Shots have been fired but you sense the real challenges to Honeysuckle’s Unibet Champion Hurdle crown have yet to be issued.
Henry De Bromhead’s mare – due to reappear in Sunday’s BARONERACING.COM Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse – was dominant in the division last season, enhancing her unbeaten record to a delicious dozen with four Grade One victories which began in the same event 12 months ago.
On a perch of 165 she is Timeform’s highest-rated hurdler in training and while currently only a pound clear of stayer Flooring Porter and old rival Sharjah in that regard, the 7lb she receives from male counterparts in top-class races is clearly among the things which help set her apart.
It is going to take something extraordinary – certainly this side of Christmas – to see any horse get close to her in the antepost market for Cheltenham. Just take Sharjah, for instance, trained an hour’s drive up the M9 at Willie Mullins’ yard and the closest Honeysuckle has to a legitimate rival at this stage.
Sharjah, a brilliant, three-length winner of the Morgiana Hurdle on his seasonal reappearance at Punchestown, was beaten six and a half lengths when runner-up in the 2021 Champion Hurdle, and two and a quarter lengths when runner-up in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.
He has natural speed to die for, a smooth jumping technique and bags of experience to draw upon. The eight-year-old also thrives on decent ground and is trained by the best in the business, and yet he’s met Honeysuckle four times and never got within a couple of lengths, such is her latent superiority.
‘So where are the real dangers?’, I hear you rightly ask.
Their existence has yet to be made clear, of course, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t any, and it's only natural to look to the next wave of young guns when it comes to this particular search.
Plans for Appreciate It currently revolve around going chasing and the Sporting Life Arkle come the spring, but no matter the noises, leaving a 24-length Sky Bet Supreme winner out of the two-mile championship equation looks potentially dangerous.
Mullins probably wouldn’t be dead against a light campaign for the seven-year-old, though lack of autumn rain has evidently resulted in keeping one or two winter aces on the back-burner, and the closer we get to Christmas means anything but a plain sailing prep could possibly derail an entire novice chase campaign.
He seemingly has everything you’d wish to see in a potential Champion Hurdle hope, a fact which will hardly be lost on connections.
Stablemate Ferny Hollow is something of the elephant in the room, having beaten not only Appreciate It in the 2020 Champion Bumper, but also subsequent runaway Ballymore winner Bob Olinger in a maiden hurdle at Gowran last November.
His potential outweighs anything else in the whole picture and yet his trainer is, by all accounts, planning on tackling fences with him at some stage soon too.
So, in a rare twist, Mullins may not be able to come up with the answers to this puzzle. But does Gordon Elliott have the ammo to compete with the best here?
The long-range betting would suggest perhaps not, Zanahiyr having largely been left alone as a 20/1 shot after he, along with Mullins’ mare Echoes In Rain, now out to 25/1, were made to look decidedly one-paced by Sharjah in the Morgiana.
Zanahiyr still has significant room for improvement in a more truly-run race, especially on a stiff track like Cheltenham, but so too does Elliott’s Teahupoo, who slammed another Cullentra House stable companion, Quilixios, by 12 lengths in Fishery Lane at Naas earlier in the month (free replay below).
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Quilixios had beaten recent Greatwood Hurdle runner-up Adagio in the Triumph Hurdle in March, while back in third at Naas was the Fred Winter winner Jeff Kidder, so there is substance to Teahupoo’s seemingly improved performance.
He’d finished second behind Jeff Kidder at Fairyhouse in the spring but is on an upward trajectory and his jumping was particularly tidy first time out.
Ill-fated Espoir D’Allen won the Fishery Lane at the start of his (rather fortuitous) Champion Hurdle-winning campaign and though Teahupoo (145) still has a ratings mountain to climb according to Timeform, Espoir D’Allen went from 148 to 170 on the same scale as he turned from four to five, so it can be done.
Which brings us to another leading juvenile from last year, Monmiral who, aside from 16/1 shot Epatante, is the shortest-priced British-trained runner in the Champion Hurdle book. That he remains 25/1 almost across the board speaks volumes, but he has made just five visits to the racecourse and, like Honeysuckle, doesn’t yet know the meaning of defeat.
It could prove harsh continuing to use David Pipe’s Adagio as a mere yardstick in this conversation, as he’s obviously going the right way himself and was the best horse at the weights when second to West Cork in the Greatwood, but he was beaten hollow by Monmiral at Aintree in April, and Paul Nicholls’ horse will reportedly be given every chance to prove himself a Champion Hurdle contender.
That process is set to start against Epatante in Newcastle’s Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle this Saturday, less than 24 hours earlier than Honeysuckle’s eagerly-anticipated comeback. So for all that it looks a fairly uncompetitive classification as things stand, it wouldn’t be too much of a shock to see the dynamic change quite dramatically over the weekend.
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