Honeysuckle returns to defend Champion Hurdle crown and puts her unbeaten record on the line on opening day of the Cheltenham Festival; 2021 Supreme winner Appreciate It set to return to the track for the first time this season
Wednesday 9 March 2022 18:11, UK
Kate Tracey assesses every candidate for hurdling’s most prestigious prize, the Unibet Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
The current two-mile hurdling division certainly is not a vintage crop but that should not detract from the brilliance of Honeysuckle, and the partnership between her and Rachael Blackmore is sure to be one of the biggest attractions for this year's Cheltenham Festival.
Will the unbeaten mare regain her crown and extend her unbeaten record? Will Appreciate It defy all odds and make a winning reappearance? There are plenty of fascinating questions to be answered in the 2022 renewal of the Unibet Champion Hurdle...
The Off The Fence panel return this week to take a look ahead at every race at this year's Cheltenham Festival with our preview show.
Trainer: David Pipe
He's had a fascinating couple of starts this season where he's finished second on both occasions, the first of which was when carrying top weight in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November. He ran a stormer and almost rewarded connections' bravery for running a five-year-old off 11st 12lb by finishing second by three-quarters of a length.
He reappeared next time out in the Grade Two Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton when facing a tough task to take on Goshen, who had been such a devastating winner of the race the season before.
Adagio cruised through the race and Tom Scudamore pulled him out wider to mount his challenge and looked to have Goshen in real trouble as the favourite was pushed along.
Adagio got half a length up on Goshen but with Goshen on the best part of the Wincanton track, against the stand side rail, the 4/7 favourite ultimately prevailed. Adagio looked to get outstayed but showed a huge amount of pace and ability in the race and certainly emerged with more credit from the race.
He is a thoroughly likeable and hardy horse with plenty more to come still and represents value at an each-way price.
The potential fly in the ointment is Appreciate It. The reason he finds himself second in the Champion Hurdle betting is a reliance on Willie Mullins's genius. This eight-year-old gelding hasn't been seen since dominating the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at last season's Cheltenham Festival.
A big, strapping son of Jeremy, it made sense that Appreciate It was due to go novice chasing this season but, because of a setback, that novice chase campaign was postponed and instead Mullins decided that an aim at the Champion Hurdle was a better fit.
Appreciate It was due to make his highly anticipated return in the Irish Champion Hurdle, but Mullins elected that the race didn't come at the right time for his charge.
If Appreciate It was trained by any other handler, a consideration of winning a Champion Hurdle on the back of a year-long absence would be madness. However, Mullins has proven his training exploits in the past with first time up winners at the Cheltenham Festival, none more so than Quevega, who won the Mares' Hurdle on her reappearance five years in a row.
This may prove a different kettle of fish however, as the Champion Hurdle has never been won by a horse on their first start of the season.
Appreciate It is highly likely to give Honeysuckle a race, with course and distance winning form to his name, as well as a lot of evident ability. However, there is a big concern that this will be his first start in open company and there will be no time for him to blow away any cobwebs.
The Champion Hurdle winner of 2020, Epatante is certainly a forgotten horse in this year's renewal. The mare won the race as a six-year-old in dominating style, pulling out a three-length winning margin from Sharjah, the Champion Hurdle stalwart, in second. She was the 2/1 favourite for the race that year and set a clear standard in a division certainly lacking depth that season.
She returned for the race last year following a great win in the Fighting Fifth and after being overturned as the 1/5 favourite in the Christmas Hurdle. She has always been a mare who wears her heart on her sleeve and that was apparent at Kempton that day, looking agitated in the preliminaries and not jumping with any of her usual fluency.
She looked a much more composed model at last year's Festival where the absence of crowds may have aided her in running a solid race to finish third but proved no match for Honeysuckle or the second placed Sharjah, who reversed the form from the previous year.
It was well documented that Epatante underwent a back operation over the summer to aid her jumping and it clearly worked as she was far more slick and accurate on her reappearance at Newcastle when retaining her crown in the Fighting Fifth by dead-heating with Not So Sleepy.
Once again, her jumping was neat and quick when winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day where she took full advantage of a weak field. Just as was the case last season, she's been put away since that run to freshen up before another tilt at the Champion Hurdle.
