Honeysuckle to lead Irish assault on day one of Cheltenham

Henry De Bromhead’s unbeaten mare is odds-on to retain Champion Hurdle crown

Honeysuckle is set to be the headline act on day one of the Cheltenham Festival when defending her Unibet Champion Hurdle crown on Tuesday.

Henry De Bromhead’s unbeaten mare is odds-on to get the better of her nine rivals with bookmakers rating compatriots Appreciate It and Teahupoo as the main threats.

Sunday's final declarations for the first leg of jump racing's biggest week of the year underlined how Cheltenham's Anglo-Irish rivalry could be dictated by early results prior to the Champion Hurdle.

Last year, cross-channel trained horses won two of the three races only for Irish runners to ultimately sweep to an unprecedented 23-5 “green-wash” over the rest of the week.


Saturday’s Imperial Cup result at Sandown, where Peter Fahey’s 20-1 outsider Surprise Package won easily, sent an ominous signal for the week ahead, particularly in relation to handicaps.

It is only 5-4 with some layers that Irish-based runners win 21 or more of the week’s 28 races.

Team morale

So a lot of home team morale will weigh on the highly rated Nicky Henderson-trained pair, Constitution Hill and Jonbon, in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle, as well as Edwardstone in the Sporting Life Arkle.

Should they fail to overcome the raiders, and one of the seven visitors secure a first Irish win in the Ultima Handicap Chase since 2006, it could be a grim outlook by the time Honeysuckle and co line up in the big race.

Henry De Bromhead gave an upbeat bulletin on Honeysuckle after Sunday's final declarations but pointed to the stiff task he feels she faces.

“Appreciate It looks very good. Epatante they’ve said they’re happier with her than ever. But from memory there were plenty like that last year too,” he reported.

As expected, Willie Mullins, who is 11-10 to outscore the home defence on his own this week, is waiting until Wednesday's opening Ballymore with Sir Gerhard leaving Dysart Dynamo to lead his three-pronged attack on the Supreme.

The festival’s most successful ever trainer is targeting an eighth win in the opener.

Paul Townend will again be on board Dysart Dynamo who is officially top rated in the race on a mark of 152 after his wide-margin success at Punchestown in January.

Mullins’s number one rider has opted for Blue Lord from the trainer’s trio of Arkle hopes although Edwardstone continues to top betting lists for the two-mile novice heat won in 2021 by Shishkin.

There are three other Mullins runners in Tuesday's other Grade One event, the Close Bros Mares Hurdle.

Patrick Mullins, on board Kilcruit in the Supreme, will team up with Echoes In Rain for the mares contest in which Telmesomethinggirl represents the De Bromhead team.

Just seven have been declared for the Ukraine Appeal National Hunt Chase with Jamie Codd and Run Wild Fred taking on the main Mullins hope Stattler.

The all-important ground conditions for this week’s action are approaching the desired description of “good to soft”. It means further watering has been put on hold for the Old course which stages racing on the first two days.

Monitor conditions

“We are certainly not doing any watering at the moment and we will monitor conditions and see how much it dries before making any decision on any further watering.

"Given where we are currently and the forecast ahead, we will be somewhere around good to soft for the start of the meeting," said Cheltenham's clerk of the course, Jon Pullin.

“We are dry tomorrow [Monday], dry Tuesday with temperatures around 13-14 degrees.

“There is a little bit of rain on the radar for Wednesday at the moment so we are keeping an eye on that. At the moment it looks like 2-3mm. And then Thursday and Friday looking dry, bright and sunny and temperatures up to 14 degrees. There doesn’t look as though there is much rain around,” he added.

That forecast will encourage hopes that Surprise Package could secure a quick big handicap double in Friday's festival finale, the Martin Pipe Hurdle.

Peter Fahey believes quicker ground is to his horse's advantage.

“He goes for the Martin Pipe although he needs five or six to come out,” the Co Kildare trainer said after Surprise Package’s Sandown success. “I think this lad has physically improved from his last run.”

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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