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Honeysuckle connections ‘excited and nervous’ for Irish Champion Hurdle four-in-a-row bid


Honeysuckle will attempt to win the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown for a fourth time in succession

Honeysuckle will attempt to win the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown for a fourth time in succession

Honeysuckle will attempt to win the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown for a fourth time in succession

There will surely be no popular winner at this year's Dublin Racing Festival than Honeysuckle if she can raise the roof at Leopardstown for a fourth time in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.

Henry de Bromhead's superstar mare might have claimed the Grade One contest in each of the past three years, as well as registering back-to-back wins in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, but for only the second time in her career the market makes her a marginal underdog.

The reason the betting is headed by the Willie Mullins-trained State Man, winner of the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown and Leopardstown's Matheson Hurdle this winter, is because for the first time in 17-race career to date Honeysuckle tasted defeat when chasing a fourth Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse last month.

While disappointed to see her unbeaten record come to an end, connections of the nine-year-old are from despondent ahead of her return to action, with owner Kenny Alexander's racing manager Peter Molony of the view that she is still the one to beat.

He said: "We're excited and always a bit nervous when she runs. It's no different this time really.

"We're telling ourselves that now she's been beaten it takes a bit of pressure off, but I'm not sure it actually does. I think it's only the second time in her life that she hasn't been favourite, the other time being when she beat Benie Des Dieux in the Mares' Hurdle in Cheltenham three years ago.

"I think she's still the one to beat. Willie's two (State Man and Vauban) look very talented, exciting young horses coming up to challenge, but Honeysuckle is the reigning champion.

"There seems to be magnificent support behind her, which is great. People love nothing more than a champion who has been defeated and comes back and wins again, so let's hope she can do it."

Honeysuckle was beaten just under three lengths at Fairyhouse in early December, form which has been well advertised by the winner Teahupoo's subsequent success in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park.

Molony feels there was an over-reaction to the defeat, adding: "Her last run in the Hatton's Grace on ratings is right up there with any run she's ever had in the race. As I've said before, if we hadn't been defending an unbeaten record I think we would have left that day cock-a-hoop.

"On his preferred heavy ground I think Teahupoo is probably the best staying hurdler anywhere and by some distance - he's a very good horse.

"Leopardstown probably suits us better. I know Henry has a suspicion she's better left-handed than right-handed, so here we go - we'll throw our hat into the ring again."

Honeysuckle was all out when clinging on by half a length from Darver Star in the 2020 Irish Champion, but the last two years have been a cruise - winning by 10 and six and a half lengths respectively.

De Bromhead has clearly done a magnificent job keeping her at the top of her game for so long and insists he has seen no signs at home that she is on the decline.

"It's incredible to think we're trying to win it for the fourth time. She needed the line the first year, but she did it and that's her - heart-on-the-sleeve stuff," said the County Waterford handler.

"We never dreamt she could do what she did after that. She looked great, but you couldn't think she'd go on to do what she has. You have to pinch yourself when you have a horse like her.

"Unfortunately she came unstuck in the Hatton's Grace, but I felt she still ran really well. Obviously it was disappointing to get beaten, but she's done incredibly well in what she's done.

"She seems really well in herself and we're really looking forward to it. We'll take on these new young guns and and see how we get on."

The Mullins-trained pair of State Man and Vauban cross swords for the second time this season after being separated by little over four lengths when first and second in last month's Matheson Hurdle.

That was Triumph Hurdle hero Vauban's first appearance since scoring at Punchestown in the spring and Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, feels he could make more a race of it on Sunday.

He said: "Honeysuckle looks vulnerable for this first time after she was beaten for the very first time, but she's still the one to beat and it wasn't a bad run by any stretch of the imagination.

"Younger legs are hard to keep at bay, though, as Sharjah found out at Christmas.

"It's going to be a fascinating race and obviously Vauban will improve from Christmas, he didn't get a clear run once or twice that day and it was first time out so he can get closer to State Man and then it depends on Honeysuckle.

"It will be fascinating to watch. There's a lot of people at home who are big fans of Vauban, but it's tough for the five-year-olds and State Man has won two Grade Ones this season. It wouldn't surprise us if Vauban won, though."

Gordon Elliott saddles Pied Piper and Zanahiyr, both of whom need to bounce back from disappointing runs, while Tom Mullins' Takarengo has a mountain to climb on ratings and completes the field.

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