There were rare scenes on day one of the Dublin Racing Festival as jockey Rachael Blackmore and the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle scooped the featured PCI Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
It completed a Grade One double for Blackmore and trainer Henry de Bromhead who’d earlier landed the ERSG Arkle with Notebook for Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team.
Notebook now goes to Cheltenham next month as ante-post favourite for the Arkle while Honeysuckle's festival target will be a source of major conjecture during the coming weeks.
Saturday’s 8-11 big-race favourite made light of dropping back to two miles, and racing left handed for the first time, by maintaining her unbeaten career record in seven starts.
After sweeping past her stable companion Petit Mouchoir on the run to the last it looked like a prime new contender for Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle had arrived on the scene.
However a clumsy leap at the last – a bit “high and lonely” according to De Bromhead – meant Petit Mouchoir got back in front and Blackmore had to rally her mount with a vengeance.
By then the 20-1 outsider Darver Star had also got into the mix and Honeysuckle was ultimately all out to land the odds by half a length.
How that form rates in terms of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham is debatable and the eventual outcome of this performance could be that Honeysuckle gets targeted at the OLBG Mares Hurdle as had been the original plan all along.
There was no debate at all, however, about the widespread appreciation for her jockey.
Blackmore’s career has long since justified being described in pioneering terms. But a prestigious Grade One double on one of the biggest dates on the Irish racing calendar continues the remarkable big-race momentum she has developed since breaking her top-flight duck at Cheltenham last year.
“Absolutely magic,” was how she summed it up after the big race and typically deflected any praise to Honeysuckle. “She’s got a massive heart and a massive will to do it. She was really tough and it’s a pleasure to be involved with her.”
The crowd around the parade ring applauded her back to the weigh-room in a rare and spontaneous outburst that ordinarily would be a lasting positive impression from the first leg of this weekend’s €2.1 million festival.
Unfortunately there was a competing element to Saturday’s action with Leopardstown’s ground conditions once again coming to the fore at the wrong time.
Despite almost two weeks of watering, the state of the going still ended up a controversial factor, prompting predictions that Sunday’s action may descend into similarly farcical scenes as last year.
On that occasion there were 22 non-runners due to the state of the going – including half a dozen in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup – which provoked widespread criticism about a failure to water and ensure safe going.
Since Christmas there have been repeated calls by some of racing’s leading figures for watering to take place to ensure safe ground on the chase track in particular this time.
Selective watering began on the chase track at the start of last week and the official going on all tracks when racing began on Saturday was “yielding”.
However, A Plus Tard was taken out of the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase due to the going and another Grade One winner, Fakir d'Oudairies, also missed the ERSG Arkle for the same reason.
Two other horses were taken out later on the card due to the going and there was obvious unease among some trainers and owners about the ground.
Gigginstown Stud's Eddie O'Leary, brother of Ryanair boss Michael, said Delta Work, one of the favourites for Sunday's €250,000 Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup, could be taken out if conditions aren't suitable.
“He might very well be unless it is safe,” said O’Leary whose verdict on the going was substantially different from the official version, particularly on the straight.
“I walked it [the track] as far as the last. It’s good to firm. Up here, this is the quickest part. It’s good to firm up here. Davy [Russell] said there’s yielding nowhere on the track,” he said.
“I’m not going to be chastising them [Leopardstown] over it. There are horses being pulled out. They know it’s not good enough. I don’t have to say it,” added O’Leary who’d said last week that watering too much would be preferable to too little.
Gigginstown's main trainer Gordon Elliott described the ground situation as "not good enough" although champion jockey Paul Townend commented: "It's safe ground and they've done as good a job as they can with it. The wind is drying it out."
Officials from the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) pointed to race times as evidence that the going is significantly slower than 2019.
“In light of the dry conditions today, watering will take place overnight,” an IHRB spokesman confirmed.
An estimate of how much water would be applied wasn’t available but the situation could be complicated by a forecast of up to 5ml of rain overnight.
“Hopefully it will rain. It will be like last year unless there’s enough rain,” Eddie O’Leary concluded.
De Bromhead said his decision to take A Plus Tard out of the Dublin Chase won by Chacun Pour Soi was influenced by particular worries about running the horse on the ground over the two-mile trip.
It was the single reverse he had on a memorable day where he secured a third career win in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
“Honeysuckle just looked like she got a bit lonely going to the last. She’s so tough and the lady on top of her is so tough. She really battled it out,” said De Bromhead.
"All credit to Petit Mouchoir and Davy Russell, he ran a brilliant race again, and Gavin's horse looked very good. I had my heart in my mouth coming to the line," he added.
Honeysuckle was cut to 9-2 for the Champion Hurdle by some firms but her trainer will postpone any festival decision.
“We’ll enjoy today. We’ve won PCI Irish Champion Hurdle and we can discuss all that in time,” he said.
Darver Star's jockey Jonathan Moore got a six-day ban for his use of the whip in the big race.
Perhaps the most popular success of the day was Latest Exhibition's in the opening Lacy Partners Novice Hurdle.
The 7-2 shot was two lengths too good for Blackmore's mount Cobbler's Way and gave the former Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockey Bryan Cooper a first Grade One success since 2017, the year he lost his job as Gigginstown's number one.
Trainer Paul Nolan has had even longer to wait to dine at the top-flight table and Latest Exhibition was the Enniscorthy trainer's first Grade One since Defy Logic at the 2013 Christmas festival here.
The performance saw Latest Exhibition cut to 10-1 by some firms for the Albert Bartlett over three miles at Cheltenham next month.
Nolan has been a stalwart supporter of Cooper during the jockey’s relatively barren run since losing the Gigginstown job and acclaimed him as a “Grade One big day jockey.”
He also praised the owners of Latest Exhibition for retaining the star novice and leaving him with him.
“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,” Nolan said.
“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,” he added.
Willie Mullins's Chacun Pour Soi proved himself a major contender for the Queen Mother Champion Chase after beating his stable companion Min.
He will be joined on the champion trainer’s Cheltenham team by Appreciate it who turned the Grade Two bumper into a seven-and-a-half length rout at odds of 11-10.
"Very impressive, the way he put away what I felt was a field of the best bumper horses in Ireland, " Mullins said. "He'd look like a Cheltenham type to me."
Sharjah was a flop in the big race behind Honeysuckle but Mullins felt a number of over-extravagant jumps down the back straight ruined his chance. He remains on track for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.