Sport

Looking good for Henry de Bromhead's star mare, Honeysuckle, ahead of Dublin Racing Festival

Stable groom, Emily Flynn, is confident that Honeysuckle will behave, as boss Henry de Bromhead leads the Knockeen Queen up and down the yard.

"She seems to know when the cameras are there," says the smiling groom of the butter-wouldn't-melt demeanour.

The mare with a dozen Grade 1 prizes to her name has been known to treat fools and geniuses with equal disdain if not in the mood to play nice but apparently that is usually when she has her game face on. And evidently, never in front of her adoring fans.

Now nine, Honeysuckle is reported by both trainer and lass to be tracking ideally towards a likely clash with Matheson Hurdle victor State Man, among others, as she bids to join Hurricane Fly and Istabraq as four-in-a-row winners of the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday week, the second day of the Dublin Racing Festival, which takes place at Leopardstown on February 4 and 5.

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Hurricane Fly actually took the honours in five consecutive seasons (2011-2015) while Istabraq was dominant from 1998 to 2001.

Honeysuckle scored on her first attempt over two miles in open company in 2020 and the opposition haven’t been able to land a glove on Kenny Alexander’s wonder mare in the high-class contest subsequently, recording three Cheltenham Festival triumphs along the way including the last two Champion Hurdles.

This year is a little different as there is a number other than a ‘1’ before her name, having finished third on her reappearance in the Bar One Racing Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse at the beginning of December. There hasn’t been a hitch in preparations since, however, and the daughter of Sulamani heads a strong De Bromhead team being aimed at one of the climaxes of the National Hunt calendar.

Although a relatively new innovation, having first gotten under way in 2018, it feels like the Dublin Racing Festival has been around forever.

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De Bromhead has saddled five winners at Dublin Racing Festival, all at Grade 1 level. Monalee defeated subsequent dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo in what is now the Ladbrokes Novice Chase in the inaugural event. Notebook jumped for fun when bagging the Goffs Irish Arkle Novice Chase two years later, while Honeysuckle has registered the remaining successes with her treble.

The Waterford man was a fan from the outset.

Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

“Do you remember when it was sort of dragged out from January through to February? It’s a brilliant concept and it’s got established very quickly,” says De Bromhead. “It’s really good timing with five weeks to Cheltenham and plenty of horses have stepped forward from it to win over there.

“But we have to look at it as a standalone event as well. We’re always looking at things as a step to Cheltenham but as a standalone event, the prize money is brilliant and it’s a great weekend’s racing. It’s often on with a rugby match or something, so there’s always a good buzz around. It’s a great meeting.

“A lot of people come over from England too and that’s amazing. It shows how good the idea was. People talk about the English-trained horses not coming over, though Paul Nicholls sent a couple last year, but I wouldn’t be mad keen to travel one this close to Cheltenham.”

He comes up with a brilliant description for the competitiveness of the fare.

“It’s vicious,” he pronounces, with a broad grin. “I remember Monalee really well. Noel Fehily rode him. He’d had a crunching fall in Leopardstown at Christmas, so it was lovely to see him come out and do it. Notebook was brilliant. It was a tough race, a hard race and it might have taken its toll on him in the Arkle at Cheltenham but he was brilliant.”

Then came the Honeysuckle hat-trick, kickstarted by a diminishing half-length defeat of Darver Star after a mistake at the last flight.

“She needed the line, didn’t she the first year? The ground was lively stepping back to two miles and she did it. And that’s her, heart-on-the-sleeve stuff. We never dreamt she could do what she did after that. She’d been hugely impressive in everything she’d done up to then but she’d just come out of her novice season, had won her first Bar One Racing Hatton's Grace Hurdle impressively. She looked great but you couldn’t think she’d go on to do what she has.”

The 10-length defeat of subsequent Aintree Hurdle winner Abacadabras 12 months later illustrated the extent of the mare’s development.

“She was a different mare altogether. She’d found her feet. She’d more experience racing over too miles. She was brilliant that year. Look, she’s been brilliant every race.”

There wasn’t a moment’s worry as she scored by six and a half lengths from Zanahiyr last year either, but the highlight for many was the raucous ovation as Rachael Blackmore steered Honeysuckle from the chute out of the parade ring past the grandstands towards the start. It occurred without De Bromhead being aware, however.

“Really? Going down? Really? Wow! I don’t think I even knew of that. Of course you forget there were no crowds the year before. Every trainer dreams of having a horse like her. I never thought I’d get to train anything like her. She’s an amazing mare and we’ve had some roll with her.

“She seems great now, really good. I thought she ran well at Fairyhouse, probably not up to her highest level but I think for her first run back she ran really well. Two and a half on ground that got very soft in the end might have just been a stretch, beaten by a real soft-ground specialist in Teahupoo and Klassical Dream is a high-class horse as well.”

Racemares don’t tend to leave connections in any doubt when they have had enough of giving their all on the track as their form often falls off a cliff. There is no hint of Honeysuckle losing her appetite for the fray.

“She looked like she had it put to bed between the second-last and the last and then they just came at her and that was it. We don’t see anything different here. Maybe that will arise on the track, I don’t know. Everyone is happy. She looks good.”

There has been much debate about her future since that reverse and Alexander, De Bromhead and Peter Molony, who is the owner’s racing manager, will make a call after Leopardstown.

“We’ll see how it goes but both options in Cheltenham are open. The Mares’ Hurdle is definitely an option and the Champion Hurdle is definitely an option. I think we see how the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle goes and we’ll all sit down and going by Peter’s quotes, thrash it out together!

“I think the most important thing is we keep all our options open. I suppose my job is to find the race I’ve the best chance of winning. That may not be what we go with. At the moment, looking at Constitution Hill and he’s whatever he is, 1/3. I’m not saying the Mares’ race would be an easy race but you might have a better chance of winning that than you would a Champion, if all the players turn up but we have to get through the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle first and that’s a big test for us also. We’ve got plenty to do in between.”

Honeysuckle is the obvious headline act but De Bromhead will have plenty of good opportunities over the two days of the Dublin Racing Festival with some promising novices stepping up and a couple of improving horses in the lucrative handicaps too.

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