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Champion Hurdle preview: Honeysuckle facing 'biggest test' with Cheltenham Festival defence as Appreciate It leads rivals

Defending champion Honeysuckle faces nine rivals in Champion Hurdle on day one of Cheltenham Festival, including Willie Mullins' 2021 Supreme winner Appreciate It; former Champion Hurdle sensation Epatante also lines up for Nicky Henderson

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore leave the rest of the Champion Hurdle field well behind at Cheltenham
Image: Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore clear away from the 2021 Champion Hurdle field

Honeysuckle could go off the shortest price since Istabraq won the last of his three titles in 2000 when she defends her Unibet Champion Hurdle crown at Cheltenham on Tuesday.

Aidan O'Brien's legendary performer was 8/15 when completing his big-race hat-trick. Honeysuckle is 8/13 with many bookmakers which is a shade shorter than Buveur D'Air, who was 4/6 when winning for a second time in 2018.

Henry de Bromhead's mare is unbeaten in 14 starts under rules, with her 10 Grade One victories including three Irish Champion Hurdles and last year's success in the Cheltenham feature.

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"I suppose on ratings it possibly is her biggest test so far, but it's as you'd expect this race to be. It's really competitive and there's some great horses in there - much like last year," said De Bromhead.

"I've been told that Honeysuckle could go off as the shortest-priced Champion Hurdle favourite this century, but I had no idea. It's probably more pressure in that of course you want her to win, but it's like with any of them, you want them to run their best race.

"It would be unbelievable stuff if she could win again - there's not many that can win two Champion Hurdles, so it would be incredible. Her unbeaten run is amazing but all we can do is get her there as well as we possibly can and then hope we have a bit of luck, and that it all goes well."

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Trainer Henry de Bromhead reveals how his unbeaten Champion Hurdle star Honeysuckle can be a real handful at home, but is easily won over with some carrots!

Epatante, winner in 2020, bids to emulate Hurricane Fly, in 2011 and 2013, by regaining her crown.

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Nicky Henderson's charge was third to Honeysuckle in both Cheltenham and Punchestown Champion Hurdles last spring but has done nothing wrong in her two starts this winter, dead-heating for first place in the Fighting Fifth and winning the Christmas Hurdle outright.

"We set off at the beginning of the season and JP (McManus, owner) said we have two objectives this year - the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle. That is what we wanted and we nearly got it. We got one and a half which was great," said Henderson.

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Sky Sports Racing's Mick Fitzgerald, a 14-time Cheltenham Festival winner, explores the Old Course and reveals the key battles facing the jockeys on days one and two of the four-day meeting.

"I thought at Kempton she was great and she really did look like her old self. She was hurdling like she always used to and tanked Nico (de Boinville, jockey) into the race. She doesn't normally go on that early but she was all for getting home and getting back to bed, and she was off.

"We've still got one big problem in front of us (Honeysuckle). She has looked very good and she will be very hard to beat, but I do think we are at least back where we were (with Epatante) when she won her Champion Hurdle. That might not have been the strongest field in the world and I'm the first to admit that."

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Seven Barrows handler Nicky Henderson talks exclusively to Sky Sports Racing about six of his Cheltenham Festival hopes, including Supreme Novices' Hurdle duo Constitution Hill and Jonbon.

Appreciate It has not run since taking the Supreme 12 months ago but trainer Willie Mullins feels the eight-year-old has a "big chance".

"He was going chasing, but then he got injured and we said we couldn't break his novice this late in the season. It was a fairly easy decision to go back hurdling after that," said the Closutton trainer.

"Appreciate It loves the track - he went well there last year. I'm happy he's going to go there with a big chance.

"He's a strong horse. I know we haven't had a run, but we've done that before.

"I'd say we have a good record for doing that (running well first time out at the Festival), but I don't know whether we've done it for the Champion Hurdle.

"It's all to play for I think, but we have a big hurdle to jump (in Honeysuckle)."

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Trainer Willie Mullins isn't worried about the lack of a run this season for Appreciate It as he bids to defeat Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle.

Gordon Elliott is happy to run both Zanahiyr and Teahupoo despite having the utmost respect for Honeysuckle.

"I think the track will suit Zanahiyr and we're going to put cheekpieces on, not because he's ungenuine but to help him early in the race because he's a bit behind the bridle," he said.

"Honeysuckle has been awesome the last couple of years and there's probably not a person in racing that wouldn't love to see her win. My horse is in good form, he has six and a half lengths to find from Leopardstown, but I think the track will suit him better, However, she looks very good. I think he's got a good each-way chance.

"Teahupoo will take his chance. He's improving and it's kind of hard to know what he has as he doesn't show much at home, but when he goes to the track, he keeps improving. We don't know how good he is to be honest."

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Gordon Elliott outlines six of his stable stars ahead of the Cheltenham Festival, including Gold Cup prospects Galvin and Conflated as well as unbeaten Champion Bumper hope American Mike.

Tommy's Oscar has been a revelation for trainer Ann Hamilton and her husband Ian, who owns the seven-year-old, winning his last four races. Though he is undoubtedly progressive, he faces by far his toughest test to date.

"He worked on Tuesday last week and it did the job. Then we schooled him on Wednesday, and he was brilliant. To be honest, I was keen to go to the Morebattle Hurdle myself, as it's just up the road and it was a £100,000 race," said Ian Hamilton.

"Brian Hughes and everyone else has been telling us that it's not very often that you have a horse good enough to go to Cheltenham, so we've got to go for it. He was impressed with him the other night when he worked with him and he said he felt good - so for him to say that he must be all right, because he's quite modest.

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Top trainers Nicky Henderson, Dan Skelton, Gordon Elliott, Henry de Bromhead, Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls each select their 'dark horse' for the Cheltenham Festival.

"I don't think he's beaten a top-class horse yet, but he's improving so you just don't know. He hasn't beaten a Champion Hurdle horse, but he hasn't faced one yet, so we'll see. Hopefully he does it on Tuesday!

"He's improving all the time and when he won the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock, I saw a comparison with the novices' race that Jonbon won. He was a good few seconds faster, so it was a good time for the ground.

"He's just a bit nervy, so it'll be whether he's able to handle the Cheltenham crowd on the day. He's got a hood for the parade ring and then we'll take it off and then he should be OK in the race itself."

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