Honeysuckle has what it takes to defend her Champion Hurdle crown

It'll be reassuring for Honeysuckle and Blackmore to do what they've always done

The old description of racing as being a magnificent triviality will be apt come Tuesday afternoon should racing's poster partnership of Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore successfully defend the Unibet Champion Hurdle crown.

Honeysuckle is one half a dozen mares to win hurdling’s championship. None has won it more than once. It means more history awaits this remarkable athlete and her pioneering pilot.

Successful a year ago behind closed doors due to Covid-19, the opportunity for a full house at Cheltenham to acclaim them back into the winner's enclosure probably matters more than it ought to.

In the context of war in Europe, and dread of any apocalyptic escalation, the outcome of a horse race on the side of a hill in Gloucestershire is supremely inconsequential. But another old saying about trivial and irrelevance not being synonymous surely applies.


The emotional investment made by those who make the annual pilgrimage to jump racing’s greatest week, as well as millions tuning in, may be indulgent but hardly immaterial.

A couple of years ago that indulgence appeared to flirt with arrogance as the curse of Covid made its first impact in these islands. If the reputational harm was considerable in 2020, then Blackmore’s groundbreaking achievements last year couldn’t have come at a better time for the sport.


Now, in the midst of conflict in Ukraine, racing has its own internal turmoil relating to persistent claims of doping and a lack of trust in its regulation. That it should coincide with unprecedented levels of success for Irish-trained horses at the meeting that matters most is a bitter irony for many.

It will add to an uncomplicated feel-good factor should Honeysuckle once more take her cue. On 14 occasions she and Blackmore have raced and 14 times they’ve won. It’s the same haul as the flat superstar Frankel trawled in his entire racing life and no jumps horse has remained unbeaten for so long in their career.

At a time of upheaval there will almost be a sense of reassurance about a horse and jockey continuing to do what they’ve always done.

Such consistency even survived a worrying dip in form for the De Bromhead team in the first months of 2021. Nagging fear that such a blip might cost Honeysuckle her spotless record dogged the run up to last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle and yet the mare ultimately won with authority.

As she has matured that capacity to get the job done whatever the circumstances has become a trademark.

Most horses, even top class ones, have an ideal race and pace scenario. Honeysuckle’s career has been defined as much by her adaptability as her quality. Last year’s Champion Hurdle tempo was such that she laid off the pace to a greater extent than normal. Yet ultimately she came through to score in style. Subsequently below her best at Punchestown she still found a way to win.

Records may be there to be broken but most will take a view of it being foolish to jump off an unbeaten bandwagon while it’s going strong.


Another of the select six mares to have won the Champion Hurdle is the 2020 heroine Epatante.

Third last year she has reportedly enjoyed a smoother preparation this time but the fact remains she has ground to make up on her rival.

New threats to Honeysuckle’s supremacy have emerged in Appreciate It and Teahupoo. Both fit the “could be anything” category judged on what they’ve done to date.

Teahupoo will never have faced as intense a scenario as this, but Appreciate It bounded up the famous hill to land the Supreme last year. The problem is he has not raced since.

It’s a huge ask at any time to win at the festival first time out, although Willie Mullins’s record with horses such as Quevega and Penhill gives encouragement.

"If you were to pick a horse to throw into the deep end I think Appreciate It's tough enough to do it," his jockey Paul Townend considered.

However, that is conditional on a number of things going right for Appreciate It & Co while the record shows Honeysuckle simply adjusts to what is in front of her.

Throw in a vital 7lb sex allowance and the favourite’s credentials look bombproof.

In 1939, at a time of tumult in Europe, Lester Piggott’s father Keith rode African Sister to become the first mare to win the Champion Hurdle.

Necessary perspective will envelop this week’s return to the old festival normal. But the merits of watching a champion around Cheltenham will still feel like no little thing at 3.30pm on Tuesday afternoon.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column