A detailed look at the tactical decisions that led to a riveting Mares’ Hurdle
The Cheltenham Festival was only two weeks ago, but it seems more like two years. The Covid-19 crisis was starting to hit stride in the UK and Ireland during the Festival and in just a fortnight since then it has already changed our lives significantly. Who knows what the future holds in this fast-moving situation, but it seems as though we won’t be seeing any racing in Britain or Ireland for at least the better part of a month and potentially much longer than that.
So, there is only one thing to do and that is look back at better times in the racing world. Last week, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was dissected in detail in this space. This week we will look back on what was unquestionably (in this mind at least!) the most tactically intriguing and dramatic race of the Festival, the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.
The pre-race scene doesn’t need too much setting, as the clash between Benie Des Dieux and the unbeaten HONEYSUCKLE was rightfully billed as one of the most anticipated races of the week.
Benie Des Dieux had been set to secure her second consecutive win in the race in the 2019 renewal only to fall at the final flight and had since gone on to advance her official rating by 10lb with three wide-margin wins in Grade 1 and Grade 2 company. She had no question marks with regard to the course-and-distance and the rain-softened ground was considered ideal for her.
Honeysuckle came into the race having been unbeaten in a point-to-point and all seven of her starts over hurdles. She had faced the biggest test of her career on her previous start in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival and while she duly won, the style was workmanlike and her jumping was far from fluent both early and late in the race. That performance led to her connections committing her to the Mares’ Hurdle rather than the Champion Hurdle. The longer distance was widely considered to be more suitable for her, but her jumping remained a slight concern and the fact that she was unproven around Cheltenham was also seen as a negative by many.
In tactical terms, Willie Mullins looked to hold all the aces. As well as Benie Des Dieux, he was represented by the habitual front runner Stormy Ireland as well as Elfile who had made the running over hurdles in the past. With no other likely front runner in the field, on paper it looked as though Mullins would have control of how the race was run in terms of pace.
With Benie Des Dieux being a proven stayer at three miles and having seemingly been strongly considered for the Stayers’ Hurdle at one point, the common assumption would have been that Mullins would want the Mares’ Hurdle to be run at a stronger-than-average pace to place the emphasis on stamina at the mid-range trip.
Thus, the first surprise of this fascinating contest was that Robbie Power on Stormy Ireland set what was a steady pace in the early stages. With Honeysuckle being well established as a straightforward, handy ride, Rachael Blackmore initially took up a stalking position, sitting outside Benie Des Dieux who had secured the rail in pursuit of Stormy Ireland and Elfile.
The next surprise was that it was Blackmore that first showed outward signs of not being satisfied with the pace of the race, with her asking Honeysuckle to go forward and around Elfile as the field set out on their final circuit. Danny Mullins on Elfile was wise to her move and made sure Rachael had to pay a toll for her passage around him, as he asked Elfile to go forward to shadow Honeysuckle’s move which obliged her to race three wide around the bend away the stands.
One man who would have been loving this was Paul Townend on Benie Des Dieux. While his mount had taken quite a strong grip in the early stages, he now found himself very much in the box seat, saving every inch on the rail with two stable mates giving him cover and his main rival being slung out three wide without cover.
Once Honeysuckle had cleared Elfile and got outside of Stormy Ireland over the fourth-last flight, this is when the race started to heat up. Hurdle-by-hurdle sectionals confirm the visual impression that having cleared the fourth-last, Robbie Power started to allow Stormy Ireland to open her stride down the hill and inject pace into the race. At the same time, Danny Mullins asked Elfile to go forward once again and get upsides Honeysuckle approaching the third-last hurdle.
What happened next was a crucial point of the contest, as Elfile jumped the third-last hurdle particularly well while Honeysuckle got a shade close to it. This difference in jumping speed gave Danny the opportunity to get a half length in front of Honeysuckle and edge across towards Stormy Ireland. With Benie Des Dieux having been a shade messy at the third-last herself, this served to completely change the formation in behind the leaders.
All of a sudden, Honeysuckle had now been “put in jail” by Danny Mullins in a pocket behind Stormy Ireland and Elfile. One can only imagine this was the last place that Rachael wanted to find herself at that stage of the race, as while in that pocket she was no longer the master of her own destiny, with her path largely being at the mercy of the two she pocketed in behind, which happened to be stable mates of her main rival! Given that Elfile is owned by Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander, one would love to know what his thoughts were at this precise moment.
That said, Paul Townend on Benie Des Dieux wouldn’t have been too pleased with the turn that events had taken either. He had gone from being in the perfect tracking position with his two stable mates in front of him to being shuffled out of the box seat with his main rival now in front of him.
This put Townend in a very tricky position. Plan A was almost certainly to follow Stormy Ireland and look to challenge up her inside on the turn for home. With Rachael now occupying his position, he had to decide whether to stay put and hope for the best, or seize the initiative. He chose to bail out of his position on the rail and look to go around Honeysuckle, which he duly did over the second-last hurdle.
Without question the most dramatic and pivotal moment of this riveting contest came after the second-last flight. Having been put in jail and being at the mercy of those in front of her, Rachael Blackmore is likely to have been stunned to see the inside line open up like the Red Sea in front of her as Robbie Power came off the rail on Stormy Ireland. Rachael would have been forgiven for briefly wondering was it a trick that might lead to the door being shut in her face if she tried to step into it, but she didn’t hesitate and booted Honeysuckle into the gap.
Reports after the race suggested that Robbie Power was unaware of the formation change that had unfolded behind him and when he heard a shout after the second-last flight, he thought it was Benie Des Dieux looking for room up his inside, which is why he opened the door.
This dramatic turn of events completely changed the face of the race. As well as no longer being able to get first run on Honeysuckle, Benie Des Dieux was forced that bit wider of the home turn by Stormy Ireland coming off the rail. Meanwhile, Honeysuckle had shown a smart turn of foot to take at least two lengths out of Benie Des Dieux approaching the final flight.
With both of them jumping the last flight with fluency, from there on it was battle up the hill and what a battle it was. Benie Des Dieux galloped to the line and was steadily edging closer to Honeysuckle, but she couldn’t claw back the deficit and came up a ½-length short.
It really was one of the most absorbing contests one will see on a racecourse. It was a race that had absolutely everything and delivered on all the promise of it. It was equine theatre at its very best.
Quite clearly, there is a distinct possibility that the result may well have been different on another day had Stormy Ireland been ridden tight to rail on the home turn. This would have given Benie Des Dieux first run on Honeysuckle and Rachael would have had to wheel around her rivals to find open air. That said, given the superior turn of foot that Honeysuckle showed once she got into the clear, there is every chance that she might have been able to get herself out of trouble had it panned out like that.
In common with many of the great contests in sport, questions remain unanswered and there will be great demand for a rematch to settle which of these mares is the best. The natural staging ground for this rematch would be the Annie Power Mares’ Hurdle over two-and-a-half miles at the Punchestown Festival, but the problems we are going through in the wider world may well mean that we have to be more patient than that to see it again. Based on their first meeting, the second clash will be worth the wait.