The Flip Side

Kevin Blake weighs up the Champion Hurdle claims of star mare Honeysuckle following her victory in the Irish equivalent and delivers his verdict on the credentials of two favourites in novices chases at the Cheltenham Festival.

  • Wednesday 05 February
  • Blog
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Honeysuckle isn’t the answer

The phenomenon of auto-praise has already been discussed in the short life of this column and we had another example of it on the biggest of stages with Honeysuckle at the Dublin Racing Festival. The outbreak of such behaviour is easy to understand in this case, as the Champion Hurdle scene has been nothing short of depressing all season.

We have all been crying out for something, anything, to emerge from the pack and stamp themselves as a proper Champion Hurdle prospect. So, when an unbeaten mare like HONEYSUCKLE lined up in the Irish Champion Hurdle last weekend, the potential for her to show herself to be the one was clear. Thus, so many people were delighted to see her get the job done and keep their Champion Hurdle dream alive that their praise overlooked the glaring holes that permeated throughout her winning performance at Leopardstown.

Firstly, this represented the first backward step that Honeysuckle has taken in her career thus far in terms of performance ratings. Even if you understandably felt that the form of her Hatton’s Grace Hurdle victory wasn’t worth as much as it seemed at the time, she didn’t match that effort in the Irish Champion Hurdle. It is difficult to use Darver Star as a guide to the level of the form as he is clearly improving and could well continue to do so, but we know more than enough about Petit Mouchoir to use him as a guide.

The nine-year-old rose to a career-high official rating of 164 three years ago, but has looked to be operating in the mid-150s in more recent times. For Honeysuckle to only beat him by a length in receipt of 7lbs is not anything to write home about in the context of even a below-average Champion Hurdle.

Just as concerning was how Honeysuckle went through the race. This was her first time racing left-handed since she won her point-to-point at Dromahane in April 2018, but more significantly it was her first time to race over two miles in top-class company. Now, they didn’t go a championship pace in the Irish Champion Hurdle as the race finishing speed of 104.1% illustrates and Honeysuckle was given a safety-first ride on the outside of the leader, but there were still some worrying points with regard to her Champion Hurdle prospects.

Honeysuckle win the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown
Ladies first: Rachael Blackmore celebrates Irish Champion Hurdle heroics aboard Honeysuckle.

The most pressing of those was her jumping. She was big at the first, a bit slow at the second, jumped a shade left throughout (not her first time to do this), was untidy at the second last and then awkward and left at the final flight. This was not the jumping of a typical Champion Hurdle winner and the reality of that race is that she is likely to be going a faster gallop and have less room at her hurdles than she did at Leopardstown.

Faugheen will forever be the exception that proves a horse doesn’t have to be a slick hurdler to win a Champion Hurdle, but Honeysuckle is as of yet an awful long way from proving she has the sort of raw ability that allowed Faugheen to overcome his innate clumsiness at the very highest level.

The question of her finishing effort is a somewhat trickier one to answer. Honeysuckle hadn’t shown any notable tendency to idle or get lonely in front in the past. Indeed, her two previous successes this season had seen her take up the running a long way from home and gallop right out to the line to win by wide margins. Thus, it was odd to see her going from looking in complete control and set to win impressively approaching the final flight only to be headed soon after and having to fight back to scramble home in front.

In a nutshell, while Honeysuckle won, it wasn’t a performance that set me alight. If Sharjah had won in that style carrying 7lb more than her, it wouldn’t have created a ripple of excitement. It was simply because the racing public so want Honeysuckle to be a superstar that it created the buzz that it did.

Her connections now have a tricky decision to make with regard to her target at the Cheltenham Festival. I wouldn’t be expecting a decision until much closer to the time, as the question of where Benie Des Dieux runs will have a significant bearing on the calculations involved in the decision-making process for Honeysuckle’s connections.

For me, Honeysuckle will be one to oppose if running in the Champion Hurdle and I’d favour Benie Des Dieux over her if they met in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Faugheen lights up Leopardstown

Without question the highlight of the Dublin Racing Festival was FAUGHEENwinning the Flogas Novice Chase. It is incredible for a 12-year-old to win a Grade 1 novice chase regardless of the specific circumstances, but for Faugheen to do it is particularly remarkable given all the physical issues he has had over the years.

There had been loud calls for his retirement at various stages in the last two years, so the decision by his connections to send him novice chasing as an 11-year-old took vast amounts of testicular fortitude. That bravery and belief in their horse was rewarded in no uncertain terms on Sunday with Faugheen delivering one of the best moments in Irish National Hunt racing of the last decade.

Right, I’ve already exceeded the amount of emotional sentimentality that is permitted in this particular column, so let’s get down to it. Faugheen’s performance was enough to see him cut into favouritism for the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and one has to cut through the sentimentality and goodwill that will follow him there to assess what his prospects are.

Faugheen has shown throughout his career that he isn’t easily confined by accepted norms. He was the first horse from a point-to-point background to ever win the Champion Hurdle. He was also the first horse to win the Champion Hurdle despite jumping like a wardrobe. On Sunday he became the only horse that anyone without a beard can remember winning a Grade 1 novice chase at the age of 12. Rules don’t really apply to him.

That said, whichever race he contests at the Cheltenham Festival, assuming he goes there at all, is likely to be significantly more competitive than what he has thus far encountered in novice chases in Ireland. Easy Game is a smart performer and may well have improved for the switch to chasing, but up until recently he very much looked a second stringer in the Mullins yard. Yet, he made Faugheen pull out all the stops on Sunday.

As well as that, the clumsiness that was Faugheen’s trademark over hurdles has followed him over fences. While he had put in a more assured round of jumping at Limerick’s Christmas meeting, his jumping lacked fluency at Leopardstown. A notable mistake at the second-last and a smaller one at the last made his task tougher than it might otherwise have been. Similar errors will be punished much more heavily in what will be a more competitive and tighter-quartered environment at the Cheltenham Festival.

If Faugheen were to win at the Cheltenham Festival, it really would be one of the great comeback stories in recent racing history. However, if he is sent off favourite for the Marsh Novices’ Chase, it will be hard not to oppose him.

Flipping Back The Pages

CAREFULLY SELECTED duly got himself qualified for the National Hunt Chase when winning a Grade 3 novice chase at Naas late last month, but it was a performance that left me in no doubt that I will be opposing him at the Cheltenham Festival.

The eight-year-old clearly has all the ability to go close in a typical renewal of the National Hunt Chase and it is understandable why he is the ante-post favourite. However, I would be very concerned indeed about his ability to jump the 23 fences without major incident.

Carefully Selected hasn’t looked a particularly natural jumper of a fence in his three starts over fences to date, with his inconsistency over them being the main point of concern. He alternates between getting in too short, taking off too early, adjusting to his left and skewing through the air.

Worryingly, there hasn’t been any great start-to-start improvement evident in his jumping. The bad mistake that he made at the third-last fence at Naas caught the attention of most, but it was far from his only mistake that day. That all of this has been happening over much shorter trips and in far less competitive situations than he’ll encounter in the National Hunt Chase is very concerning.

Running over longer trips over fences presents a different jumping challenge to shorter trips, with a greater emphasis being placed on cleverness and organisation on the approach to fences at the slower gallop encountered at longer trips. The inconsistency that Carefully Selected displays in his jumping over shorter trips suggests that his ability to organise himself on the approach to a fence isn’t all that strong. That is something that will be tested far more harshly in the National Hunt Chase than it has been to date.

I’ll definitely be against him on the day.

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