Now that Epatante has rediscovered her fluent jumping style, she should give her running back over this course and distance. She actually jumps far more efficiently and more like a two-mile hurdler than Honeysuckle however, the engine Honeysuckle has will make life tough once again.
It's a given nowadays that the winner of the Betfair Hurdle should run in the Champion Hurdle and that's the case once again this year with Glory And Fortune.
Glory And Fortune had previously been a very frustrating horse where he'd been overturned as favourite on four occasions with only one win in his two previous seasons.
However, Lacey allowed his runner to get his head back in front during the quiet period at the start of the season, winning at Plumpton in September before a comfortable success in the Welsh Champion Hurdle in October.
He initially appeared to get found out by the rise in the handicap in his next two starts and it was interesting therefore, that he ran in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle where he posted a very good performance to finish second behind Epatante at a big price.
Many believed that was just another reflection of the lack of strength and depth in the division that a horse such as Glory And Fortune could go that close and he was therefore sent off at 20/1 for the Betfair Hurdle off a career high mark of 143.
He's been a slow burner, but he has now fulfilled the potential he always promised, though the Champion Hurdle should prove a step too far.
Henry de Bromhead
The reigning champion and now unbeaten in 15 career starts, including her Irish point-to-point win on debut, Honeysuckle is seemingly invincible.
She was an emphatic winner of last season's hurdling centrepiece where Rachael Blackmore kicked off the home bend and surged into the straight, leaving her rivals toiling.
It's rare to see a performance of that superiority in a Grade One but the win proved Honeysuckle as a cut above the current two-mile open hurdling division.
The eight-year-old mare has followed the same route to Cheltenham as she did last season by reappearing in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival.
Certainly in the latter, Honeysuckle jumped her obstacles with customary height and the occasional tendency to jump to her left, both traits becoming a pattern in her career.
Honeysuckle's technique may be unorthodox for a great two-mile hurdler but she's clever at her obstacles and her engine, turn of foot and stamina all counteract her careful hurdling technique and she will take all the beating once again in the Champion Hurdle.
Not So Sleepy is an enigma and a law unto himself. Hughie Morrison's representative is a 10-year-old now but rarely is that recognisable and many believed he would run a big race in last year's Champion Hurdle, and he certainly did that, finishing fifth at 125/1.
Not So Sleepy had a battle on for the lead in last season's renewal with Silver Streak instead setting the pace and that meant that Not So Sleepy had to settle with merely tracking the pace.
Unlike in 2020 - when unseating Paddy Brennan - he showed maturity in this year's Fighting Fifth, where he settled well and ultimately forced a dead-heat with Epatante.
But, Not So Sleepy's inner demons reappeared on his next start in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day where he was a 4/1 chance against the reopposing Epatante. His keen and free-going tendencies resurfaced and he ultimately paid for those exertions by finishing last of the five runners.
It'll be interesting to see how Not So Sleepy is ridden in this year's Champion Hurdle. If connections elect to go forwards with him, he may get an uncontested lead which could see him run into a place at a big price.
The jury remains out with Saint Roi as he hasn't fulfilled the potential he looked to have in developing into a Graded performer.
He won the 2020 County Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and was subsequently touted as a potential Champion Hurdle contender for the following season, with that theory given further confidence on his return last campaign when winning a Grade Three on his reappearance.
However, that success was his last career win to date and he has been highly tried in the top two-mile hurdle contests subsequently and has come up short, finishing a comfortably beaten fourth in the 2020 Matheson Hurdle and filled that same spot in the last two renewals of the Irish Champion Hurdle behind Honeysuckle.
He finds himself in an awkward middle ground where he has the ability to place in Grade One two-mile hurdles but it's very difficult to see him reversing the form with Honeysuckle.
I expected Saint Roi to have a County Hurdle entry but it's interesting that Willie Mullins has elected to solely enter him in the Champion Hurdle.
It's difficult to see him featuring unless completely revitalised.
Teahupoo is a horse who enters the Cheltenham Festival in a winning habit as he's won all three of his hurdles starts this season.
He was a solid if not standout juvenile hurdler last season where he gained a first success at Auteuil when trained by Gabriel Leenders before being switched to join the Gordon Elliott yard.
