Honeysuckle will face a maximum of five rivals when she bids for back-to-back victories in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.
Henry de Bromhead’s charge was a narrow winner of the feature event on the opening day of the Dublin Racing Festival last season, before going on to claim the notable scalp of Benie Des Dieux in an epic clash for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The seven-year-old made a winning reappearance when successfully defending her crown in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse in November and is the hot favourite to stretch her unbeaten record to 10 on Saturday in the hands of Rachael Blackmore.
“She seems well at home and was good in the Hatton’s Grace. There is no Grade One out there that is easy to win and she seems to have produced the goods every day, so I can’t fault her,” said the jockey.
“She’s definitely captured my imagination, anyway. She’s been fantastic to me and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Honeysuckle’s biggest threat appears to be the Willie Mullins-trained Sharjah, who disappointed in last year’s renewal but was last seen winning his third Matheson Hurdle over the course and distance.
Sharjah’s stablemates Saint Roi and Saldier, who were fourth and sixth behind him over Christmas, are set to be in opposition once more, while the field is completed by Gordon Elliott’s pair of Petit Mouchoir an Abacadabras, who were third and fifth in the same race.
Mullins appears to hold all the aces in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase, with last year’s one-two Chacun Pour Soi and Min set to renew rivalry.
The Closutton maestro could also saddle Tornado Flyer, with Castlegrace Paddy (Pat Fahy), Fakir D’Oudairies (Joseph O’Brien), Notebook (De Bromhead) and Sizing Pottsie (Jessica Harrington) the other hopefuls.
Mullins has won the Patrick Ward And Company Solicitors Irish Arkle Novice Chase with Un De Sceaux (2015), Douvan (2016) and Footpad (2018) in recent years, and houses a leading contender this year in Energumene.
The Tony Bloom-owned gelding could be joined stable companions Blackbow, Franco De Port and Unexcepted, while Gavin Cromwell’s Darver Star and Paul Nolan’s stable star Latest Exhibition also feature.
The first of four Grade Ones on the card is the Nathaniel Lacy And Partners Solicitors 50k Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff’ Novice Hurdle, in which Mullins again possesses a strong hand, with Gaillard Du Mesnil and Stattler leading a seven-strong entry.
Also among the 17 contenders are the Harrington-trained Ashdale Bob, Emmet Mullins’ Cape Gentleman and Gentlemansgame from the Mouse Morris yard.
Elliott’s Sir Gerhard_ is a warm order for the concluding Goffs Future Stars I.N.H. Flat Race.
Elliott has also confirmed Chemical Energy, while Mullins has a trio in Kilcruit, Ramillies and Whatdeawant.
Five left in Irish Gold Cup
Minella Indo will bid to get his season back on track in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday.
Narrowly denied by Champ in a thrilling climax to the RSA Chase at Cheltenham last season, Henry de Bromhead’s charge was so impressive in winning his first two tarts of the current campaign he was clear favourite for the Savills Chase over the Irish Gold Cup course and distance.
The eight-year-old only made it as far as the eighth fence at the Christmas fixture before falling in a race won by his stablemate A Plus Tard – but with the latter heading straight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Minella Indo is well fancied to reaffirm his own claims for the blue riband.
Rachael Blackmore will be in the saddle once again, on a horse she has plenty of affection for.
She said: “Minella Indo has been fantastic to me. He gave me my first Grade One in the Albert Bartlett in Cheltenham, which was an incredible day.
“We’re really looking forward to running him. It was unfortunate what happened to him in Leopardstown the last day, (but) he seems to have been very good since – I gave him a pop (over fences) last week and there seems to be no ill effects.
“It was just one of those things and we move on to the next day.”
Minella Indo will face a maximum of just four rivals in the feature event on day two of the Dublin Racing Festival – but still faces a far from straightforward task.
Willie Mullins, who has won the Irish Gold Cup on a record 10 occasions, is set to saddle both Kemboy and Melon, who finished second and third respectively behind A Plus Tard over the Christmas period.
Delta Work provided trainer Gordon Elliott with his first Irish Gold Cup when denying Kemboy 12 months ago. He is set to defend his crown, having unseated his rider when bidding for back-to-back Savills Chase wins.
Delta Work’s stablemate The Storyteller completes the quintet.
The Mullins-trained Monkfish is the star attraction in the preceding Flogas Novice Chase, a race in which his stablemate Faugheen brought the house down with victory 12 months ago.
Monkfish is a red-hot favourite to follow suit, while Mullins could also saddle Asterion Forlonge and Janidil.
Elliott’s Andy Dufresne and Paul Nolan’s Latest Exhibition head the opposition.
With Triumph Hurdle favourite Zanahiyr taken out, Elliott looks set to rely on the unbeaten Quilixios in the first Grade One of the afternoon, the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle.
Mullins is poised to saddle new recruit French Aseel, who was mightily impressive at the track in December before changing hands.
Mullins’ Appreciate It, ante-post favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, heads 19 remaining contenders for the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle.
The champion trainer also has Ganapathi and Mr Coldstone as part of his eight-strong team.
🗣 Lorcan Wyer
🌱 Ground update ahead of Dublin Racing Festival
🏆 8 Grade 1 races
🌦 Current weather forecast
🏇🏻 Details of rail and fence movement
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— IHRB (@ihrbie) February 2, 2021
The fixture list on both sides of the Irish Sea has been badly affected by cold and wet weather in recent weeks, but Leopardstown’s clerk of the course Lorcan Wyer does not envisage any problems for the weekend.
He said: “We had 34 millimetres of rain over the weekend and 16 millimetres overnight, which has left the going on the hurdle and bumper track as heavy and the chase track is soft.
“The forecast for the week is a little unsettled and turning cooler at the weekend. There is some rain around, but I think the bulk of the rain is behind us and it will be showery during the week.
“It’s meant to get cooler at the weekend, but we don’t believe it’s going to get so low that it’s going to be a problem.”