Fitzy’s Festival focus: Champion Hurdle contenders

Former jockey and Sky Sports Racing presenter Mick Fitzgerald has cast his expert eye over four of the key contenders for the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Grade One feature on the opening day of the four-day Festival is set to feature last year’s champion Honeysuckle after Henry de Bromhead’s star mare extended her remarkable unbeaten run to 14 in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival.

Willie Mullins looks likely to saddle the main rival to her crown, with last year’s impressive Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Appreciate It, while the best of the British challenge could come from 2020 winner Epatante…

Honeysuckle

Key facts

  • Trainer – Henry de Bromhead
  • Jockey – Rachael Blackmore
  • Age – 8
  • Odds – 4/9
  • Big-race wins – Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final (2019), Hatton’s Grace Hurdle (2019, 2020, 2021), Mares’ Hurdle (2020), Irish Champion Hurdle (2020, 2021, 2022) Punchestown Champion Hurdle (2021)

What can you say about a mare who has won 14 out of 14 in her career? All the superlatives have been used. She’s a bit of a superstar and seems to be able to up her game when required. Every time the opposition gets a bit deeper, she puts up a better performance and you simply can’t knock her.

Honeysuckle is versatile ground-wise. She’s won the Hatton’s Grace this year on good ground and we have seen her win the Irish Champion Hurdle last year on soft to heavy so we don’t have a problem with that.

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore leave the rest of the Champion Hurdle field well behind at Cheltenham
Image: Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore leave the rest of the Champion Hurdle field well behind last year

If you see some of her past performances, late on is where she slows down considerably going down to the last hurdle and is the only time she has ever looked vulnerable. But, even at Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival she was sent for home a fair way out and there was none of that. She seems to be getting better at that and her jumping is getting better.

She looks flawless and is a deserved favourite to regain the Champion Hurdle title. She is going to be very tough to beat. Even when Henry de Bromhead’s horses aren’t going as well as they were last year she is still winning and winning easily.

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Strengths – She is quite possibly one of the finest mares we have seen and appears flawless. Her combination of speed and slick jumping will make her very difficult to beat.

Weak spot – She is 14 from 14 and there’s no weak spot.

Appreciate It

Key facts

  • Trainer – Willie Mullins
  • Jockey – Paul Townend
  • Age – 8
  • Odds – 4/1
  • Big-race wins – Goffs Future Stars (C & G) I.N.H. Flat Race (2020), Future Champions Novice Hurdle (2020), Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle (2021), Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (2021)

We haven’t seen Appreciate It this season and if he gets to the Champion Hurdle, we won’t have seen him run since the same day last year when he won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

That would have to be a worry as he ran three times last year before running in the Supreme and it had been a steady build-up last season.

But, you have to take it on trust that he can get the job done on his first run of the season and first out of novice company.

One thing you can say he has in his favour is his run style as he has led or been very handy in all his runs. Even when he was beaten by Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper, he was very handy and that will help as he doesn’t need a lot of cover in his races.

Appreciate It pulling clear to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival
Image: Appreciate It pulls clear to win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last year

He won the Supreme by 24 lengths which is a long way – the form has taken a few hits this year, but he could do no more than win it impressively. I think he is a live challenger to Honeysuckle and what you want to see is the two of them going at it going to the last.

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His time in the Supreme was two seconds slower than Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle and it’s the only thing you really have to go on, but I know there is a little bit of confidence in the Willie Mullins camp with Appreciate It.

I think they feel that if he puts up a performance like he did in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in the Champion Hurdle, it will make life difficult for her.

Willie has a big gallops day at Leopardstown, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he appeared at that as part of his preparation for the big day but, by all accounts, all is well with the horse.

His trainer is a genius at pitching them up on the big day, including with the likes of Quevega who was produced to win at Cheltenham four times after a long break. Quite simply – in Willie we trust.

Strengths – He was a very easy winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year and if he brings that performance back to Cheltenham, he would have to be a live threat to the hot favourite.

Weak spot – He hasn’t raced since the Supreme but then again he is in the care of a genius who has performed similar acts with Quevega

Epatante

Key facts

  • Trainer – Nicky Henderson
  • Jockey – Aidan Coleman
  • Age – 8
  • Odds – 8/1
  • Big-race wins – Christmas Hurdle (2019, 2021), Champion Hurdle (2020) Fighting Fifth Hurdle (2020, 2021)

Epatante was third in the Champion Hurdle last year and was a previous winner of the race when beating Sharjah by three lengths in 2020.

The only thing is you are thinking she has a bit to find as she has nine-and-a-half-lengths to make up on Honeysuckle on last year’s running.

I thought she won like she was fully expected to in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and didn’t do anything there that you didn’t think she was capable of.

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Barry Geraghty has given a positive mention to 2020 Champion Hurdle winner Epatante who will bid to regain her title next month, taking on unbeaten mare Honeysuckle
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She dead-heated with Not So Sleepy in the Fighting Fifth but is that form good enough to win a Champion Hurdle? The simple answer is no, so she needs to put up a career best to even get close.

I know Nicky Henderson has been thrilled with her this season and has got her back to her ‘A’ game, but she is going to have to be on that and even more to prove any sort of thorn in the side of Honeysuckle.

However, she is very slick at her hurdles, and she would have to be one of those bang in contention turning for home.

Strengths – She is a former winner of the Champion Hurdle who looked good when winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Weak spot – She was well held in third in the race last year and she is going to have to raise her game to win it again.

Tommy’s Oscar

Key facts

  • Trainer – Ann Hamilton
  • Jockey – Danny McMenamin
  • Age – 7
  • Odds – 20/1
  • Big-race wins – The New One Unibet Hurdle (2022)

I have to mention Tommy’s Oscar as it’s a great story and he’s a lively outsider.

Ann and Ian Hamilton only have six horses in training and four of them have won, taking 10 races in total with them.

For them to have a horse to run in a Champion Hurdle is a bit of a fairytale story and this horse has won eight of his 13 races over hurdles and, if anything, is better than he has ever been this season.

Tommys Oscar - Champion Hurdle hope
Image: Tommy’s Oscar has won his last four starts for Ann and Ian Hamilton

He is taking on the might of Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead, and the firepower the Hamilton’s have at their disposal is like a shotgun taking on a tank.

However, Tommy’s Oscar has been progressive and I can see him running very well. He is a grand horse who, in truth, has a bit to find, but I think he is a player and it’s one of those stories that makes National Hunt racing so remarkable.

Strengths – He is on a roll and it would be a fairytale result if he could give the Hamiltons victory in a Champion Hurdle.

Weak spot – Is he good enough?

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