Donn McClean looks back on a brilliant day at Fairyhouse on Sunday where the likes of Honeysuckle and Fakir D’Oudairies enhanced their reputations.
Where to begin? It was some weekend. Again.
Expectation levels for Hatton’s Grace Hurdle day at Fairyhouse were high, and the day didn’t disappoint.
Honeysuckle won the Bar One Racing-sponsored feature. That’s what Honeysuckle does. She races and she wins. She has never raced and not won. That’s one from one in point-to-points now and six from six over hurdles.
And this was her best yet. It was her toughest task and it was her best performance. Rachael Blackmore kept it simple, she kicked off in third place, behind Killultagh Vic and Apple’s Jade, and she stayed out a little from the inside rail. She got her mare relaxed and she got her jumping.
It was all very straightforward really. Henry de Bromhead’s mare moved up on the outside of Apple’s Jade at the third last flight as Killultagh Vic wilted on the rail and, while Bacardys made progress in behind the two mares at that point, he quickly came under a ride from Paul Townend as they quickened. Apple’s Jade came under pressure too as they rounded the home turn, as Rachael Blackmore just gave her mare a squeeze. When she did, Honeysuckle came clear. She jumped the second last well, then went in and popped the last and ran all the way to the line.
This was a coming-of-age for Honeysuckle in a sense. All last season, Kenny Alexander’s mare raced against mares and novices. On her debut this season, at Fairyhouse three weeks ago, she took on the boys, but this was a different level of competition altogether. Expectations were high too, that’s a measure of the regard in which she is generally held. She had 12lb to find with Apple’s Jade on official ratings, but still they sent her off the odds-on favourite.
There is something about the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and mares. Solerina won the race three times and Voler La Vedette won it once before Apple’s Jade emulated Solerina in completing a hat-trick last year. Apple’s Jade was bidding for a fourth yesterday but, ultimately, she was no match for the younger mare.
Not that Apple’s Jade is old. She’s only seven. It’s just that, she has achieved so much, 10 Grade 1 wins, it seems like she should be older. It will be interesting to see what Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown House decide to do with her now but she has been beaten now in her last five races, and she remains a fair way short of her brilliant best.
It will also be interesting to see what Henry de Bromhead and Kenny Alexander decide to do with Honeysuckle. The Mares’ Hurdle is the obvious Cheltenham Festival objective for her this season, but she would not be out of place in a Champion Hurdle.
There is a lot that we don’t know about the Sulamani mare too. We are still compiling the book of evidence. Five of her six runs under Rules have been at Fairyhouse, and six of her six runs have been right-handed. That’s surely down to mere happenstance though. There is no obvious reason why she shouldn’t go left-handed on a racecourse.
We know that she is very good too over two and a half miles, but we don’t know if she will stay three miles under Rules – does she need to? – and she hasn’t run over two since she won a listed mares’ hurdle at Thurles last December on just her second run over hurdles.
And we don’t know how good she is. We won’t know that until and unless she is beaten.
Henry de Bromhead spoke on Sunday about potentially giving her a bit of a break now and giving her a prep run for Cheltenham in the spring. That would mean skipping all the Christmas options. If she does skip Christmas, the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival in early February has to be an option.
Bacardys kept on well for second over a distance that is probably short of his best and, while Penhill faded, he was also competing over a distance that was short of his best, and he was racing for the first time since April 2018. The two Willie Mullins horses remain contenders for the Stayers’ Hurdle, a race that Penhill won in 2018.
We don’t know how good Envoi Allen is either. He went into the Royal Bond Hurdle unbeaten in six, and he came out of it unbeaten in seven.
Davy Russell quickly had Gordon Elliott’s horse into a nice racing rhythm, in the front rank and along the inside. Embittered kept him company until they levelled up for home but, as soon as they landed over the second last flight, Envoi Allen picked up. He was challenged by Abacadabras on the run to the final flight, but he stayed on more strongly than his stable companion up the run-in to post an impressive victory.
