Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle lock horns a fascinating clash for the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham on Tuesday.
The Grade One contest has had its detractors over the years, with some feeling its presence has prevented high-class mares from taking on the boys in both the Champion Hurdle and the Stayers’ Hurdle.
However, this year’s renewal has thrown up a real box-office battle between Ireland’s most high-profile equine females.
The Willie Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux won the Mares’ Hurdle in 2018 and looked almost certain to follow up 12 months ago, before suffering a dramatic fall at the final obstacle.
She has since won Grade Ones at Punchestown and Auteuil and looked as good as ever when making a successful reappearance in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January.
The Stayers’ Hurdle was considered a serious option in the immediate aftermath of the latter of those victories, but Mullins ultimately decided to keep Benie Des Dieux against her own sex in a race he has won in nine of the 12 years it has been run.
He said: “She’s a hell of a mare. I think what she did in the French Champion Hurdle last year was missed by a lot of people over here, beating the unbeaten French mare (De Bon Coeur)
“She hasn’t run an awful lot, but I’ve got her to the stage where I can run her two or three times a year and I want to keep it that way.
“You’re guaranteed to get soft in the going description on the first day of the Festival and that’s a big plus for her as she’s a big mare.”
Benie Des Dieux is joined by a pair of stable companions in Elfile and Stormy Ireland. The latter was runner-up to Dan Skelton’s Roksana 12 months ago and has been impressive in winning her last three starts.
“I was very pleased with her last run. We just let her do whatever she wants to do – that’s the way she likes to run,” Mullins added. “She’s entitled to be there.”
Elfile was a good winner in a Grade Three over the distance at Punchestown last time and Mullins assistant David Casey feels she can make her presence felt.
“Elfile won well the last day. She stays well and is an improving mare. Hopefully she can be competitive,” he said.
“She ran well in the novice race last year. The step up in trip will suit her this year. She stays well.”
Honeysuckle is unbeaten in seven starts and has already proven herself at the highest level against geldings this season – dominating in the Hatton’s Grace before clinging on in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle.
The Champion Hurdle itself remained in the picture until last week for the Henry de Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle, when connections confirmed she would run in the longer Mares’ Hurdle.
Peter Molony, who purchased Honeysuckle for 110,000 euro and acts as racing manager to owner Kenny Alexander, said: “I’m a bit apprehensive, taking on a mare like Benie Des Dieux, but also excited.
“We’ve got a mountain to climb, but Honeysuckle is only rated 4lb below her and is three years younger and still improving, we hope.
“It looks like we’ll get some nice ground. It’s a championship race for mares and a Grade One in its own right.
“May the best mare win.”
Roksana is back to defend her crown, while Phil Kirby saddles his stable star Lady Buttons.
The 10-year-old has won at Wetherby and twice at Doncaster this season to extend her overall tally to 15 – and runs here in preference to Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Grand Annual on Friday.
Kirby told Racing TV: “It wasn’t an easy decision, we wanted to keep our options open as long as possible.
“We were keen to run her in a Grade One and while I’m not saying it will be easier (than the Champion Chase), this is the way we decided to go.
“She’s very versatile, she jumps hurdles and fences just as well. At a lower level she jumped fences so well it was her big asset, but the higher up she goes they all jump as good.
“She seems to be in as good a form as ever, her last two races have possibly been her best two, she’s finishing off strongly and travelling great.
“If there was a question mark you might have said it was the trip, at Cheltenham, but she stayed it well at Doncaster over fences.
“Every race at Cheltenham is hard, but with Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle in there, as well as last year’s winner Roksana, this is especially hard.”