Mouchoir with Supasundae in fourth.
But if any of them can win, or come close to winning Tuesday’s big race, Honeysuckle will line up 40 minutes later accompanied by an inevitable sense of what might have been.
An eagerness to run Honeysuckle at her best trip appears to have been a decisive factor in the decision to go for the Mares’.
However, plenty feel tackling Benie Des Dieux is a tougher ask than beating anything in the Champion Hurdle field, even those in the Honeysuckle camp.
"I've read somewhere that we're lacking in ambition. But if taking on Benie Des Dieux is lacking ambition I don't know what ambition is," said her owner's racing manger, Peter Molony.
Mullins hasn’t got to be the most successful trainer in festival history by getting the fundamentals wrong and he fundamentally believes in the importance of getting Cheltenham week off to a good start.
In the past that has manifested itself in famous four-timers, such as 2014 when Annie Power’s calamitous last-flight exit saved bookmakers a fortune, yet her stable companion Glens Melody won anyway.
A similar last-flight fate occurred to Benie Des Dieux last year but it's hard not to suspect she lines up in the race for a third time because Mullins wants to quickly get the tone right for the week ahead.
Since he’s won the race nine times in its 12 year history already it’s tough to desert the tried and trusted.
In the past such flying festival starts for Mullins and his old ally Ruby Walsh resulted in 'Ruby Tuesday' type headlines beloved of bookmaker promotion teams everywhere. With Walsh retired it appears Blackmore is stepping into the marketing breach.
Now apparently it is ‘Black(more) Tuesday,’ which isn’t as snappy perhaps but still reflective of the potential impact the 30-year-old Irish rider could have this week. She is as low as 9-2 third favourite to be crowned top jockey this week and that price could look generous by the end of the first day’s play.
If Captain Guinness is a live outsider in the opening Skybet Supreme Novices' Hurdle then Blackmore's mount Notebook is clear favourite for the following Racing Post Arkle Trophy.
With Honeysuckle to look forward to, as well as Petit Mouchoir in the Champion Hurdle and Trainwreck in the novices’ handicap chase, the potential for a landmark day is undoubtedly in place for the pioneering jockey.
Crucial to Notebook’s chance will be no repeat of his headstrong pre-race antics in the Irish Arkle. That he was still able to beat Cash Back suggests a substantial talent and his jumping can prove crucial.
As a former bookmaker, Al Boum Photo's owner Joe Donnelly will appreciate the odds favouring one of his two runners, Shiskhin or Asterion Forlonge, landing the Supreme.
And as one of the most famous punters in the game's history JP McManus might relish big odds on one of his two runners in the race, Elixir d'Ainay.
The drop back in trip is no surprise after Elixir d’Ainay ruined his chance at the Dublin Racing Festival by racing too keenly.
Prior to that he served up plenty to Envoi Allen in a Grade One. That horse is rated a potential superstar so McManus’s second-string could be value at big odds to upset some big names.