This season, Teahupoo has looked an entirely different animal where he's been kept over hurdles but has more than proved himself in open company. He began his campaign only facing four-year-olds on his first two outings where he came up against the Triumph Hurdle winner of 2021, Quilixios.
Teahupoo readily put that rival away in the Grade Three Fishery Lane on his reappearance, with many querying whether Quilixios had given his true running, and the pair rematched at Limerick where Quilixios looked set to reverse the form and win but for overjumping the final flight and being nabbed by Teahupoo.
The third set-to between the two five-year-olds came at Gowran Park where Teahupoo was the 13/8 favourite to confirm the form. Both were facing their elders for the first time, and it was going to be noteworthy to see how either fared in the open race.
Teahupoo improved again however and posted a career-best performance with a dominating win by 11 lengths from the nearest pursuer, Darasso.
Admittedly, that race was nowhere near the calibre of the Champion Hurdle where the task of taking on Honeysuckle and Appreciate It will prove a far sterner test, however, Teahupoo is improving at a rate of knots with each of his starts.
The Champion Hurdle is notoriously difficult for five-year-olds to win but there isn't much strength and depth in behind Honeysuckle and Appreciate It and Teahupoo comes into the race with a solid profile.
The popular Tommy's Oscar has certainly earned his place in a Champion Hurdle line-up, such is the lack of strength and depth in the two-mile hurdling division. That is not to the detriment of Tommy's Oscar though who has more than been able to capitalise on the lack of decent hurdlers in Britain.
Ann Hamilton only trains six horses but has had a brilliant season with plenty of winners at decent levels, none more so than her stable star, Tommy's Oscar who has won four on the bounce.
The seven-year-old has shown rapid progression through the handicap ranks where he's gained successes at Haydock, Doncaster and Musselburgh this season and made the step into Grade Two company last time out when easily justifying his 4/7 favouritism by winning the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock.
This son of Oscar has been a revelation since being dropped back to two miles and has risen 18lb in his last four starts. This will be a huge task for Tommy's Oscar but in a division lacking depth, he deserves his place.
Zanahiyr was a hugely likeable juvenile hurdler last season where he was able to put all his ability and experience from the flat to good use in his first three hurdle starts, winning each of those races in dominating fashion and proved himself adept at winning both slowly-run and well-run contests.
It made sense therefore, that he was sent off as the 11/8 favourite for the Triumph Hurdle at last season's Cheltenham Festival but he didn't fire as expected in the race and could only finish fourth behind Quilixios.
It was interesting that Gordon Elliott elected to keep Zanahiyr over hurdles this season when he looks a big, scopey type and the horse was sent out early in the season to run at Down Royal in the Grade Two WKD Hurdle which he dotted up in.
He was then chucked straight into the deep end by running in the Grade One Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown and attempted to make all in the three-runner field but was ultimately outpaced by Sharjah who proved his superiority over his younger rivals.
Zanahiyr was able to get closer to Sharjah in the Matheson Hurdle but then proved no match for Honeysuckle last time out in the Irish Champion Hurdle. There, he made bad error at the first hurdle but regathered himself and did best of the rest behind the invincible mare.
If there is plenty of pace on in this year's Champion Hurdle, then that would bring him into play. However, with only Not So Sleepy as a potential out and out pacesetter, it looks unlikely that Zanahiyr will get the strongly-run contest to bring his stamina to the fore.
It's incredibly difficult to envisage anything other than a second Champion Hurdle win for Honeysuckle, such is her dominance of the division.
I expect Appreciate It to throw down a stern challenge to the mare as he is hugely talented but it's difficult to know what to expect from him.
I think the value is represented by Epatante and Adagio to be placed with hopefully plenty of these runners lining up to allow three places to aim at.
Epatante won the Champion Hurdle in 2020 and finished third in 2021 so has solid form in the race and also looked back to herself since her back operation during the summer. For all she's unlikely to be a match for Honeysuckle once again, she's more than capable of running into a place with last season's second, Sharjah, ruled out of the race.
Of the five-year-olds, my preference is for Adagio at his price on the back of his very good second place efforts this season. He has course-winning form to his name from his juvenile season and has proven himself in the open hurdling division. He is a consistent performer and may be able to sneak into a place.