Envoi Allen just keeps on winning. Winner of his only point-to-point, the Cheveley Park Stud’s horse won his four bumpers last season, including the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, and he was impressive in winning on his hurdling bow at Down Royal in early November. We still haven’t got to the bottom of him yet. We may not even be close.
Gordon Elliott said before Sunday’s race that he could step up in trip if he needed to. We know that he is very good over the minimum trip, but he could be even better over further. It is not surprising that he heads the market for both the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Ballymore Hurdle at this point and, it may be hypothetical but, if he did happen to take his chance in the Champion Hurdle, he wouldn’t be far off the top of the market in that.
Abacadabras enhanced his reputation too in defeat. The Gigginstown House horse travelled really well through his race, and he moved up menacingly between the final two flights. He is a pacey horse, he is a real two-miler. It may be that he was just giving best to a special horse.
Darver Star and Turnpike Trip both ran well to finish third and fourth respectively. Gavin Cromwell has done some job with Darver Star, he was rated 106 in April. Five wins later and he is rated 145 and finishing third in a Grade 1 contest. This was his last day as a novice, but he remains a hugely likeable individual.
The Drinmore Chase was the dramatic one. It is impossible to know how it would have panned out had Samcro not departed at the second last fence, and it was a real shame that he did. We were deprived of the answer to a dichotomous question that could have gone either way.
Fakir D’Oudairies had been very good up until that point. Joseph O’Brien’s horse had travelled really well in front for Mark Walsh, and his jumping had been fast and accurate and ground-making and fairly breathtaking on occasion. Samcro’s jumping had not been as slick, but it was more than adequate from a novice who was racing over fences for just the second time in his life.
Gordon Elliott’s horse moved up on the outside of Fakir D’Oudairies as they straightened up for home, and Jack Kennedy was happy to allow him go in and pop the second last fence before asking his horse for his effort. He just clipped the top of the obstacle though, he landed steeply, knuckled on landing and gave his rider no chance.
They are there to be jumped though, and Fakir D’Oudairies is a brilliant jumper. Seriously impressive when he beat Melon in a beginners’ chase at Navan three weeks ago, this was the longest distance over which JP McManus’ horse has ever raced, and it may be that his the potency of his zippy jumping can be maximised by dropping back down to two miles. The Racing Post Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, a race that connections won with last year Le Richebourg, looks like a good target for him now.
It was a step forward for Samcro too. All the rage as a novice hurdler two seasons ago, the Gigginstown House horse didn’t win last season, but he couldn’t have done any more than he did on his chasing debut at Down Royal. That was encouraging and, while a non-completion is never ideal, his overall performance suggests that he is back on track.
And he was conceding the 8lb four-year-olds’ allowance to the younger horse.
Thankfully, Gordon Elliott reported the Germany gelding to be fine afterwards, and he has options too at Christmas. He could drop down in trip for the Racing Post Chase, or he could step up to three miles for the Neville Hotels Chase. You have to think that he is more likely to step up than to step down in time, but it may be that the race for him over Christmas is the Grade 1 Matchbook Novice Chase at Limerick over two and a half miles, a race that connections won last year with Hardline.
He could meet Faugheen there, and that would be box office.
The Grade 3 Bar One Juvenile Hurdle that opened proceedings on Sunday developed into a match between the two Joseph O’Brien horses, Cerberus and A Wave Of The Sea, as the market suggested it would. Cerberus came out on top this time, reversing form from Punchestown in October with A Wave Of The Sea, from whom he was receiving 4lb on this occasion.
There may not be much between this pair. Cerberus’ jumping was slicker than his stable companion’s, and Robbie Power dictated the fractions from the front before asking his horse to quicken. A Wave Of The Sea, so impressive in winning at Down Royal in early November, could do better when there is more of an emphasis on stamina, and if he can improve on the fluency of his hurdling. This is a race that has been won in the past by Espoir D’Allen and Our Conor, and in which Coeur Sublime was beaten last year, and these two could both take a high rank among the leading juvenile hurdlers this season.